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The Razor Blade: History's Cutting Edge : Culture: Scientists know that ancient man shaved. But the razor was an undocumented implement until 1290.

July 26, 1992|THOMAS V. DiBACCO | THE WASHINGTON POST

Razors and razor blades have many uses, from personal hygiene to cutting a sewing stitch to opening a cardboard box sealed with heavy-duty tape. But the razor took a long time to evolve to its present multifaceted use.

That ancient man shaved is certain (conceivably with sharp-edged seashells or rocks); barbers were mentioned in antiquity, as was the shaving of heads. But not until the Middle Ages was a specific implement identified as a razor. The Oxford English Dictionary notes the year 1290 for the first use of the term.

A razor industry was thriving by the 18th Century, associated with cutlery products in Sheffield, England. The razor contained a blade, which curved slightly backward and was thicker on the back than on the cutting edge. It was attached to a swivel mechanism to house it in a handle case when not in use. Ralph Waldo Emerson ventured to Sheffield in 1856 and, he said, "was shown the process of making a razor."

Although numerous inventors tried to devise ways to keep the razor's sharp edge from cutting the skin, it was King Camp Gillette, a Wisconsin-born salesman, who persevered in the quest for a safety appliance. But it was a long way from Gillette's first efforts in 1895 to actual marketing of his gizmo in 1903.

The problem was not the razor and its protective housing, which allowed only a small part of the double-edged blade to be exposed, thereby reducing the likelihood of cutting the skin.

Rather, the challenge was to fashion a steel blade that was very thin, strong, inexpensive--and safe. Still, the first year of marketing was a bummer for Gillette, who sold only 51 razors, at $5 each, and 168 blades.

Three years later, however, word about Gillette's bloodless means of shaving had spread, and about 300,000 razors and twice as many blades had been sold. For two decades Gillette, living up to his name, was king of the razor industry.

Then came the ingenuity of the Roaring '20s and, in particular, that of an American army officer, Lt. Col. Jacob Schick. Exasperated over having to heat water for shaving during a stint in frigid weather in British Columbia, Schick in 1928 came up with an electric razor with a protective mesh cover over the blades that ensured both safety and speed.

First marketed in 1931 at $25, Schick's shaver sold well even in Depression times, especially as the price fell to $15.

But the big money was still in the standard model developed by Gillette, leading numerous other inventors to search for a new wrinkle. One notable enterpriser was William Gibbs McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury from 1913 to 1918 under his father-in-law, President Woodrow Wilson.

First registered in 1934 under Patent No. 1,953,248, McAdoo's razor appeared to have an edge on Gillette's because it allowed the user to insert a blade without taking the razor apart.

The only problem was that Gillette's company also had perfected that method of inserting the blade and threatened to sue McAdoo for patent infringement. On advice from his attorney, McAdoo gave up his razor dream in 1937, and the rest, as they say, is history--for Gillette's company.

So dependent were Americans on the safety razor by the 1930s that home medicine cabinets typically were manufactured with slots for tossing used razor blades, which fell into the deep recesses of the unfinished area between wall studs.

But in 1975, the French company Bic, which had pioneered developing a disposable pen and lighter, came up with what appeared to be a better idea: an inexpensive throwaway razor.

With a single-edged blade and a light plastic handle (total weight was less than half an ounce), Bic became the disposable generation's answer to a quick shave.

But not for long.

Gillette's Good News disposable battled Bic's model, and numerous companies joined the race for disposable razor profits.

Yet despite all the competition among disposable, cartridge-blade and electric razor manufacturers, some Americans still rely on history rather than modern technology.

They use open-blade Sheffield-style razors--and claim, of course, that it results in a better shave.

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