The history of the razor is not a short one. For as long as humans have been growing hair, they have been looking for ways to shave it off, which is the same as saying humans have always tried to figure out a way of shaving their hair.
The Ancient Greeks shaved to avoid looking like barbarians. Alexander the Great believed that bearded faces presented a tactical disadvantage in combat, as opponents could grab ahold of the hair. Whatever the reason why, the advent of the original razor can be dated back to prehistoric times, but it wasn’t until much later, in the 18th century in Sheffield, England, that the razor’s history as we know it today really began.
Early Razor History
In the 1700s and 1800s Sheffield was known as the cutlery capital of the world, and while generally we avoid mixing silverware and shaving implements, it was also where the modern straight razor was invented. Still, these razors, while unquestionably better than their predecessors, were still somewhat unwieldy, expensive, and difficult to use and maintain. For the most part, at this time, razors were still mostly the tool of professional barbers. Then, in the late 19th century, the introduction of a new type of razor changed everything.
Safety Razor History
The first safety razors were introduced in the United States in 1880. These early safety razors were one-sided and resembled a tiny hoe, and they had a steel guard along one edge to help protect from cuts. Then, in 1895, King C. Gillette introduced his own version of the safety razor, with the main difference being the introduction of a disposable, double-edged razor blade. Gilette’s blades were cheap, so cheap in fact that it was often more expensive to try to maintain the blades of the old safety razors than it was to buy new Gilette blades.
At the time, Gillette couldn’t have known that his name would go on to essentially be synonymous with shaving. In fact, it took him almost six years to even figure out how to make blades cheap enough to bring his idea to life, and even then, he only sold 51 razors in the first year. However, it didn’t take long before King lived up to his name, selling hundreds of thousands of razors and blades in a single year. Interestingly, even though his safety razor handles were considered expensive, he sold them at a loss; it was the blades that made him his fortune.
Americans loved the disposable blades, so much so that medicine cabinets in bathrooms often came equipped with a slot to throw away the razor blades. The blades would fall through the slot and in between the wall studs, which seems to me like a disaster waiting to happen, but it was convenient.
Disposable (Cartridge) Razor History
Gillette faced fairly minimal competition in the wet shave department for nearly a century, and any competition that did arise was squashed immediately. His main competition came from Schick, another household shaving name. Jacob Schick, an army officer who hated having to heat water for a wet shave, developed the electric razor in 1928. It was safe and it was fast, and while it likely ate into Gillette’s bottom line at least a little bit, the king was still, well, King. Traditional wet shaving was just the more popular option, probably owing to the closer, cleaner look it provided.
The world looked for new innovations that could dethrone Gillette at the top of the shaving world, but the next big break came from Gillette once again, introducing stainless steel blades in 1960. There were drawbacks, but the fact that these blades didn’t rust on first use more than made up for any short comings, and Gillette only became more popular because of it.
The introduction of stainless-steel blades would also prove to be a problem, at least briefly, for Gillette, as they likely led to the development of completely disposable razors. There is some contention to exactly who created the first disposable razors, but at the very least, Bic, a French company famous at the time (and still to this day) for its disposable pens and lighters, seems to have been key to their popularity.
These plastic razors were lighter than Gilette’s safety razor, and more importantly, the initial investment was less substantial. So, while in the long run, safety razors offer a cheaper shave (check out our article “Is a Safety Razor Cheaper to Use” for more details on that), the price of a Bic disposable razor looked a lot more attractive up front. Still, Gillette quickly entered the disposable razor game and introduced their own cartridge models with two blades. Since then, the number of blades on cartridge razors has only increased, but the question is, did these “innovations” really improve the shaving experience? Check out our Safety Razor vs Cartridge RazorArticle
Are Safety Razors History?
Let’s finish this story quickly about why companies chose disposable razors over safety razors. Remember way back in 1901 when Gillette was selling his safety razor handles at a loss? He made his money back and then some with the sale of blades, but what if he could drastically reduce the manufacturing cost of the handles but increase the cost of blades for consumers? Disposable razors are really cheap to make, and manufacturers keep adding on more blades to increase the price for consumers, despite the fact that more blades do not equal a better shave, nor should they equal a significant price hike, but that’s what companies like Gillette have done.
The truth is that the people who benefited the most from safety razors going out of style were the companies who made the razors, not the people who used them. Try one out for yourself and see what we mean; you won’t be disappointed.