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American Wet Shaving in 2008 by Charles A. Roberts

A Little History

The “Great Tradition” in American wet shaving was born in the autumn of 1903. In that year King Camp Gillette and William Nickerson first presented to the world a “New Kind of Razor.”  This consisted of both a razor and blade. The product notice for the new razor appeared in a business magazine called “System.” Gillette’s ad promised that the blade would hold its edge for 20 to 30 shaves.” Initial sales were unpromising. By the end of the year, Gillette had sold 51 razors and 168 blades.

Though the first Gillette razor appeared in 1903, it is actually the year 1904 that today’s wet shavers remember. For it was in that year that William Nickerson built a machine for producing “double edge” blades in an efficient and consistent manner. Later, in November of 1904, Gillette himself obtained the U.S. patent for his double edge razor. Thus was born the greatest invention of the twentieth century and the object of passionate veneration by millions of wet shavers, today.

For nearly three generations, the Gillette double edge ruled the world of shaving. However, in 1970, the Gillette company succumbed to corporate dementia. Gillette moved to abandon the double edge “wet” razor for a new, computer designed, shaving concept involving “multi-blade,” pivot head “dry” system. Unlike the original “DE,” the new razors could be mass produced in every material—especially plastic. Indeed, no sooner did Gillette embark on the new razor enterprise than the French pen company “Bic” entered the shaving race with a disposable form of the same razor. The subsequent razor wars between Gillette and Bic would rage, largely without pause, for nearly twenty more years.

 More tragically, however, Gillette’s fateful abandonment of the venerable double edge razor ended, seemingly forever, the long, happy habits of wet shaving that millions of American men had known and loved. The immortal crown of Camp Gillette quietly passed to the new corporate savages of Wall Street. The breathless vampires of “greed is good” despoiled the Gillette brand of both its dignity and pleasure. The King’s visage was removed from the all of Gillette’s product facings. The new plastic razors were pitched to an unsuspecting world under the ridiculous label “Good News”.

Seemingly overnight, the Gillette Company was transformed into a clone of McDonalds. Gillette began spewing forth cheap razors much like McDonalds spews hamburgers from the bowels of its morbid restaurants---by the billions and billions. In the place of the beautiful, hand tooled razors formerly produced with loving care by devoted American craftsmen, a new barbarism—the disposable razor—came on the scene. In a few years, the once ubiquitous double edge razor had largely disappeared from the shaving scene. In its place appeared the modern razor “blister pack” comprising miles upon miles of dreary shelf space in places like Wal-Mart. It was about this same time that America lost the Vietnam War. This coincidence is more than suggestive.

The death of the DE razor also signaled the end of the traditional wet shaving culture that had been the daily delight of millions of American men for generations. Across the country, barber shops closed by the thousands. Some men reportedly committed suicide. The choice prepossessions of fine wet shaving were quickly obliterated: The badger shaving brush—the indispensable centerpiece of the wet shaving process—was jettisoned from the shelves of drug stores. In addition, hot mugs, straight razors, shaving soaps, hand blended colognes and every other decent manly accommodation similarly vanished. Those vestiges of the wet shaving trade that survived, fled to Europe.

As plastic razors swamped the double edge, producers of electric razors saw a chance to further afflict the wretched American shaver. The Remington Company, seeing a decline in typewriter sales, shifted to the production of electric razors—with predictable results. During this phase of shaving degradation, the human misery index reached levels not seen since the Fall of the Roman Empire. For wet shaving in particular, the decline was sudden and depressing. Before long, no one under 50 had ever seen a DE razor; soon enough, all the DE razors had vanished. The last reported DE razor open to public view was part of the traveling Titanic exhibit. The baby boomers—high on LSD and free love---took little notice of this unspeakable indignity. By 1980, the long dark age of American shaving had begun.

The Fall and Rise of the Double Edge Razor

In 2000, the first year of the millennium, the last vestiges of American wet shaving struggled to survive in the backwash of the dot.com bubble, Wall Street and the smoldering embers of the New Economy. At that time there were only three brazen souls left in North America fighting desperately to keep the joys of wet shaving alive for the world. These individuals were Eric Malka, founder of the Art of Shaving; Scott Poliker at Cambridge Chemists in New York and myself. If you are a happy wet shaver, today, you may want to remember us in your prayers.

