Essay #1: The Third Revolution in Men's Shaving
About This Essay
Several years ago Charles A. Roberts, creator of the Hydrolast brand and Method Shaving movement, authored a series of essays that ignited a surge of interest in wet shaving. These essays offered an innovative approach to maximizing the results of the razor and shaving brush, and provided many men a great introduction to a world of luxury shaving they never knew existed. The Original "Shaving Graces" Resurrected!
The second type of revolution is altogether different. It usually approaches on cat’s feet, silent and unseen. Unlike the noisy kind of revolution, however, this one is more evolutionary in nature. And because of its more methodical nature, this second kind of revolution usually requires longer to come into the world. Consequently, its real purpose often remains hidden from view for a long time. But unlike the first type of revolution, this “quiet” one often improves the lives of those caught up in it. Not surprisingly, people all over the world often express great longing for this latter type of revolution. Unfortunately, in all too many instances they confuse the second type with the first. The result is usually mass disappointment and despair.
In several interesting respects, the history of the entire human race can be neatly decomposed into one or the other category of “noisy” or “quiet” revolutions. Thousands of such events have captured the hearts and minds of humankind from time to time. We can assume from this fact that the course of human events is constantly being shaped and directed by both noisy and quiet revolutions. But though the noisy revolutions often get the most attention, it is really the quiet revolutions that have the longest and most enduring effects.
It is often noted that sometimes even quiet revolutions compile dark and mournful consequences for those caught up in them. Yet, fortunately most have not gone that way. In fact, quiet revolutions often produce great joy and contentment for their participants. In many instances, they produce benefits for the entire human race. One such revolution no doubt occurred when Thomas Edison invented electric lighting. Another resulted when the Wright Brothers launched the first air borne craft. I am also sure that the discovery of the telephone by Alexander Bell was yet another such glorious revolution.
All three of these revolutions in the human condition started out as relatively mute and inglorious undertakings. Edison labored in the obscure quietude of his private laboratory to create the electric light. The Wright Brothers tested their first flights on the isolated, wind swept beaches of North Carolina. Alexander Bell installed the first telephone in his own home. All three of these marvelous and inspiring endeavors took place under conditions wholly unknown to anyone else at the time.
I believe that the world needs fewer noisy revolutions and more quiet ones. I also think that men, in particular, are long overdue a quiet revolution of their own. One that will directly—and positively—affect the way they live. And of all the many quiet revolutions currently knocking about in the world today, one in particular has captured the hearts and minds of American men everywhere. To be sure, this particular revolution may have only a minor impact on the fate of nations. But it is nevertheless having a very big impact on the lives of men. The revolution that I am describing is all about shaving.
On the surface, at least, it seems somewhat ludicrous to use the term “revolution” when referring to the depressing subject of shaving. Indeed, the sheer unpleasantness of the average man’s shaving experience has become a worldly commonplace. Shaving joined “death and taxes,” as a man’s least interesting subject long ago. In general, it appears that most men eventually accept the misery of shaving as the damnable fact of having been born a man in the first place. I call this attitude of self-loathing among shavers, “Shaver Agonistes.”
Shaver Agonistes has plagued mankind for eons. Indeed, the agony of shaving has been an inveterate affliction of mankind ever since Sampson raged at the Philistines. My invention of the expression—“Shaver Agonistes”— is intended to evoke the ancient misery of every man’s shaving experience. Its universality is as painfully ubiquitous as a man’s face. One might say that the entire history of mankind is inextricably commingled with the scrofula of Shaver Agonistes. The races of men are as tightly bound to the misery of shaving as a “dog that returneth to his own vomit.” Shaving embodies both the veritable curse of Cain and all of the sins of Adam and his progeny. Indeed, for all too many men, Shaver Agonistes is a misery that only ends with the grave itself.
The choice instrument of affliction for the fiend called Shaver Agonistes is the modern chromium blade. This device stands as one of the most perfect instruments of acute torture ever created. It is so perfect an instrument of torment that men willingly submit themselves to its daily slaughter every day. They also pay a dear premium in good money for the chance to do so. So facile a tool of torment as the modern razor blade was even beyond the nimble mind of Dante himself. Had he been acquainted with the infernal arts of modern shaving, he would no doubt have depicted his demons with razors, not talons, for claws.
