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Essay #5: Don't Fear the Double Edge

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!

For nearly a century after the invention of the double edge, millions of men around the world relied on this venerable innovation as their trusted grooming friend. Teenage lads used it for their first shave; soldiers went to war with it; and the fresh, smooth shave that the double edge provided quickly established itself as the standard of impeccable grooming around the world. Men loved it, because it was intelligent, efficient, and keenly versatile. Women also loved it for its eminent economy and convenience. Ultimately, the entire world eventually embraced the double edge as a perfectly democratic solution to the challenge every man faced first thing in the morning: the need for a close, comfortable shave.

The smooth, languid action of the double edge, moreover, seemed to perfectly embody the very ethos of each new generation that adopted it: the crisp, clean-cut élan of Jay Gatsby, the understated decency of Jimmy Stewart, or the virtuous tenacity of John Wayne. In its glorious heyday, the Gillette double edge was the supreme cutting tool uniquely conceived to satisfy the splendid uses of a gilded age. In short, the double edge razor embodied in every minute respect, the perfect instrument for getting the job done when a man needed a close, smooth, comfortable shave.

My own discovery of this magical shaving wand occurred quite by accident many years ago. One day, a kindly gentleman entered my store in Austin, Texas with a small, velveteen box tucked under his arm. Placing the box on my counter, he opened it to reveal the dazzling contents of an original solid brass Rolls razor. I was astonished to behold this magnificent article, its stolid, perfectly machined parts individually swaddled with velvet. Ah! For a man to shave with such a perfect cutting device! It struck me that each highly burnished piece seemed to offer itself for personal inspection much like a dragoon of the Coldstream Guards at present-arms. Indeed, I learned that its former owner had in fact been a British soldier in the Great War—a thought that sent my mind off to thinking of distant foreign wars, Kipling’s Barracks Ballads, and the sweet, bracing scents of tobacco, leather, and Empire.

The next I knew, the fine gentleman with the Rolls Razor was gone—while I drifted lost in my own personal reverie, he had quietly departed the scene. Alas, I had no sooner laid eyes on the glorious Rolls than it was snatched quite away from me, departing the scene forever before I could fully take in all of its splendor.

But though the razor itself was lost to me, deep and profound thoughts about it continued to fill my brain. At the next opportunity, I called some friends, consulted some books and learned a thing or two about the Rolls itself (but that is another story). I learned that the Rolls razor was born upon the world at about the same time as Mr. Gillette’s great invention. But, sadly, the two rival shaving systems could not share the whole world between them, and the Rolls eventually fell prey to obsolescence and general abandonment. Mr. Gillette’s design pushed its competitor off the stage because it offered men a new alternative to the venerable straight razor of Victorian times. In this respect, the Gillette double edge was a true innovation—a radical departure from the bad old days of yore, when the flash of a steel blade and a bloodied collar proclaimed the man. The Rolls, on the other hand, was not an innovation. Its design merely sought to combine in an awkward and imperfect form the safety of the closed blade with the tradition of the open one. Men were not impressed; Mr. Gillette won.

Much like Britannia and her dominion over the high seas, the double edge razor reigned supreme for more than three generations. Over the years countless variations on the double edge were developed—several of which achieved high repute in their own right—but King Gillette’s original fixed blade innovation remained unchallenged right up to the late 1980s. For how could anyone seriously improve on the double edge and its seemingly infinite ability to cut any beard perfectly?

But in 1987 the supremacy of the double edge razor finally ended with the appearance of the new Gillette Sensor. As with the double edge, the story of the Sensor is one of the most amazing stories in modern business history. And the men who conceived, designed, and launched the Sensor are among the true titans of modern industry, if such have ever in fact existed. Moreover, to say that the Sensor revolutionized shaving, is to say that Martin Luther changed the church. In more certain respects, it is more accurate to say that the Sensor razor not only changed the way men shaved, it also changed the way that men think about themselves.

