Friday, May 9, 2014

A New Old Idea: Cold-Water Shaving; and a 1905 Shaving Book

So I was surfing the 'net, reading various shaving forums, and I stumbled across several references to a public-domain book called Shaving Made Easy: What the Man Who Shaves Ought to Know. Published by the 20th Century Correspondence School in New York, it was copyrighted in 1905.

In one particular forum, there was much discussion of this book in a couple of threads, and I read the entire book with both interest and amusement. According to all-knowing Wikipedia, the term, safety razor, was first used in an 1880 patent, and King Gillette introduced his game-changing DE safety razor in 1901, so this book was written when the straight razor still generally ruled in the shaving world -- especially among traditionalists.

Now I don't shave with a straight razor, and know only a little about that particular activity. However, the author of this little book, apparently an anonymous "expert" in the employ of the 20th Century Correspondence School in New York, clearly comes down in the traditionalist camp, suggesting safety razors are a passing fad with the statement, "probably a hundred thousand safety razors have been sold in the United States within the past few years and it is extremely doubtful if ten per cent. (sic) of them are still in use." Earlier in the same chapter, the author throws a bone to the new-fangled safety razor saying, "... if a man uses one he is less likely to cut himself [as compared to a straight razor]..." but then goes on to say:

"On the other hand, most of the safety razors are difficult to keep clean and dry, and therefore free from rust; and owing to the difficulty of stropping them, it is almost, if not quite impossible to keep them sharp. It is also difficult to make the correct stroke with them." (Obviously the author wasn't familiar with Gillette's concept.)

Okay, so with more than a hundred years of hindsight, this guy doesn't look too prophetic since even today in 2014, more men (world wide) shave with safety razors than any other method -- and most of those use a DE.

He also got some other details wrong. There was some contemporary discussion in the forum of the author's recommendation of a 4/8 straight blade for beginners, and several questioned this. (I have no opinion, myself.) I did, however, personally identify misinformation in his statements about soap that was apparently lost on others. His argument is that shaving soap isn't to soften the beard but rather to stiffen it to make it easier to be cleaved by the blade. I don't know if this is true, but when he says that soap stiffens the hairs by having residual alkalai (potash or soda -- ancient names for potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide) react with the natural oils in the hair to saponify them (that is, turn them to soap), well, that is just wrong -- today, anyway. A properly made soap will not have any residual alkalai, which could cause discomfort, if not outright chemical burns, on the skin!

So I do know that in addition to being a poor prophet, the author is no genius chemist either. (Although to be fair, in 1905, it is possible that some soaps may have had some residual alkalai. Yikes!)

So, yes, his recommendations are not gospel. But that doesn't mean he is all wrong. (Actually, his instruction on the use of a straight razor piqued my interest (but, no, I'm not going there; I'm not! I've just about got my RAD* under control, promising myself that the slant-bar DE that I just ordered is my last razor.  [UPDATE: Well, what I thought was my last razor. :-D ])  He did say something that added fuel to quite a lengthy commotion on the forum. He recommended a shave prep of washing the face, rinsing, and towel drying. Then lathering the face and massaging the lather into the beard with one's fingers. Then without rinsing, lather again with the brush, and shave. What he never mentions is to use hot or even warm water. In fact, on page 51 he says, "it becomes even more difficult [to shave] if the beard is made still softer by the application of hot water." (I can hear you gasp at the herecy!) NO HOT WATER!?!? OMG!!!! The very foundations of our civilization are being weakened!!

A few other ancient writers (19th century) were quoted on the benefits of a cold-water shave. So a bunch of guys on the forum then started posting about considering and actually doing cold-water shaves, with mostly straights and some DEs.

I tried it too.

Actually, I don't think it's a bad idea. Going forward, I'll probably be using cold water for my shaves. I found the experience less drying on my pathetically dry and sensitive skin, and all other aspects of the shave were no worse. (I actually like cool water on my face in the morning.) So I'll save a little household energy each day by using water at whatever is the tap temperature, and will save a little more on needing fewer balms and moisturizers after the shave.

[UPDATE 24Sept2014: I have done cool-water shaves since the publication of this article. It is now a part of my normal shaving ritual, which I happily perform.]

Maybe you will try it too. If you do, comment back to let me know your experience. And in any case...

Happy shaving!
*RAD = Razor-Acquisition Disease

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