TCS Daily

Razor Wars and the Cutting Edge of Technology

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - October 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Of a thousand shavers, two do not shave so much alike as not to be distinguished.

-- Samuel Johnson


Spider webs soaked in oil and vinegar.


That's what ancient Roman men used to slap on their faces to staunch the bleeding cuts left by barbers who had shaved them with the iron razors of the day. No less an authority than Pliny the Elder has left us the formula for this interesting aftershave.


Things have improved to say the least. Indeed, modern shaving has reached the point where an aftershave is more a pick-me-up than a palliative.


If there is one area in which technology has delivered a palpable personal payoff for mankind it is in the attainment of a good, comfortable -- and safe -- shave.


(Readers who use Col. Jacob Schick's invention, the electric shaver, which gives the face nothing more than a sort of close buzz-cut, may want to move on. Here we are discussing the real thing a hot, wet, face-reviving shave.)


Advances in shaving since the 1970s, when the first twin-blade razor was introduced, have been profound to say the least. Think about it. You have to really work to cut yourself with a modern shaving blade "system." They put to shame even the relative safety of the "safety razor" of 50 years ago, which still employed single razor blades.


For more than three decades, two and then three-blade razor cartridges reigned supreme in the shaving world. Then, in 2003, Schick introduced the four-blade Quattro razor, a huge success that increased the company's share of the replacement blade cartridge market from 10 percent to 16 percent.


Schick's gain came at the expense of the Gillette Co., the unchallenged Goliath of the shaving business, whose market share for replacements dropped from 86 to 81 percent during the same period.


These figures have to be taken with a grain of salt because they do not include sales from Wal-Mart or from discount "club stores." But the Quattro apparently sobered Gillette enough to at least speed up its next entry in the shaving wars -- a five-blade razor cartridge.


The new razor, called Fusion, will be introduced in 2006 with a big price jump. The individual razor cartridges will cost a whopping $3 each. But history shows that men around the world will gratefully spend tens of billions of dollars to chase new shaving technology, even if it gains them the merest marginal improvement in shaving comfort.


And Gillette's multi-billion dollar bet that the worldwide pursuit of a better shave will continue, and damn the cost, is being made on what the company sees as good odds. Here's why:


Gillette's Mach3 blade system, introduced back in 1998 at a steep price premium, weaned millions of men away from cheaper models, including Gillette's, to become the best-selling razor of all time. The company estimates that 100 million men (yours truly included) now pay that price premium to shave daily with the Mach3.


Despite Mach3's hold on the shaving market, Gillette expects the more expensive Fusion to be generating at least a billion dollars in annual sales by 2008. To understand why all this makes sense you have to go beyond mere market economics and get into the whole thing about shaving.


It is one of mans most important little luxuries.


Gillette realized this at its founding more than 100 years ago, ambitiously capitalized on it, and has maintained its overwhelming leadership in the shaving market by never losing sight of the point.


In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports, before giant Procter & Gamble Co. completed its agreement to buy Gillette early this year, A.G. Lafley, P&G's CEO, insisted on trying out a prototype of the then-secret five-blade razor. He knew it was a key to Gillettes continuing profitability. He liked it.


"A State Duty"


Throughout history, in those periods when a clean cheek and chin were in vogue, men have pursued the technology to produce a good shave with an ardor unmatched in any other area of personal hygiene. It is painful to even think about prehistoric man scraping his face with what was really the first disposable razor -- a crudely-sharpened piece of flint.


The Egyptians, both men and women, made a fetish of shaving not only their faces but also their heads and any other body hair. Razors of gold and copper have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.


The mysterious Etruscans have left us fine razors of bronze. Somehow, their inheritors, the Romans, retreated to iron, which rusted away, leaving few archaeological examples.


The ancient Greeks wore beards until they were conquered by Alexander the Great (356 to 323 B.C.), who was a fanatic about being clean shaven and established the smooth-cheeked ideal.


The Romans, likewise, affected beards until around the late 2nd century B.C., when the Greek ideal began to catch on. Scipio Aemilianus, the adopted grandson of the great Scipio Africanus, looked forward to his daily shave (at the hands of a tonsor) and seems to have done much to establish the vogue.