With the advent of the Sensor razor, men increasingly came to regard shaving as a dull and lifeless tedium that one performed out of sheer necessity. And it was this intractable feature of dreary necessity that eventually turned the wondrous art of shaving itself into a veritable dullness unto death. The robotic dexterity of the Sensor removes every form of sense or sensibility from the shave. Gone is the sweet stroke of the long blade against smooth cropped skin; the Sensor cuts everywhere and anywhere with uniform predictability. To be sure, the first few shaves are just fine—smooth and clean just like you imagined they would be. Of course, you know that something is missing, you just can’t exactly find it on your face. The clean shave lines you once saw in the wake of your double edge—like a skipper drawing on his pipe and contemplating the wake of his vessel on the wine dark sea—are no longer to be seen. The Sensor is too small to leave a cut distinctive line on the face; it simply leaves a muddled swill of shave cream in its path, much like a half-buried sidewalk after a snowstorm. There are no bumps along the way, and no time to enjoy the ride. The Sensor blade pulls across the face like a freight train chugging across the Kansas plains—but nobody lives in Kansas anymore, and nobody wants to shave like they do.

Men around the world had no sooner begun to mourn the passing of the venerable double edge--followed by the rapid ascent of the Sensor--before they were confronted with yet another challenge. This one appeared less than five years later in the form of the Mach 3. This razor offers a more subtle seduction into shaving oblivion than the Sensor could ever have achieved.  Whereas the Sensor still provides a man the chance to still shave himself by requiring him to at least guide the razor to its destination, the Mach 3 seems to have a life of its own. It shaves a man the closest when it appears to be doing nothing at all. This fact has much to do with the astounding degree of technical virtuosity of the Mach 3 cutting system itself. It is, in several key respects, a brain within a steel blade—a disquieting thought to be sure. Perhaps Gillette should have called the Mach a “Sensor to the third power”.

Finally, it is time to consider the undistinguished fate of the greatest shaving instrument of all time—the glorious Gillette Double Edge razor. 

First, it is necessary to appreciate the fact that the Gillette company first brought this triumph of the human race into the world. We should never forget this fact, even as we mumble our grievances about Gillette’s other truly great shaving innovations (the Sensor, Mach 3, Mach 3 Turbo, et al). And we should also add for clarity, that we are not displeased by the presence of these latter day virtuoso razors, it is rather that we grieve for the absence of the beloved Double Edge, and its smooth—rapturously smooth—glide across a man’s deliciously wet and satisfied skin.

Second, the double edge is the beloved of wet shavers because it was created for a world in which every man used a shaving brush.  It is truth to say, that a century ago, when a man picked up his shaving brush he also retrieved his Double Edge razor—indeed to contemplate using one without the other was unthinkable. I suspect that the appearance of the Double Edge dazzled shavers of that bygone age, much the same way that Constantine’s vision of the Holy Sword inspired his legions to victory at the Malvian Bridge.

Of equal significance is the fact that the double edge—like most articles of true perfection—came into the world already perfect. Indeed, it has scarcely evolved at all over the century.  With only minor cosmetic differences, today’s Double Edge is an exact descendent of the original—a compelling testimony to its amazing permanence and universal appeal.  And so it went—on and on for generations, until the great and virtuous thing of eternal perfection was no more.

What happened? Why did Gillette abandon the Double Edge just when it was on the verge of saving mankind? The answer, I suspect, is obvious: the patent on its manufacture finally ran out, and with it, the kinds of profits an innovative company like Gillette must realize if it is to continue to dazzle the world with more glorious shaving goods.  But the glorious cause of the Double Edge did not simply die when Gillette no longer produced them. Like Lazarus, its virtues were too prolific to simply molder in the grave of common forgetfulness.  After a brief hiatus in which it disappeared completely from the world, it was resurrected by both German manufacturers under the Merkur/Solingen brand. In England, George F. Trumper similarly restored the Double Edge to the blissful seat of its former glory by bestowing upon it fine, shapely handles of black, cream, and tortoise shell. These magnificent Trumper razors can be surveyed in all of their resplendent glory on

Ah! How sweet it is to shave with mankind’s most perfect shaving instrument! So, what are you waiting for, my lads! Go fetch one for yourself!

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