Essay #6: The Roberts Method and The Future of Wet 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 form of shaving is called traditional men’s wet shaving. This method speaks to those folks for whom the Marquis De Sade is not a personal savior. It is this group that also comprises that legion of souls whom G. B. Shaw once called “Unreasonable Men.” Not to be outdone by Mr. Shaw, I describe these great spirits as “Higher Men.” Every time a man picks up a shaving brush he instantly takes his place in the long descent of Superior Men. This group begins with Homer, Marcus Aurelius and the legionaries of the ancient Roman Republic. Its descent continues through the likes of King Alfred, Edmund Burke, George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Today, similar exemplars of this type still shape and sustain the world. These men include the likes of Edmund Hillary, John McCain, Vaclav Havel and Ronald Reagan. These are honorable men; good men. They are also men of great credit and powerful example. Let us never forget them.
The third and final method of shaving we must consider is my own “Roberts Method of Wet Shaving.” This is the most advanced form of wet shaving in the United States today. In its inspiration at least this method is directly descended from traditional wet shaving. To be sure, the use of shaving brush, razor and shaving cream is still fundamental to its practice. However, these principle elements of traditional wet shaving only loosely characterize the Roberts Method. They do not define it. The connection between these two approaches to shaving suggests the ancient relation that exists between the dinosaur and the eagle. One could not exist without the other. Yet both inhabit different realms of time and creation.
The following essay is an attempt to tell the combined stories of both traditional wet shaving and the Roberts Method. It is also an attempt to trace the pedigree of the latter as it is derived from the spirited genius of the former. This approach is necessary in view of the inseparable connection between the two. Indeed, both forms are as closely connected in time and circumstance as the development of aviation is to the discovery of physics.
The basic laws of effective shaving have been with us for nearly three hundred years. They have not been repealed; nor have they been significantly amended. And though the laws of proper shaving are known, they have not been widely—or consistently--practiced in several generations. This circumstance has reduced the art of shaving to a virtual lost art—and a very precious art to be sure. However, before we proceed with a more detailed discussion of the fascinating subject of wet shaving (and its cognate, The Roberts Method) it is important that we first define the nature of our subject.
First, wet shaving is not a fad. Nor is it a trend competing for attention with all the other manias of modern life. To the contrary: wet shaving is the sweet and perfect antidote to the kinds of poisons that modern life injects into a man’s soul. Nor is wet shaving mere form and function; it is also fantasy and fable. Wet shaving offers a man both passion and pleasure without compromise. It is, in short, the effervescent spring of happiness that lies at the end of the rainbow. By wet shaving a man enters into a field of bliss and contentment that is otherwise deprived him by a world that hungers to devour his very soul.
Second, there is, strictly speaking, no one way to wet shave. Wet shaving does not have a specific doctrine. Nor can one refer to specific treatises that set forth its best and worst practices with unchallenged authority.
However, it is important to also understand that wet shaving is not a field of endless trial and error. I strongly believe that there are correct—and incorrect-- methods of wet shaving. The untidy results of incorrect shaving methods are present everywhere. They can be easily seen on the chin and necklines of incompetent shavers. Indeed, I am often amazed at the low skill levels of shavers who have never been taught proper cutting methods. In many instances these shavers have paid dearly for very good equipment. However, most purveyors of fine shaving goods are usually poor shavers themselves. Thus it is hardly surprising that their customers also shave poorly. It is for this reason that I insist that no one ever purchase shaving goods from anyone who is unable to instruct them in their proper use.
With this view in mind, one might justifiably ask: “If wet shaving is so difficult to master, why would anyone even want to learn to do it?” This question raises the specter of indifferent cynicism. And this attitude is one of the more sinister plagues of the modern mind. And as such questions go, it neatly avoids the kind of deeper meditation on what makes life worth living in the first place. Indeed, it is always possible to ask a million similar questions of humanity. For instance why do men do anything that they do? Why do they love what they love? Why do some men serve higher causes while others serve infernal ones? Why are some men rich and others poor? Such questions only find answers by the most indefinite route possible. And as such, they have nothing to say about wet shaving.