But it was Julius Caesar (100 to 44 B.C.) who really set the standard. He insisted on being clean-shaven at all times, even late in the day. Jerome Carcopino, in his wonderful book, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, writes that Caesar made shaving such a fixture that "by the end of the first century B.C. nothing but the gravest or most painful crisis would have induced the great men of the day to omit a formality which had become for them a state duty."


And, Carcopino notes, ordinary Romans "would have thought themselves unworthy of their imperial masters if they had not followed suit." Those who could not afford a specially-trained in-house slave to shave them, repaired to the public square, where barbers set up shop, some becoming so famous that they were extolled by Roman poets.


Shaving became almost a religious rite -- a passage into manhood for Roman boys, who would have the hairs from their first shave deposited in an ornate receptacle with the date of the great event duly recorded.


The Advent of Safety


Suffice it to say that for many centuries after the height of the Roman Empire, shaving continued largely to be something one had done to oneself -- by a barber, relative or trusted friend, because straight-bladed razors were dangerous and difficult to maneuver.


Beginning in the 18th century the English straight razor, its blade formed of hollow-ground Sheffield steel, became the tonsorial standard of the world, wielded usually by a barber (since ancient times, the Sicilians were reputed to be the best).


The fineness of the Sheffield steel and the industrial technique of hollow grinding -- in which the long flat surface of the blade is given a concave taper out to the shaving edge -- allowed for lighter, more flexible, more easily sharpened razors.


In 1770, a French cutler named Jean-Jacques Perret introduced the idea of "a safety razor" and suggested that men should and could shave themselves. He eventually introduced a primitive L-shaped "Perret razor."


In 1847, an Englishman, William Henson, inspired by garden tools, invented the "hoe type" razor -- the first to have a short blade set perpendicular to the handle. This was the single most important advance toward personal shaving with some predictable degree of comfort and safety.


By the 1880s there were various types of so-called safety razors incorporating the Henson design but using what was then the state of the art for blades short wedges of forged steel, which dulled easily and were difficult to re-sharpen. These types of razors were popular with "drummers," traveling salesmen, who didnt have time to loll in barber shops and often had to shave themselves at tiny sinks in swaying Pullman cars.


The rest of mankind still used the classic straight razor. It was the object of some reverence, often willed to an eldest son upon a fathers death. That it was expected to last a lifetime and more helped remove the sting of its initial purchase. In America a good straight razor cost about $2.50 in the late 1800s -- a substantial days pay.


And each morning it had to be stropped on a leather strap to smooth its cutting edge or honed on a special stone, part of the time-consuming preparation for a shave. Periodically it had to be taken to a barber or a cutler to have its edge reground.


King Camp Gillette


But by the end of the 19th century one of those happy technological confluences of the industrial age was occurring -- advances in metallurgy, mass production and manufacturing techniques, especially the rolling, sharpening and honing of metal.


The man who would capitalize on these advances, set the safety razor on its journey to perfection, and literally convert the world to the concept of do-it-yourself shaving, was a man who was in many ways as odd as his name: King Camp Gillette.


The son of a hardware wholesaler, inveterate tinkerer and sometime patent agent, Gillette became a traveling salesman at the age of 17. He eventually worked for a man named William Painter, who had invented a little cork-lined metal cap that could be crimped down on the top of a bottle, one of the most fabulously successful disposable items of all time (Painters company became Crown Cork & Seal).


Painter urged Gillette to "find his bottle cap," so to speak, and earn his fortune. Gillette spent hours as he rode the rails, thinking about the little invention that would make him rich. Eventually, he focused on his own everyday ritual. Day and night he thought about razors and how to improve them.


Soon he began thinking about the single most important part of the razor -- the cutting edge. Men kept razors all their lives, but the most important part of it, that edge, kept wearing out.


What if you could make just that cutting edge, sharpened, honed and ready to use? And sell it so cheaply that the user could just throw it away when it wore out and buy another one?


Having posed himself these intriguing questions, Gillette studied existing razors, particularly the one he used -- a patented hoe-type safety razor called the Star. It was expensive and beautifully made, but its wedge shaped blade of forged steel was essentially a short section of a straight razor. Did you need that much steel just to carry the sharp edge?


