Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Nearly Killed Double-Edge Shaving in the U.S.?

When the Gillette Trac II -- the first multi-blade, cartridge razor -- was introduced in 1971, it was a success. For example, I know that my father, who used a Gillette Slim Adjustable (made in 1963) up to that time, made the switch to the cartridge razor almost right away.
I received a razor just like this as a gift. The handle was a very heavy,
gold-toned metal. The cartridge head did not pivot on those early versions.

I never even tried a double-edge (DE) safety razor. I started shaving in about 1971, and the Trac II being new and "improved" must be better -- or so I thought. It never occurred to me that the double-edge razor was no longer patent protected, meaning anyone could make razors or blades, which would drive down selling prices and accompanying profits.

There were benefits. The Trac II system would tolerate large pressure against the skin. Also, the cartridge face determined the shaving angle (this was before the pivoting head was introduced), so all the user had to do was make sure the cartridge face was flat against the skin.

There were also drawbacks. The shave wasn't as close as that from a single blade. Hair and lather tended to stick in the cartridge head, reluctant to come out during rinsing. One also risked ingrown hairs if shaving against the grain of the beard. Also, we couldn't foresee the proliferation of ever-more-complex multi-blade designs, with their ever-upward-spiraling prices. Lastly, few of us gave any thought to the environmental impact of disposable shaving systems and related products such as shaving cartridges, then whole razors as well as empty metal cans that had dispensed shaving foam and, later, gel.

Eventually double-edge safety razors and their cousins, single-edge designs, were squeezed off drug-store shelves, with even the replacement blades becoming increasing rare and of lower quality (and higher price!). Commerce in these razors was only revived by Internet sellers, making the entire world a potential store from which one could order.

Why did so many men make the switch from their double-edge razors to the cartridge systems despite the cost, the inferior shave, potential ingrown hairs, and the adverse environmental impact? I don't know for certain, but here are my speculations:

  • Multi-blade-cartridge-shaving systems are quick and easy. No skill required to speak of, while DE shaving does demand skill and patience. With a multi-blade, you can stroke like a mad man and still escape with little to no blood shed. You can also shave in a single pass (that is, lather, shave, rinse, and after shave) and get a reasonable (but not the best) shave. Five minutes or so, and you are done with the morning chore before work. (Not many men approached shaving with anything close to a Zen mind set.)
  • Maybe equally important was the predominant razor design, the twist-to-open (TTO) butterfly-door design. I speculate that this design had become much more prevalent than the original unscrew-to-open (UTO) two- and three-piece razors. This is a likely factor in the success of multi-blade systems because, of the two designs: UTO versus TTO, I believe that UTO razors shave more comfortably. And they were increasingly disappearing from the mainstream North American shaving scene. Most "progressive, modern" men had long earlier "upgraded" from their UTO razors to the "easy-access" TTO type.
  • No one knew or were discussing, as compared to DE shaving, the drawbacks of the Trac II: clogged blades, in-grown hair, inferior closeness of shave.
  • Lastly, of course, was the marketing of the new systems. Men were bombarded with TV ads (as they still are today for the latest battery-operated, ever-more-blades-added, zip-zap gizmos) touting the benefits of the new shaving products. (And by the way, if the multi-blades are so good, why do the companies have to keep introducing "better, improved" models?)

Yet today, DE shaving is making a comeback. The reasons are several as follows:

  • DE shaving can be far less expensive over time as compared to multi-blade systems.
  • DE shaving promises a far better shaving result if done with appropriate skill and patience.
  • DE shaving has a lower environmental impact due to fewer routine disposable items (and more recyclable material).
  • DE shaving products (razors, blades, related supplies) are readily available via Internet sellers.
  • DE shaving information is readily available via Internet blogs and videos.
  • DE shaving offers a regular ritual that can celebrate one's manhood, rather than viewing the shave as an onerous chore.
  • DE shaving can be satisfying and fun.
What do you think?

Happy shaving!


  1. For most men, the Trac II was a revelation: A closer, quicker shave than the single-blade DE with a far lower risk of cuts and irritation. Remember, if it hadn't worked well, it would not have been the overwhelming success it was.

    Gillette's previous invention, the Techmatic band razor, was largely a flop and Gillette would stop selling replacement band cartridges in the 1970s. Most men went back to the DE until the Trac II.

    Ingrown hairs are not a major problem for most men, even with today's 5-plus blade cartridges. Remember, if most men really disliked them as much as wet shave bloggers say, they would not be as successful as they are.

    Proving the point, most of the wet shaving bulletin boards seem to laud the Trac II, Atra and Sensor, believing Gillette's downfall began in 1998 with the Mach III.

  2. I think these days for most men cartridges or electric is all they know, they don't have anything to compare them to as they haven't used a DE razor before. And most men do fine with those options. They don't know there is a potentially better option and when I told a friend about using a DE razor they were concerned about the perceived danger of it. For those of us who have problems with modern day razors, DE ones can be a solution.

    1. Yep, I think you're right on.

      In my recent article (30 March 2015) on James Bond's shaving method, I mentioned the one-off Bond author, Jeffrey Deaver, who wrote of Bond liking the "challenge" of DE shaving -- as though a Bond is going to perceive DE shaving as difficult or dangerous. (Ah ha ha ha ha!)

      Also, because most of us were brought up shaving with disposable, multi-blade cartridge-type razors, DEs are a minor hazard if we do no research, get no instruction. For example, I have a friend who had an optimistic, romantic vision of DE shaving. He got some mail-order advice to buy a vintage slant razor. He did, and with no further information, pulled out his canned foam, lathered up, and cut himself up sufficiently to store the razor forevermore and go back to cartridges. Too bad for him; his mind is now sealed closed against DE razors. :-(

  3. DE shaving is a skill, but it takes only a few shaves to be getting much better and more comfortable shaves vs a cartridge. The price of cartridges encourages you to use blades that are well past their prime and making up for this with increased pressure. You can buy 100 DE blades of high quality for $17 on ebay so there is no reason to not use a sharp blade for every shave. I think most men would find they prefer DE shaving, if they give it a try.