In the middle nineties, Mr. Malka embarked on bringing the concept of the “boutique barbershop” to something on a par with established British firms like George F.Trumpers and Trufitt & Hill. Mr. Malka’s brilliant publicity over the years has been largely responsible for putting the subject of wet shaving in front of the American public. I believe that Art of Shaving has been featured in every major men’s magazine. In addition, his products have also been featured repeatedly on network television. 

For his part Scott. Poliker had largely confined his efforts to importing into the U.S. the very best of the traditional European and British shaving and toiletries brands. In this endeavor, Scott is, without question, the most knowledgeable purveyor of these goods in the United States. He and his father have owned Cambridge Chemists for over half a century. Scott’s decency, impeccable honesty and devotion to the business of fine men’s grooming and shaving is without peer. That the trade of professional wet shaving can yield such excellence in character speaks directly to its inmost worth, I think. It has been deeply gratifying for me to hear my own shaving goods store in Austin favorably compared with Cambridge Chemists. When in New York, a visit to Cambridge Chemists is essential.

Despite the best efforts of these three individuals, however, the prospect for any serious recovery of wet shaving as a traditional “single blade” or “double edge” form had largely died out years earlier. A generation of shavers had grudgingly learned to accommodate the multi-blade shaving process. More critically, a the same time retail stores across the country had discarded DE razors, shaving brushes and every other article of traditional wet shaving in favor of the more familiar Bics and Schicks. Few people of living memory knew much about shaving brushes; even less of DE razors or straight razors. Thus, no one was interested in buying them. Equally sadly, the generation of barbers who used open blades as a professional tool had long ago passed from the scene.

To most people, the idea of using a DE razor was little more than quaint—even a bit peculiar. Compounding the problem was that men over 50 were unwilling to take up the use of the DE. Those under 30 had neither seen a DE; nor were they interested in doing so. In the minds of most men, the DE razor joined the buggy whip and sperm oil lamp as the relic of a bygone age. To any professional marketer at the time, the prospects for reviving the DE razor were zero; it was, in nearly all respects, a “dead segment.”

It was thus to the task of reviving the traditional practice of single blade shaving (wet shaving) that I turned all of my attention.

The Two Schools of Wet Shaving

The extinction of wet shaving in its traditional, single blade form was essentially complete by the year 2000. In its stead, an odd mélange of various shaving forms had grown up over the years which attempted to mimic the processes of real wet shaving. I sometimes refer to this practice as “wet shaving light.” In reality this hybrid form of shaving is not really wet shaving in any meaningful sense of the term. This form of shaving is more accurately called “dry grooming.” Today, this putative form of wet shaving goes by the name of “Traditional” wet shaving. Admittedly, it is an odd term and annoyingly inaccurate. However, I really have no one to blame for its pervasive use but myself since, indeed, I am the one who coined the expression.  Here’s why:

The centerpiece of “Traditional” wet shaving is the Gillette multi-blade razor. At this point, the reader will be excused for feeling terribly perplexed over this tedious abuse of terms. If the Gillette multi-blade razor is the centerpiece of Traditional shaving, how, then, is one to define single blade shaving? It is at this point in the elaboration process that the term “Method” shaving takes center stage. Method shaving is single blade shaving, both short blade (double edge style) or long blade (straight razor). Today, this distinction between Traditional and Method wet shaving characterizes the two dominant schools in American wet shaving.

At this point, I want to strongly emphasize that the above distinction between Traditional and Method shaving is not intended to suggest a qualitative hierarchy between the two forms. In other words, Traditional wet shaving is not inferior to its Method counterpart; it is simply differential in terms of intended result. In general, those shavers who wish to use the Gillette multi-blade system should use the “dry blade reduction” option that traditional shaving affords. Those who wish to use the double edge or open blade “wet blade reduction” razor should use the Method alternative. An excellent rule of thumb for determining which system is preferable consists of the following three standards:

1). Beard density: a thicker the beard mass generally requires use of the Method system
2). Problematic skin conditions should similarly use the Method system.
3). Closeness: single blade (Method) reduction always produces a closer, smoother shaving result.