Once it is unleashed upon his visage, the modern shaving blade slashes, burns, and hollows a man’s face without mercy. In the place of angels dancing on the head of a pin, the modern shaving wretch endures legions of devils gnashing at his face. Every day, year after year, these fiendish hosts assiduously work to gnaw the very sinews from a man’s cheeks. In this insidious fashion, the soul’s manhood is brutally shorn away by the steady, unfeeling stroke of the modern shaving scimitar. In all of this one can see the very essence of Soren Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death.”
The average man is dumbfounded by the fact that mankind can probe the very edges of the universe. Yet, for the average man, the humble experience of a great shave is as elusive as the moons of Saturn. Indeed, the full power of mastering nature and the cosmos have been applied to ridding the world of war and poverty (with a ludicrous degree of unsuccess). Yet, I have never met a man who can obtain a close, comfortable shave without enduring some kind of personal injury to his face, be it razor burn or a sliced chin. (This statement is not intended as mere hyperbole. Think about it: where can a man go to get the perfect shave? Where would you go, dear reader, to get one yourself?).
It is comical to visit any major retail store in the United States and take note of the sheer immensity of shaving gadgets available to the American male. All of them promise a better, closer and more comfortable shave. Yet, not one of them delivers even the intimation of a decent shave. This is indeed a dark and depressing circumstance.
The fact that the American man cannot obtain the quality of shave he wants, when he wants or the way he wants—demands an immediate and lasting correction. Otherwise, we should expect that the quality of life for the average American man will sink even farther than it already has. And even now, I think that the living quality of the average man’s life is fast approaching the condition of the common worm.
These remarks strongly suggest that the painful indignity of shaving has finally become an issue of great moment in the cultural history of mankind. Yet this great change in humankind’s attitude toward shaving has only come about very recently.
For centuries men either grew beards or shaved them short—leaving a thin fleece of beard to protect the face from wind and the elements. The practice of cutting the beard to the skinline—the “clean-cut” shave-- was both unknown and inconceivable to most men living before the 20th century. Since only barbers possessed the necessary implements to remove facial hair—a technical endowment afforded them due to their historical role as surgeons—it was wholly impracticable for men to attempt to shave themselves. This fact accounts for meteoric rise of the neighborhood barbering in the 19th century.
The difficulties a man faced in the pursuit of a decent shave remained unchanged for generations. Hence the inexplicable popularity of beards since biblical times. However, the advent of public barbershops in the 18th century signaled the first of many important changes in this regard. Indeed, the institution of the morning shave—along with the short walk to the barber and time spent commingling affably with friends in the barber’s salon—first gained popularity during the Victorian era. In time the neighborhood barber emerged as a kind of low brow, urban celebrity; one whose blarney, roaring blasphemies and vivacious joie de vivre set the tone for much of city life.
Yet, despite the popularity of the neighborhood barber, his ministrations were necessarily limited to local customers. Men walked to the barber. Shaves were both expensive and time consuming. In most instances, they had to wait long periods for the next available chair. Only the largest cities had more than a handful of practicing barbers. Indeed for most men a trip to the barber was a conspicuous—and decidedly rare—opportunity for self-indulgence.
These inhibiting factors eventually turned the public shave into a kind of rare, public virtue. Some customers regarded the local barber as both priest and patron; others saw him as the monopolist of a common, but essential utility—a proper shave. Yet everyone it seemed knew him and depended on his services. The neighborhood was the local barber’s “oyster,” and the world beyond, a mere abstract and meaningless pale.
For generations, the sinuous constraints of localism were the barber’s best friend. It pushed the daily shaving trade through his door and its profits right into his pocketbook. In time, barbers achieved a kind of popularity usually reserved for religious and military leaders. Eventually, barbers found ways to leverage their public ubiquity to build a career in politics. Others resorted to practicing various forms of quackery and indecent medicine in the urban shadowlands of slums. To this day many still believe that Jack the Ripper himself may have been a barber on London’s eastside.
