I have gone AWOL in the blade wars.
My desertion happened when I noticed that Gillette had issued Fusion, a razor with five, yes five, blades. This is in response to Schick’s Quattro four-blade razor, which itself was a response to Gillette’s three-blade Mach3 and Mach3Turbo, which uses a battery to make the razor vibrate and followed the Gillette two-blade Sensor, which was in competition with Schick’s…
But enough. I am a Christian conservative Republican who believes in profits and free markets — but I also know what planned obsolescence and scams are. And the shaving wars have been enough to (almost) turn me Marxist. Like poorly made shoes that fall apart after six months, bad pop music that sells zillions of CDs and then fades forever, and American cars that spend most of the time in the shop, modern razors are forever being repackaged as new, improved, dynamic, fresh, indispensable. It’s one of the world’s biggest scams.
The world’s best razors were made over a hundred years ago, and there was no reason to change them. Men once went to the barber for a shave until, in the late 1800s, the safety razor arrived. The safety razor was a thing of beauty, an indestructible chrome weapon that sat snugly in the hand. Replacement blades were pennies for a dozen. Then something very sinister happened. In 1895 barber King Camp Gillette — yes, that was his real name — figured that he could make millions by marketing a disposable razor. The razor wouldn’t shave any better than the safety razor — in fact, it would be considerably worse — but what difference did that make? There were holdouts, however. I remember seeing a safety razor in my grandfather’s house, and my oldest brother used one well into the early 1970s. I remember knowing what the thing was but having no idea how it worked, and even thinking it a little strange. Thus was the feminization of American culture given another small push.
But by the time I began shaving in the early 1980s, the game was over. The art of shaving became the specialty of a few old barbers. This was depicted wonderfully in the movie Barber Shop. A young “hair stylist” is attempting to shave a customer, but handles his head like a boy playing with a Tonka truck. The old barber, played by Cedric the Entertainer, seizes the tools from the youngster and takes over. Shaving is an art, he explains. It’s about quality, excellence, the masculinity of proper grooming. “When I’m done his face will be as smooth as Gary Coleman,” he jokes. The younger barbers gather around, mesmerized by the “old school” method.
It’s time to relearn that method. When I heard that Gillette was escalating, I went online and ordered an arsenal of old-school shaving supplies. I got a “classic” safety razor from Merkur, a German company that’s been in the business for over a century. Then I ordered a genuine badger hair shaving brush and a tub of shaving cream from Truefitt and Hill, generally acknowledged as the world’s first barbershop. Add to that after shave and an alum block, used to staunch nicks, and I was ready.
The reason I was ready for nicks and cuts is that several how-to shaving guides and websites warned that going from a disposable to a safety razor was like stepping up from a scooter to a BMW. Generations of girly-men had not used the proper stuff, and there would be a period of acclimation. It was like those primitive tribes that intentionally cut teenage boys to usher them into manhood.
That first day, I stepped out of the shower careful not to let my face dry. Old-school shaving is also called “wet” shaving, and the best way to do it is to keep your face as wet as possible. I picked up the Merkur. If you’ve spent most of your life using disposables or even the higher-end Sensors and Excels, the switch back to single-blade can be a real adjustment. For one thing, the razor is heavier. With a decent safety razor you don’t push the blade much; you simple let it glide down the face. I tried to remember all I had learned from the websites: always shave with the direction hair grows; shaving against results in razor burn. Don’t force the blade.
Yet like a black labrador puppy’s instinct to swim, it came easily, like a vestigial organ kicking back to life. And yes, the first few times I did cut myself — but not as badly I had feared. Indeed, I had damaged my face much worse in the past using cheap disposables. But soon I got the hang of it. I was shaving. I was shaving like a man. Suddenly the last 40 years faded away — the flower boys of the 1960s, the sensitive men of the 1970s, the androgynous pouters of the 1980s, the soft grungers of the 1990s — and the crude, pseudo-masculine Maxim “lads” of today. This wasn’t about the metrosexual goops and lotions of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, nor was it about the dumb, crude and sloppy man culture celebrated in beer — and razor — ads. It was about being a man, and a gentleman. It was about using the right tool for the job at hand. It was about those things that American manufacturers of everything from cars to clothes need to learn again: quality and excellence.
I believe in free markets and good businesses getting rich. Yet I also believe in quality that lasts, and that Americans are the best in the world at making things if they put their minds to it. I hope that Gillette and Schick and whoever else wants to bring back American safety razors, and that they make millions of dollars and hire thousands of workers because of the popularity of said product. After all, there are certain things in this world that were done perfectly and cannot and should not be improved. Jesus lived a perfect life. The book is the ultimate form of conveying information. No one will sing “My Way” better than Sinatra. Michael Jordan was the best basketball player ever, period.
And the safety razor won’t be improved upon. No matter how many blades they keep adding.
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