The man who loves wet shaving is not the same man who loves video games. Nor is he the kind of soul whose chosen avenue to betterment is to comparison shop plumbing fixtures at Home Depot. The wet shaver is both a man of means; and a man of mind. He uses his mind fully in seeking both the Palace of Wisdom and of Pleasure. In short, a man wet shaves because in doing so he is reminded that great achievement always abides in the same place as great feeling and purpose. A wet shaver is also a man of feeling and purpose. That is what draws him to the subtle and profound forms of wet shaving.
Our final point is that wet shaving works. Not only does it satisfy one’s thinking about costs and benefits; it exceeds them past calculation. Indeed, wet shaving is such a perfect pursuit that if the world really understood one-tenth of its true value, it would be impossible to buy a shaving brush anywhere at any price. Only the rich would own them because only the rich would be able to obtain them. The “moving logic” of wet shaving (my expression for its expansive genius) permits an infinite range of possible means to improve the way one looks and feels after every shave. Indeed, the infinite march of positives begins with the very first shave itself. For every time he picks up a shaving brush, the wet shaver confidently advances to that perfect moment when razor and water dance blissfully together amidst the low, sweet hum of every nerve.
At the same time, it is also necessary to understand one more point. This is that the world of wet shaving is changing (and improving, I think) more rapidly than it has in over a century. This is particularly true where the United States is concerned. Indeed, it was little more than ten years ago that British wet shaving first came to America in a serious way. And even since then, it has come and gone more than a few times.
There was little evidence a decade ago that a revolution in men’s grooming had entered the world. Everything we used to wet shave came from Britain. At the same time, the scarcity of shaving goods was only exceeded by the extent to which we revered their value. Having spent our lives shaving from a can, the tools of wet shaving often appeared strange and perplexing. I fondly recall overhearing the term “Super Badger” for the first time. I thought that it was some kind of new TV superhero. Little did I imagine that I would one day study the actions of a shaving brush with the same interest that Frederick Taylor once studied the movements of work. (This comparison has come to pass in a very real way: in the place of Taylor’s “Time and Motion” studies for measuring worker efficiency, I have created concepts called “Grip and Motion.” These set the appropriate motions for various styles of shaving brushes. Sometimes life really does repeat history.)
Since those heady times ten years ago, dramatic changes have taken place in both the methods and direction of wet shaving.
To fully grasp the transformation in wet shaving, a bit of shaving history is necessary. It is also important to understand how this history, in particular, is being furthered altered by new developments presently underway. As wet shaving continues to increase in popularity, we can expect further developments in the future. At each of these developmental points, we should expect both the scale and scope of wet shaving’s popularity to also increase. This will be especially true as more of the world seeks to participate in this amazing transformation in men’s grooming.
Until recently, wet shaving in its most refined form had always been the exclusive province of the barbering profession. It was barbers who invented it and barbers who defined its practice. In this regard, one might say that barbers created the practice of wet shaving and then professionalized it. And since we really don’t know who invented wet shaving, we can only conclude that its development was incremental. Indeed, it was professional barbers who managed the development of wet shaving’s progress at every stage.
Fortunately for the fate of wet shaving, every possible effort was made to keep its practice as pure and exact as possible. Indeed, from everything we know of wet shaving’s long, but obscure, history, barbers served as the vigilant gatekeepers of this incomparable practice. The awesome subtleties of the craft were kept largely secret for generations. Few were admitted to its practice. Young barbers learned it from old barbers; and old barbers ensured that those who learned it from their hand were suitably called to the honorific task. In this way the unique values embodied in wet shaving was saved from the consumerist gutter. (Wet shaving is a practice that has been embalmed in a kind of professional and cultural amber. Its practices are, in many instances, as codified and fixed as the ancient laws of Freemasonery. It is this fact, moreover, that draws the fiercest defenders of refined tradition to its cause. Wet shaving is among the last oracles of human wisdom whose tongue the demons of mass consumption have not yet ripped out.)