Yet, in the end our hero with the flashing razor, hot towel, and cloud of talcum went the way of all provincial flesh. For no sooner had he reached a kind of glorious height, than the wings of the neighborhood barber were forever cut by the spectacular genius of an inventor named King Gillette. And it is to his story that we now turn.
King Gillette’s Safety Razor: The First Revolution in Shaving
It is a widely known fact that human beings have been shaving in some form or another for nearly 10,000 years. But for the entirety of that term, shaving as both a process and a product changed less than the surface of the moon. In fact, in light of the rate at which every other important human endeavor has distinctly evolved to meet the challenges of time and circumstance, it is astonishing that the universal practice of shaving has changed so little for so long. This propensity for shaving to seemingly resist improvement—in either form or function—has convinced some observers that shaving itself is not amenable to improvement in any form. This group has traditionally regarded the pain of shaving as the wages of mankind’s sinful desire for wanting to look and feel its best.
This largely fixed view of shaving, however, underwent a dramatic change a century ago. In 1904, King Gillette introduced the world’s first safety razor. Despite its immediate impact on shaving at the time, the Gillette “Double Edge” razor was astonishingly simple in design. A twin edged razor blade was bolted— “sandwiched” if you will--between two flat pieces of metal. These were then attached to a solid steel handle, usually with a screw thread. The razor itself was then pulled across the face. This allowed the cutting edge to shave the beard in a smooth and uniform fashion.
The genius behind Gillette’s invention was, in fact, its profound—almost relentless-- simplicity. Since its inception a century ago, millions of these fantastic devices have been sold. Indeed, the King Gillette safety razor is one of the most extraordinary innovations to grace the imaginative faculty of mankind. The Gillette razor is so simple to use that instructions for its correct use are superfluous: a man instinctively knows how to use it with the first shave. Moreover, it is a device of such blissful ingenuity that a man’s mind is boggled at the prospect of ever seeing its like again. (A friend once reminded me that the invention of my own elaborate “Wet Shaving Systematics” represented my own desire to create a successor to King Gillette’s glorious innovation. I fear that there is much truth in this observation).
The greatness of King Gillette’s innovation is confirmed by the fact that since its inception, millions of his razors have been sold throughout the world. Indeed, the original 1904 design is still in use to this day, though it is no longer manufactured by the Gillette company. (George Trumper, however, has recently issued an updated form of the Double Edge that is certainly the finest ever issued: it is 14 carat gold plated with a fully adjustable “scaling” system. This latter allows for a continuous adjustment of the blade during shaving. This magnificent razor also comes with its own fine leather traveling pouch. A more perfect shaving device is currently beyond the comprehension of even the most gifted individual. If you would like to purchase one of these fine razors, you may contact me direct at 1-888-220-2927. For additional information on double edge shaving, please see my piece “Don’t Fear the Double Edge”.)
The self-evident greatness of King Gillette’s invention was apparent to everyone from its inception. With its simple construction and ease of use, it made it possible for men to shave more comfortably than ever before. No longer was it necessary for a man to stand for hours in the queue at the local barbershop. For the first time in history, shaving was not only democratized. It was also rendered safe, simple, and affordable.
Thanks to King Gillette, every man could aspire to the luxury of a morning shave. He could, at the same time, also attain the status of a clean-shaven gentleman. In this way King Gillette not only changed shaving; he also wrought a transformation in the habits of civil society. More importantly perhaps, he also launched the first major change in the way that a man actually experiences shaving. This was achieved by dramatically improving the existing technology of shaving itself. The double edge made shaving more efficient, less expensive, and safer than ever before. Hence the reason for calling King Gillette’s innovation the world’s first safety razor. I call it bloomin’ genius.
The Sensor/Mach 3 Era: The Second Revolution in Shaving
The Gillette double edge proved so successful that it effectively dominated shaving technology for most of the 20th century. To be sure, many other shaving systems were introduced later, but none possessed the consummate ease and efficiency offered by King Gillette’s wondrous achievement. Indeed, the double edge razor proved so successful that only following the computer revolution of the 1980s was it finally possible to launch a successor—the Gillette Sensor. A decade later a variant of the Sensor razor was also launched. In various forms it continues on to this day as the Mach 3. Since my intent is not to examine the minutiae of 20th century shaving technology, I will only briefly describe these two latter day shaving systems.
