A Brief History of Shaving

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Most of us pick up a razor at least every couple of days, and although shaving's a little tedious, it's not too much of a hassle. It hasn't always been quite so easy, though. Let's take a look at the history of shaving.

It Could Get a Little Rough Pre-Gillette

In the days before razors, you could either sport a hirsute look or get creative. Records drawn on cave walls show prehistoric people shaving with clamshells, flint knives, and even shark teeth. It's not clear when these crude implements gave way to what we now think of as razors. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, circular solid gold or copper razors can be found as far back as the 4th millennium BC in some Egyptian tombs. Still other cultures sharpened volcanic obsidian glass and used those.

Another story posits that the Roman king Lucius Tarquinius Priscus introduced the razor to his people in the 6th century BC, but shaving didn't really catch on with Romans for another hundred years or so.

In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great encouraged his men to shave so enemies couldn't grab their beards during melees. Alexander's subjects were often shaved using a novacila, a block of iron with one edge sharpened, which sounds like a great way to shred your face.

Julius Caesar supposedly preferred to have his beard plucked out with tweezers, although other Roman men used razors or rubbed the beards from their faces using pumice stones. (Ouch!)

It Didn't Get Safe Until 1828

king-gilletteDesigns for safety razors date back to at least 1762, but they didn't really catch on until 1828, when they debuted in Sheffield, England. In 1847 William Henson invented the hoe-shaped razor that most of us have in our medicine cabinets, and in 1895 a traveling salesman named King Camp Gillette (pictured) combined this shape with the idea of shaving with a disposable double-edged blade. The resulting safety razor eventually made Gillette a fortune and solved the hassle of having to remove the razor's blade to sharpen it every few shaves.

The idea was great, but there was a problem: the blades weren't easy to make. It took another six years for Gillette to find someone who could actually make the disposable blades. MIT professor William Nickerson joined up with Gillette to figure out a way to stamp the blades out of sheets of high-carbon steel, and by 1903 they had their first batch of razors ready to take on America's beards. By 1906 Gillette's design was moving 300,000 units a year. Interestingly, Gillette sold the razors at a loss, but he more than made up for it by selling the blades at a huge profit.

Although Gillette's invention came from his notion that he should invent something people bought, threw away, and then repurchased, he wasn't your typical capitalist. He became a strong proponent of utopian socialism later in his life and planned a community in Arizona in which engineers would rationally orchestrate all activity. Gillette even offered Teddy Roosevelt $1 million to serve as president of this planned utopia in 1910, but Roosevelt declined.

Things Got Electric in the Twenties

People have been patenting and trying to market electric razors since 1900, but at first they met with little success. (One failed model from 1910 ran on clockwork.) In 1928 a retired Army colonel named Jacob Schick patented an electric razor he had designed, and the world finally had a winner. Schick razors took store shelves by storm in 1931, and they quickly sold millions of units.

The real winners in this transition from wet shaving with soap and a brush to electric razors were badgers. Their hair had been highly prized for wet shaving brushes because it retained water so well, so more than a few badgers were spared a shearing as America started plugging in their electric Schicks.

Like King Camp Gillette, Jacob Schick was a bit of an odd duck. Part of the reason he went into the shaving business was that he really, really believed in the benefits of shaving. In fact, Schick supposedly thought that if a man shaved often enough, he could lengthen his life to 120 years.

The Real Arms Race Started in the 1960s

After years of losing market share to their electric competition, Gillette finally hit upon a winning innovation in 1960 when it introduced stainless steel blades. These newer blades were tougher to hone, but they lasted much longer and didn't rust. Consumers loved them. Bic introduced the first totally disposable razors in the sixties as well, which made shaving even more convenient.

Gillette struck another blow in 1971 when it introduced the two-blade razor. Other companies followed suit, and now it's just a matter of time before we're all shaving with a 17-bladed behemoth. [Image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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August 11, 2009 - 9:30am
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