Other factors also helped protect barbers from the intrusion of ambitious profiteers. First, shaving products were so expensive as to be inaccessible. Badger shaving brushes were only available in the scarcest possible numbers—and then only at ludicrous cost. The secrets of shave cream preparation were rendered so esoteric that the most precious formulas were often taken to the grave itself. Indeed the barbering profession applied itself to the task of not only perpetuating the highly profitable practice of wet shaving, but also ensuring that its precious secrets were never profiteered to outsiders.
For over two centuries, barbering—and the practice of wet shaving that adorned it—ranked among the world’s most lucrative monopolies. And along with this monopoly barbers also enjoyed wealth and celebrity status. The Barber of Seville, and countless others exactly like him—were a kind of celebrity that the world knew very well. Every avenue of vanity led to the barber’s door; his skills were admired and coveted by everyone, since everyone was obliged to use them. For unless a man went to a barber, he would not wet shave—nor would he ever attempt to do so.
This method of strict transmission, though powerful in its assurance of long-term secrecy, also imposed a severe kind of straight jacket on the natural evolution of wet shaving. Reflecting the hide bound nature of the barbering profession in general, the practice of wet shaving become increasingly more arcane over time. As a result, it was unable to evolve in a manner consistent with its own changing environment. Its natural growth as a living practice was first stunted and then smothered through excessive control by the barbering profession. With increasing control came the high costs that naturally follow any form of institutional rigidity. Few barbers were invited to learn the craft; fewer still expressed any interest in practicing it. Customers, as they are always wont to do, were only too happy to find another way.
One of these frustrated spirits was a genius named King Gillette. In 1904, he invented the world’s first safety razor. By doing so, he created a new palace of shaving convenience and the entire world happily found its way to his door. Shortly after, wet shaving began its long retreat to the stale habitues of big cities and cigar clubs. By the 1960s, the world had moved on to shaving foams, plastic razors, and foul colognes. A generation later, wet shaving had joined Elvis Dolls and Schwinn Bicycles as the most forgettable objects of erstwhile human desire. By then, practically speaking, traditional wet shaving was as dead as the Dodo.
However, in several key respects, wet shaving only looked dead. Within the course of one decade, three crucial events occurred that changed the direction of wet shaving in America forever. The first saw the return to the United States of the U.K. shaving phenomenon Geo F. Trumper. I was first introduced to the marvels of wet shaving myself through Trumpers. And the education I received was not only a good one—it was the best available in the world. Indeed, Trumpers set the standard for wet shaving over a century ago. Since then, time, and the general degradation of the wider world, has only served to make Trumper’s quality even more precious. More than a century after its birth, Trumper quality continues to dominate traditional wet shaving in nearly every respect. Thank God that it still does.
The second event saw the resurrection of the Simpsons Shaving Brush Company following insolvency in 1989. Prior to its dissolution, Simpsons was the oldest—and most renowned—Shaving Brush manufacturer in the world. However, hard times and a declining customer base had finally driven it to the wall. Its last minute resurrection from the ashes of bankruptcy court marked the beginning of the victorious return of wet shaving. The man responsible for this event is the incomparable Mr. David Carter, the company’s long time—and present--director. The last minute recovery of Simpsons from certain extinction marks one of the most dramatic—and far-reaching—events in the history of wet shaving. I personally consider it to be one of the most important events in modern history.
Simpsons and Geo F. Trumper are the two colossi of wet shaving in the world today. To discuss the subject without recurring to these two stalwart champions of the trade is like ignoring the importance of DaVinci in a discussion of Italian Painting. In some respects, the latter would be easier to do.
With the restoration of these two venerable powers—Simpsons and Trumpers-- the progression of wet shaving once again moved forward in ways both expansive and unprecedented. (In this context, I believe it important to note the late arrival of the British firm Edwin Jagger into this distinguished group. Founded in 1997, Jagger appeared somewhat too late on the scene to affect the initial rebound of wet shaving during the early 1990s. However, since then it has more than made up for its late arrival. Edwin Jagger is the world’s foremost manufacturer of connoisseur class shaving sets, razors and accessories.)