With the creation of the Sensor/Mach 3 duo, Gillette attempted to tackle the most fundamental—and vexatious—question in all of shaving. This concerns the inevitable trade off between “closeness” and “comfort.” Indeed, the pernicious trade off between closeness and comfort in shaving is one of the most pressing questions facing the human race today; or at least the half of the human race that shaves every day. Indeed, the universality of the closeness versus comfort challenge can be readily compared to other similar decisional dilemmas that addle the wits of every thinking man. One example that readily comes to mind involves the low risk, high yield conundrum that confronts every beginning investor. No sooner has he made his first investment than he realizes to his dismay that he is indeed no Warren Buffett. In many instances, the beginning investor’s over-confident leap into speculation causes him to lose his money—all of his money. The moral to all of this is simple. Making “safe” investments in the expectation of a supernormal return is both illogical and inconceivable. Bye the bye the first time investor quickly learns to his chagrin that high yield means high risk—or it means nothing at all.
I have written more extensively on the “Closeness vs. Comfort” trade off in another column which is posted on my website. Readers who wish to learn more about this curious subject should find this column of considerable interest.
The Roberts Method: The Third Revolution in Men’s Shaving
The appearance of the Mach 3 shaving system in the early 1990s, dramatically advanced the progress of mass market shaving in general; however, it did little to improve the quality of the individual’s shaving experience in particular. There are several reasons to account for this fact.
First, as I have described elsewhere in my various writings on shaving, the art of shaving is necessarily intensely personal. More importantly from the standpoint of desired outcomes, it is also intensely subjective. This means, in effect, that the greatest benefits of connoisseur class shaving can only be suitably enlarged—and experienced—at the individual (the micro, not macro) level. Hence, the profound uniqueness of the perfect shave exists solely for the individual who has mastered the correct forms of shaving for himself.
The second reason concerns the inherent inflexibility of mass produced shaving goods. It is the very nature of mass production for all variation in production to converge to the mean. This means that in order to ensure a consistent cost/price differential, a production run of “average” quality is maintained. In other words, products are made to conform to a predictable standard: not too good, not too bad. And it is in this context that the principle of “standardized” quality is best understood. To be sure, it is also this approach to manufacturing that provides us with the myriad goods and services that best define the U.S. industrial enterprise. However, such goods, though amenable to long production runs and continuous costing, usually perform poorly under highly variable conditions. Shaving is one of the most intensely variable events imaginable. And for this reason, a standardized—one size fits all approach to shaving—does not work.
Third, every man must learn to shave his own beard correctly. This means, in effect, that every man must be taught to shave in the manner that is appropriate to him; not simply some imagined subject with a beard. Despite the widely held belief that every man who shaves does so with near perfection, it can easily be demonstrated that this is rarely the case. In fact, I have never met an individual who commands even the most unexceptional rudiments of shaving. In fact, at least 75% of these men have suffered some permanent damage to the upper neck region due to incorrect shaving procedure. It is for this reason that I expend great time and effort toward the object of teaching men how to shave properly. Hence the importance of these essays on the various matters that concern shaving at the individual level.
It is with these signal considerations in mind that I created the Roberts Method of Wet Shaving (RMWS). The advent of this unique approach to the subject has often been likened to a virtual “revolution” in men’s shaving. Moreover, its impact on modern shaving practices has been not unlike the invention of the modern razor itself. My own approach to shaving, however, does not depend on the virtues of new technology. Indeed, the role of advanced shaving technology comprises a very small part of my shaving system. Technology, regardless of its excellence, can never approach the power of my own shaving system.
I want to strongly emphasize that my own wet shaving methodology is not a continuation of conventional shaving practices by the mere substitution of comparable means. In many ways the RMWS represents a complete discontinuity in the evolution of modern shaving practices. Men who apply the RMWS simply shave better than they can with any other means. They not only shave better; they also shave differently. With this perspective in mind, it is perhaps more accurate to regard my method as a “transformation” in modern shaving, rather than pronouncing it a revolution.
