But my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man. I recall those lines from a Beyond the Fringe sketch first released in 1964 (see below).* And so it was in my family: my brother was the hirsute Esau to my near-hairless Jacob. I didn’t need to shave until my late teens and even then it was iffy. That was in the late 1960s when sideburns and moustaches were the rage. By the time I could grow enough, everyone had gone back to being clean shaven.
Eternally unfashionable, I was, even back then. In another era, I suppose I would have been a clean-shaven Roman when Emperor Hadrian made the beard fashionable.
My grandfather – born in the 1880s – used a straight razor. Aka a “cut throat” razor. I remember seeing it in his bathroom, along with the small ceramic bowl for shaving soap and a badger-hair brush for lathering it on. A well-worn leather strop hung from a wall hook. Dangerous, Jack-the-Ripper sort of thing, that razor; understandably the weapon of choice in many slasher films. Its deceptively sharp blade swung out easily.
It had a bone handle, yellowed, marked with the signs of age and use. It was old, old enough that the handle may even have been ivory. Maybe even older than he was, passed down from his own father, although he never said as much. It had a severe beauty about it, sort of like a moray eel has. I was never tempted to try it – too dangerous, too easy to slip and slice, I thought.
I was surprised to find that, despite its venerable history (the oldest ones date back 3,500 years or so but the steel-bladed version more common today dates from 1680 CE), straight razors are still being manufactured – and used – today.
My father – born in 1914 – used a safety razor – the sort of all-metal device that had a double-edged blade where you unscrewed a knob on the bottom of the razor to open the top where the blade sat. It was first introduced in 1904 with King Camp Gillette’s patent, and hasn’t changed a lot since.
My father’s razor had heft and solidity; the knurled handle felt secure. He’d fill the sink with water and swirl the razor in the soapy water to clean it as he shaved in confident strokes.
I can’t exactly remember when, but I seem to recall him having one with a butterfly head that opened like wings to replace the blade. I remember turning the knob to open and close those wings. It had a satisfying sensation of engineering know-how; the very model of the industrial revolution’s ingenuity.
I did try that type of safety razor, way back when I first started shaving, albeit briefly. Not being terribly coordinated then, I cut myself easily, so I switched to something less likely to draw my blood in spurts.
I – a boomer child of the 1950s – went higher tech when it was my turn: I started with a convenient cartridge (injector) razor, one of those single-edged blades that you pushed from a small metal container into the razor every month or so to easily replace the dulled one. Introduced as the cutting edge – forgive the pun – of shaving tech in the 1920s by Schick, it evolved little by the time I took it up. Plastic handle, little grace in the design, but much utility. Easily purchased in any grocery or drug store, and not expensive. And not quite as likely to slit my throat as other types. (While no longer popular, versions of the injector are still being made by smaller companies)
Years later, I still prefer single blade razors, by the way, although they are rarely seen on drugstore shelves outside of disposable versions. And that disposable notion bothers me, enough to want to change a lifetime of shaving habits. So read on…