Of great importance is the fact that the combined presence of both of these firms in the United States has made wet shaving more accessible to the beginning shaver than ever before. And it is this new proximity to world class shaving products—especially via my website and the amazing power of the Internet—that has broken the hold of the barbering profession on the correct forms and practices of wet shaving.
However, despite the unprecedented availability of world class shaving goods, several key elements were still sorely missing. Chief among them was the absence of any real knowledge about wet shaving. Few people actually knew what it was; how to do it properly; or how to improve its practice. If wet shaving was to re-enter the world as full bodied discipline, its powers had to be clearly and carefully communicated to new shavers. It would, in effect, have to be taught in its entirety. But on these matters the great houses of wet shaving had little to say. And the world’s barbers weren’t talking either. Someone had to come forth to reveal the enduring virtues of wet shaving. Who would it be?
This brings us to the third momentous event of our story. This one took place in the latter years of the 1990s. It was then that a new movement in men’s wet shaving emerged in the high-tech capital of the United States—Austin Texas. At first, there was little to suggest that this particular view of shaving would ever interest anyone. Unlike conventional wet shaving this new method combined both a practice of shaving and a philosophy of masculine sensibility. It also employed the use of strange tools such as hand-tooled shaving brushes and exotic aromatic oils. Some of the tools were expensive; others were difficult to use. Complex procedures that required months to master were also involved. Indeed, some folks were overwhelmed by all that was involved. Others were intrigued, but uncertain of mastery. A few daring souls, however, decided to give it a try. It was these bold spirits who launched the revolution that is rolling over the world of wet shaving today.
Indeed, for its first three years there was little interest in the new method. Instead, popular interest was focused exclusively on the seemingly endless tide of prosperity washing over central Texas at that time. Back then, the revolution in getting and spending brought about by the dot-com phenomenon was only rivaled by the wild daily ride of new billionaires, Wall Street and the Fortune 500. Method shaving was hardly on anyone’s mind—not yet, at least.
But by the end of 2001, the false prosperity of the dot-com bluster had come and gone and the color of money had changed from green to gray. The billionaire of yesterday had been transmuted by the strange fiscal alchemy of the times into the New Poor” of today. Big hair and big houses in Texas had gone the way of the bill collector and the tax-man. The rotund hoopla of prosperity of yesterday, with all of its sass and cheek, had sunk back into the poorhouse once again. The days of crystal wine buckets, $35 Porterhouse steaks and Cuban cigars were also gone. Personal misery had once again returned to the world in a very big—and painful—way.
It was during the “Great Despondency” of 2000-2003 that the wet shaving revolution was born in America. It was then that reports emerged from the Austin area of men who had become fanatic practitioners of a new way of shaving. A method that married the customized perfection of traditional brush shaving with the intense, sensation rich experience of the professional facial. This new method of shaving went by the name of the Roberts Method, named after its creator. And for the numerous shavers who adopted this method, it was more than simply a new way to shave. They also saw it as a new dimension in the personal well being of men everywhere; one that permanently liberated them from one of the greatest personal—and collective—miseries of modern times. With the appearance of the Roberts Method, the days of “blood shaving” had finally ended. For millions of shavers around the world, this meant no more razor burn, no more blood, and no more misery—forever.
The appearance of the Roberts Method set three dramatic events in motion: first, it permanently ended the reign of barbershop style wet shaving. This meant that barbers would no longer monopolize the best practices of wet shaving. Nor would they be able to impede the growth of wet shaving into new and exciting new areas. In the place of barbers and hairdressers, the average shaver could now learn to shave himself. And he could shave himself better than any barber could shave him. Thanks to the Roberts Method, from now on every shaver would be his own barber.
