That idea bore fruit one morning in 1895, when Gillette was shaving—disposable razor blades! Not until Gillette enlisted the help of MIT graduate William Nickerson six years later did that brainstorm become reality. Patent No. 775,134 was granted in 1904, and Gillette began manufacturing safety razors with carbon-steel blades in South Boston. He boasted, “I am able to produce and sell my blades so cheaply that the user may buy them in quantities and throw them away when dull without making the expense … as great as that of keeping the prior blades sharp.”
If you flip through your family album, you’ll likely see your forefathers’ facial hair appear and vanish like leaves in one of those time-lapse nature documentaries. Flip-flops in facial-hair fashion date to 30,000 BC, when our prehistoric ancestors first tried shaving with flint blades—little wonder many of them gave up and grew beards. Ancient Egyptians revived shaving with a vengeance, using copper razors to de-hair their faces as well as their heads. In ancient Greece, however, beards signified virility.
Then came Alexander the Great, who reputedly fretted that enemies could grasp beards in battle, making it easier to slay his soldiers. He banned beards and set an example by shaving before battle. His clean-shaven visage on coins boosted barbering businesses throughout the ancient world. In Rome, Scipio Africanus, the beardless general who defeated Hannibal, set a fashion for shaving that persisted until Hadrian, who grew a beard to hide his scarred face.
Beards were back in style by the time Europeans discovered the New World—perhaps because shaving meant trusting a barber wielding a blade called a “cut-throat razor.” Clean-shaven Columbus aside, every explorer from Balboa to Drake, Pizarro to Raleigh sported facial hair.
The Puritans pushed the pendulum the other way, and not a single signer of the US Constitution had facial hair. Even Uncle Sam, in his pre-“I Want You” incarnation, was clean-shaven. The first American president with a beard was Abraham Lincoln, who didn’t grow his whiskers until after he was safely elected. By the Grant administration, however, the entire cabinet was bearded.
The straight razor, meanwhile, had improved with the addition of a folding blade (1680) and the adoption of cast steel. Benjamin Huntsman began making razors with this superior steel in Sheffield, England, in 1740. Most men still relied on servants or barbers for a close shave, at least until English inventor William Henson introduced the hoe-shaped razor in 1847. Resembling the garden tool, Henson’s razor had a more comfortable grip and presented a less lethal-looking shaving angle.
“Safety” didn’t meet razors, however, until brothers Frederick and Otto Kampfe patented “new and useful improvements in safety-razors” in 1880. Their Star Razor featured a wire skin guard along one edge of the blade, which had to be regularly removed for sharpening.
The Kampfe Brothers’ success likely inspired the colorfully named King Camp Gillette. Born in Fond du Lac, Wis., in 1855, Gillette became a traveling salesman to support his family after their home was destroyed in the 1871 Chicago Fire. On his rounds, he met William Painter, inventor of the disposable Cork Crown bottle cap, who planted a seed in Gillette’s entrepreneurial brain: Products that had to be purchased over and over again could make a fortune.
Gillette is often credited with inventing the “razors-and-blades” marketing strategy of selling his razors cheap as a “loss leader,” then profiting on the blades once he’d built this “installed base.” But a Harvard Business Review article challenges this conventional wisdom, noting that Gillette actually set a high price for his razor handles and didn’t switch strategy until his patents expired in 1921. What really built the Gillette brand was Uncle Sam (ironically, now bearded): The US government issued 3.5 million Gillette razors and 32 million blades to doughboys in World War I.
The military also contributed to the success of the next great name in shaving, US Army Lt. Col. Jacob Schick. After retiring from the service in 1910, Schick staked mining claims in Alaska and British Columbia, where he found it difficult to shave at 40 below. His idea for a “dry shaver” was put on hold, however, while Schick pursued more conventional razor improvements.
In 1921, Schick invented the Magazine Repeating Razor, inspired by the Army repeating rifle. With its replacement blades stored in the handle, this razor was the forerunner of the Schick Injector Razor.
Schick finally succeeded with his electric razor in 1927. He was so convinced that the newfangled razor would doom wet shaving that he sold his interest in the safety-razor business and poured everything into a new electric-razor company. (Schick was wrong, and today electric razors hold only about a third of the market. It wouldn’t be his only wrong prediction: Schick also believed that rigorous shaving could prolong a man’s lifespan to 120 years.)
Wilkinson Sword, whose roots date to 1772 when Henry Nock began making bayonets in London, had introduced its own Pall Mall safety razor in 1898. Partnering with a German company, Oberghaus KG, Wilkinson debuted the stainless-steel double-edge blade in 1956. A shaving arms race was on. Wilkinson Sword followed up with Teflon coating in 1961 and bonded blades, encased in a plastic housing, in 1970. Competitors began adding blades, until today the state of the art is five—for now.
Disposable razors—for which not just the blade but the entire apparatus was thrown away after use—were introduced in the 1970s.
Despite the march of innovations making it ever easier to shave, facial hair enjoyed a brief comeback in the rebellious 1960s. Today, actors and models favor the stubbly look of several days’ beard growth. No US president since William Howard Taft has sported so much as a moustache, however, and the last nominee with facial hair was Thomas E. Dewey—whose thin moustache contributed to the characterization of him as “looking like the little man on the wedding cake.”
Maybe if he’d shaved, that famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline would’ve proven true.
From the December 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine