An inventor who helped men save face


King C. Gillette created a razor with less edge

May 01, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

While getting a haircut the other day, I asked my barber, John Micelle, who has been in the business for nearly 40 years, if he still gives shaves.

He replied that not many customers ask for them anymore and that he couldn't remember the last time he had been requested to do one.

He did report, however, that a friend recently visiting New York City walked into a barber shop in Pennsylvania Station and asked for a shave.

"He was charged $65," Micelle said.

A barber shop shave is a labor-intensive process, that when done right, can take more than an hour. It involves applying steamed towels enlivened by Boncilla Cream, which is applied to the face.

More steamed towels are wrapped about the head, and then finally lanolin-enriched shaving lather. The shave is then completed with a finely sharpened straight razor. It is a device, Micelle cautions, that should not be in the hands of novices.

I can attest to that.

One day, I thought it would be fun to use my father's Traveler's Gem straight razor and give myself a classic shave.

Mind you, I had never done this before but had observed him many times moving the razor rhythmically up and down in sweeping, broad strokes. Great clouds of white lather gathered under the curve of the blade, which he dispatched with a quick flick of the wrist. It certainly looked easy enough.

His razor, a beautiful instrument made of the finest English Sheffield steel, dated to the 1920s.

I removed it from its narrow, green velvet-lined box and went to work. I stropped it on a thick leather thong to heighten its edge. I then wet my face with warm water and applied shaving cream.

As I drew the razor, I could sense a little irritation here and there. By the time I finished, my face had been reduced to a bloody pulp. It looked as though it had been stabbed with an ice pick. As I stared in the mirror, I wondered how long it would take for me to recover from my self-inflicted wounds.

That was 38 years ago, and while I occasionally wistfully look at the ancient instrument, I leave well enough alone.

For years, until the invention of the safety razor, the weekly Saturday shave was a male ritual enacted in steamy barber shops whose air was replete with the smell of exotic West Indian Bay Rum, talcum powder and fragrant tobacco smoke.

In this male-dominated bastion, opinions on anything and everything were freely aired while customers, waiting their turns in the white porcelain-based barber's chair, fingered double-maduro Havana cigars and the latest editions of the Police Gazette or Railroad Men's Magazine.

The shave, accomplished with a straight razor wielded by a tonsorial expert, was considered an essential component of male grooming, and when done correctly, left the face as smooth as a piece of highly polished glass.

Its successor, the safety razor, which would revolutionize shaving, was the brainchild of King Camp Gillette, an inventor, manufacturer and social reformer who was born in Fond du Lac, Wis., in 1855.

And here is where the story takes a Baltimore turn.

In 1891, Gillette, an accomplished traveling salesman, joined the Baltimore Seal Co. as its representative in New York and New England. The company's president, William Painter, took a liking to the ambitious Gillette, who when visiting Baltimore, often stayed at Painter's Pikesville home.

Painter was also an inventor, of various valves and stoppers for pumping equipment and beverage makers. So successful was Painter with his line of stoppers and valves that the company's name was changed to Crown Cork & Seal Co.

In his 1978 book, King Gillette: The Man and His Wonderful Shaving Device, author Russell B. Adams Jr. wrote that Painter turned to Gillette one day and uttered thoughts that would have a profound and lasting effect on his life.

"King, you are always thinking and inventing something. Why don't you try to think of something like the Crown Cork which, when once used, is thrown away and the customer keeps coming back for more - and with every additional customer you get, you are building a foundation of profit."

It was while performing his daily shave one morning that inspiration hit Gillette.

"On one particular morning when I started to shave," wrote Gillette, "I found my razor dull, and it was not only dull but it was beyond the point of successful stropping ... As I stood there with the razor in my hand, my eyes resting on it as lightly as a bird settling on its nest - the Gillette razor was born."

Gillette's idea was to use a thin sharpened blade of steel, held together by two plates, that was screwed to a handle. When the blade became dull, it was thrown away and replaced with a new one.

In 1901, Gillette established the American Safety Razor Co., which soon became the Gillette Safety Razor Co. Gillette was the company's president. Sales for 1903 totaled 51 razors and 168 blades. A year later, as popularity for the new product soared, the company sold 90,000 razors and 12,400,000 blades.

Gillette's double-edged Blue Blades were wrapped in a light-green package. Its wrapper carried the inventor's picture and signature, and became as easily recognizable a product as Coca-Cola or a Ford automobile.

"While other inventors have been more spectacular - Marconi of the wireless, and Edison are two readily in mind - no one deserves more honor as a public benefactor than King C. Gillette," said an editorial in The Evening Sun at Gillette's death in 1932. "It was Mr. Gillette who, by his development and manufacture of the first safety razor, succored a suffering mankind from many of the exasperation's of a daily ordeal - shaving."

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