I suggest that for those who travel extensively, the traditional shaving alternative is definitely preferable. Most airport security arrangements are far too draconian to permit DE razors and blades to pass without considerable scrutiny.

At present there is a growing tendency to more finely distinguish the two schools by referring to their respective regions of origin: thus, Traditional multi-blade wet shaving is often called the “European” form; Method wet shaving the “American” version. I personally regard this distinction has most helpful in yet another significant regard. This matter concerns the “genetic” origins of both wet shaving forms. Traditional wet shaving in its present European form traces its roots back to the 18th century continental city barbershop. Europe has a rich tradition of private barbershops extending back to the early 18th century. Many of these grand venues continue in business to this day. Geo. F. Trumpers in London is, without question, one of the most famous. A short distance away stands the chemist D.R.Harris, still occupying without change its original premises first erected in 1795. A similar tradition of barbershop trade established itself in the days of the early American republic. Chief among these is Caswell Massey in New York. For the last half century, however, Caswell Massey, once the coveted purveyor of excellent fragrances to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin is now little more than a tired relic of commercial imbecility.

Method shaving—the American version of wet shaving discussed above—has no real connection to the barbershop tradition. This fact, however, does not suggest a lack of historical continuity. The line of descent for Method shaving runs directly back to the Great One himself: Camp Gillette. Nearly every element of Method shaving—its products, techniques and increasing body of contemporary lore—is best understood and appreciated in light of this larger connection to Camp Gillette, William Nickerson and the birth of the double edge razor. This is why the grand date of 1904 marks the inspirational--- if not the wholly real—birth date of Method shaving in the United States. This lineal historical connection to Camp Gillette and the signal events of 1904 directly influences—indeed, dictates---the character, quality and unique kinds of products I try to produce for Method shavers around the world. Products that are pure, authentic and timeless. Though wickedly abandoned by his ungrateful corporate successors, King Gillette, that most worthy Moses of shaving excellence has once again been restored to his rightful place. The Great Tradition of American wet shaving has been restored in all of its dignity and richness. Indeed, I am firmly convinced that if Camp Gillette were with us today, he would be fully alive to the power of Method shaving and would gleefully tip his ubiquitous Panama hat to salute our efforts.

Some Final Observations

After passing into near extinction twenty years ago, the promise of single blade wet shaving brought forth by Camp Gillette a century ago now spans the world. The double edge razor, his immortal gift to humankind, no longer lies atop the refuse pile of worthless antiques. It is now the most coveted single shaving implement in the United States. The practice of wet shaving—once only a hollow ritual of meager value—is now a serious growth segment in the world shaving industry. Indeed, given its present growth curve, I expect growth in wet shaving and its myriad spin-offs to soon approach double digit levels. Today, in the United States, every man who uses a razor wants to be a wet shaver. It is therefore up to us, the present custodians of the Great Tradition to advance this worthy project. The first step in this direction has already been taken: the American Wet Shavers’ conference held in Austin on the 17th of May. Based on the sum of discussions, the following objectives for further organizational effort have been identified. I will briefly list them.

1). The formal establishment of an American Wet Shavers’ Association. This organization will be strictly voluntary and will be conducted on terms and conditions yet to be determined. The primary purpose of the association will be threefold in scope: A). The use of education material appropriate to advances in wet shaving, both Traditional and Method. B). To promote and publicize the history, benefits and importance of wet shaving to the larger American public. C). Establish professional trade standards for product excellence and integrity.

2). Proceed immediately to schedule another Wet Shavers’ Conference in the Spring of 2009.

3). Proceed to organize the first National Wet Shaving trade show for the fall of 2010 to be held in Austin, Texas.

Wet shavers wishing to contribute useful insights or comments regarding these initiatives are strongly encouraged to do so. Those wishing to participate in any form should please contact Mike Sandoval.

Warmest regards,

Charles Roberts

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