The RMWS is both a process and a philosophy of shaving. Its purpose is definitive: to produce the perfect-cut shaving experience for the man who takes the time to learn the method. The standard that I use to define the perfect shave is simple: the RMWS produces a shave that is so good that it can not be replicated under any other set of circumstances, regardless of cost or effort expended. In other words, the individual who has mastered my method of shaving is the unchallenged master of his own shaving experience. He controls the quality and caliber of his shave; he alone is responsible for the degree to which it is perfected and enjoyed. For the time that he takes to shave every day, he is the happiest man in the world.
The RMWS encompasses four distinct approaches to shaving. These include: 1). Traditional men’s brush shaving. 2). Modern shaving Technology. 3). Classical Aromatica. 4). The Professional Facial. These four elements are combined to achieve the greatest possible degree of shaving comfort, efficiency and pleasure. Moreover, each of the four areas above represents an entire discipline of applied technique in its own right. This means that much future research will no doubt be necessary to bring the RMWS to its most refined point of actualization.
Despite its relative infancy, the RMWS is an entirely new stage of men’s shaving. It is essentially unlike anything that has ever been seen before. And since each one of the above areas is sufficiently important to justify its own lengthy treatment, I will limit the discussion of each to the briefest length possible.
- Traditional Brush Shaving. The RMWS grew directly out of the men’s wet shaving tradition. And it is for this reason that the centerpiece of my shaving system is the oversized, silver tip badger shaving brush. I exclusively prefer shaving brushes made by the Simpsons Company in Somerset, England. The three Simpsons shaving brushes that are the best suited for use with the RMMS are the following: Chubby #3 in silver tip; Polo #10 in silver tip; Persian Jar #3 in silver tip. The unparalleled excellence of these three shaving brushes has led me to refer to them collectively as “The Three Kings.” Images (and visual enlargements) of these three shaving brushes can be found on the Simpsons link on this website).
In spite of the excellence of the above shaving brushes, I do not wish to leave the impression that no other shaving brush will accommodate my shaving methods. Over the years, I have successfully instructed many clients in my technique using a wide range of shaving brushes of various cost and quality. The results that have followed from such efforts, however, have not been uniformly positive. Indeed, in nearly all of these instances, the inferior performance of the shaving brush in use has seriously limited the benefit of the method itself.
- Modern Shaving Technology. My use of this expression refers explicitly to the use of three different razor types. These include the standard “safety” or “Double Edge” razor; the Mach 3; and the Sensor. The large number of variations on these razors currently available makes it impossible to discuss any in detail at this time. Their importance to the RMWS, however, is that they eliminate the need for cut-throat or open blade cutting.
- Classical Aromatica. The important role that aromatic ingredients play in my shaving methodology is frequently overlooked. Much of this neglect has no doubt resulted from the intense interest in my shaving “systematics” as a distinctive shaving “technique.” By comparison, consideration of the more subtle use of aromatic ingredients within the systematics itself has received much less attention. This being the case, it is important to note that there would be no RMWS without the use of highly blended aromatic agents.
- The Professional Facial. The least noted dimension of the RMWS is no doubt the critical role that modern facial techniques play in determining the overall quality of the Roberts Method itself. At the same time, it must be admitted that many of these techniques depend for their success on direct, personal instruction. Hence, any significant attempt to present relevant details of these precise shaving movements is not really possible in this discussion. Further development in extending this area to more remote learning contexts must await further development in the future.
The Roberts Method of Wet Shaving is the world’s first comprehensive approach to perfect-cut shaving for the average individual. This method is also the most consistently excellent method of shaving ever created. By adhering to the correct shaving procedure, the shaver will consistently experience the best shave possible. This also means that the excellence of result of the Roberts Shaving Method depends strictly on the individual shaver’s skill in applying the method itself.
Thus, any individual who is willing to devote a modicum of time and effort can learn to shave better and more efficiently than he has ever done before. The RMWS is a distinct method of shaving that can not be duplicated in any comparable form, regardless of the time and effort expended to do so. The individual shaver controls the quality of the shave he gets; it’s that simple. At the same time, the shaver’s experience is not limited in quality of result by conditions over which he has relatively little control. In short, by properly using the RMSS the shaver gets exactly the shave he wants, exactly when he wants, exactly the way he wants. Nothing less is deemed acceptable.
So let the revolution begin!