Since he lived in Boston at the time, he went over to M.I.T. and talked to metallurgists there. No, they said, you could not put a durable cutting edge on thin, flat, sheet steel. Undeterred, Gillette, weary from the road, still spent nights in his basement working on various designs of a shaver that would hold the thin blade he dreamed of.


Eventually, with the help of financial backers who liked his idea, Gillette met William Emery Nickerson, a leading New England engineer and metallurgist. It was Nickerson who figured out a way to harden a thin ribbon of sheet steel in such a way that it would hold a sharp cutting edge. He also designed the machinery to mass produce Gillettes newly patented razor with its unique receiver to hold securely the specially designed blades.


A grateful Gillette wanted to incorporate both his and Nickersons names into the company that was established. Nickerson felt his name sounded too much like what the new product was designed to avoid.


A Global Celebrity


The Gillette Safety Razor Company sold America and then the world on a new way of shaving. Gillette originally offered the razor as a luxury item at a steep price of $5 for the handle and $1 for a packet of 20 blades. Sales were focused on jewelry stores, cutlery shops and big department stores, as well as by mail.


Gillette advertised heavily, making a personal plea for men to try the device. "If my razor wasnt good enough for me to use I wouldn't ask you to try it!" He soon proved that there was a pent up demand for a safer, easier shave, without the morning ritual of honing and stropping a blade to coax it back to some semblance of sharpness. Expensive or not, laborers and bankers alike rushed to try Gillette's razor.


In 1904, Gillette sold just over 90,000 razors and 123,000 blades. The next year, sales of razors passed a quarter million and blades well over a million. Sales rose steadily and in 1917, as the United States entered World War I, Gillette, in a brilliant stroke, sold the U.S. Government on buying and issuing a Gillette razor kit to every soldier, sailor and marine.


When Johnny came marching home again virtually an entire American generation had been introduced to the Gillette razor. During the 1920s, Gillette razors seemed to permeate commercial life, showing up as premiums in tins of coffee and tea or given away with purchases of shaving soaps, even chewing gum.


The photograph of Gillette, with his Gay 90s moustache and wing collar, appearing on every package of blades (billions of them!), made him one of the first worldwide celebrities. And by the 1930s, the blade was the thing. Gillette was selling the razor basically at cost and making its profit on the blades.


From "Daily Plague" to Daily Ritual


Since then, the company has been relentless in improving its blades to dominate an extremely competitive market. Studies have shown that men are eager to try alleged improvements in shaving, but they demand results. Word of mouth about some new shaving innovation is very powerful.


Gillette has long been famous for urging all its executives shave at work rather than at home (extensive facilities are provided) so that they can compare competitors products and evaluate Gillettes own new developments. It constantly seeks new patents on shaving systems and new techniques of production.


It has withstood the threat of the disposable razor and indeed sells hundreds of millions of its own versions. Now it is staking its reputation on a new generation multi-blade razor. The proliferation of blades in shaving systems has been long been fodder for satire on television and in print, but they are in fact amazing feats of technology, incorporating advances in metallurgy, precision molding, micro-design.


The articulated razors, beginning with Gillettes Sensor (13 moving parts, 22 new patents), took the personal skill of shaving (wrist action, blade angle etc.) and incorporated it as much as possible into the technology of the shaver itself. In a remarkable way, the Sensor and its successors, including some of Gillettes imitators, are able to "read" facial contours and the character of the skin itself as our hands guide them across cheek and chin.


But there is still plenty of room for each individual shaver to tackle those hairs -- each as strong as a copper wire of the same thickness -- every morning in his own unique way. It is said that the average man spends about 3000 hours of his life attending to what Lord Byron once described as "a daily plague, which, in the aggregate may average on the whole with parturition."


For most men, thanks to modern shaving technology, this daily ritual is far removed from the painful experience Byron described. Every man has his own approach. I like to shave against the grain; others go with it. Some men put on shaving cream without wetting their beard with hot water. Not me. The hotter and wetter the better.


We each write our own rulebook on this morning ritual. I will impart one more secret from my 50 years of shaving. To get more shaves out of a blade cartridge, always rinse it in hot water and then blow on it until every drop of moisture has disappeared. It is mineral deposits from drying water that dulls the blades almost as much as shaving.


Lather up!


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