The second event inaugurated by the Roberts Method quickly followed its inception. This involved the creation of the new practical science of wet shaving called “Hydratics.” This emerging discipline is committed to moving the practice of wet shaving into the future—as opposed to reconciling its present forms with the past. As a practical science, Hydratics should also confer real credibility on the wet shaving. Presumably it will also establish new—and presently unforeseen—connectivities with other similar fields of relevant inquiry. In time, these relations will bear their own unique and beneficial fruits. Indeed, long-term work in this new field should, we expect, result in new shaving products and technologies. Finally, through the cumulative effects of Hydratics as both practical science and artful discipline, wet shaving will eventually become a compelling source of personal identity for millions of men throughout the world. (The power of wet shaving should not be taken lightly. The intense passion that it produces in most of its best practitioners is a profoundly compelling event to behold. Indeed, one of my clients described his own experience as “pure opium at the end of a shaving brush.” I took this comment as a highly positive recommendation.)
Finally, the third event brought on by the Roberts Method was the appearance of Charles Roberts’ “Systematics of Wet Shaving.” This refers to the five distinct resource fields that directly shape the theories and practices of the RMWS. These five resource fields include the following: 1). Traditional Men’s Wet Shaving. 2). Natural Aromatica. 3). Modern Shaving Technology. 4). European Facial Aesthetics. 5). Classical Perfumery.
Each of these areas is intensely complex in both scope and substance. Thus it is not possible in this present discussion to effectively summarize their importance to the Systematics itself. Nor can it be said that the contributions of these five areas to the Systematics are necessarily proportionate or uniform. However, it should be obvious that nothing like this has ever been seen before in the long history of men’s shaving.
In light of the extensive information provided above, it is now possible to draw some conclusions regarding the present status of wet shaving in the United States in both general and particular terms.
Prior to the appearance of the RMWS, the role of wet shaving existed in the highly marginalized form described above. Its best practices—to the extent that they even existed--had advanced little over two hundred years. This circumstance, as we have seen, was largely due to its monopolization by barbers for most of its history. As a result, few prospects existed for the wider dissemination of wet shaving to the general public. Incredibly, despite the advent of the Gillette Double Edge razor a century ago, the forms of wet shaving have scarcely advanced beyond their peak at the end of the previous century. In fact, it is wholly conceivable that wet shaving actually devolved when compared to the general changes in shaving habits that took place around it. Indeed, the advent of the Double Edge in 1904 led to the revolution in mass-market shaving products. This revolution eventually swamped and nearly destroyed the wet shaving tradition altogether. Indeed, by the early 1950s, wet shaving as an indigenous industry in the United States had largely vanished. In Europe it nearly met the same fate as the trend toward mass-market shaving there followed closely the U.S. example.
Subsequent years saw little change, as increasing numbers of young shavers abandoned wet shaving altogether. By the 1980s, wet shaving had nearly disappeared from the scene. Indeed, few even knew what it was. Only a handful of purveyors—all based in Europe--still offered its products. This handful of companies nevertheless succeeded in keeping the spirit of wet shaving alive. Today, these firms comprise a kind of glorious honor roll for the enduring sacrifices they made to keep the prospects of wet shaving alive for future generations. Their names and priceless stewardship to this cause will never be forgotten. The most distinguished among them are the following: Geo. F. Trumper, Taylors of London, D.R. Harris, Truefitt &Hill, Simpsons, Muehle-Pinsel (Germany). Without the invaluable efforts of these companies to carry forth the passion of wet shaving, these words would not be possible today. May good fortune come their way forever!
The dramatic “Recovery” period of wet shaving took place during the decade of the 1990s. Since I have written extensively on this event elsewhere, I will not cover it again in this present discussion. Of greater significance is the fact that the 1990s saw the dramatic rebirth of two distinct wellsprings of new shaving practices. The first, of course, involved the successful rebirth of traditional wet shaving after a long period of general decline. The second witnessed the subsequent transformation in the practice of traditional wet shaving itself. This event was the Roberts Method of Wet Shaving (RMWS) discussed above. This new approach to wet shaving was founded in Austin, Texas in the late 1990s where it has been taught to a new generation of shavers. Through its dissemination on the Internet and the Shavemaster School in Austin, Texas, it has become one the most widely recognized—and closely followed—shaving methodologies in the United States today. It is in short, the first practical institution of wet shaving to emerge in this century. And we should expect it to remain so well into the next.