The safety razor has been around a minute, but it hasn’t always looked exactly like it does now. And even the modern safety razor has benefited from some new technology.
So, let’s take a look at the evolution of safety razor design.
The first safety razor designs
Although there were hair removal options as far back as the caveman, the scraping-your-face-with-a-sharpened-blade was often left to the experts (barbers) for hundreds of years. In the mid 1700s, Frenchman Jean-Jacques Perret was the first to put a guard on a razor blade and spark an interest in self-barbering with a safe(r) razor. His design used a wooden guard placed around three sides of the blade, effectively creating a single edge blade.
Ironically, his design was considered “safe” in the 1760s, but looks suspiciously like the straight razor that we dub “cut-throat” today.
It took nearly 100 years before there was another revolution in safety razor designs. In 1847, William Henson introduced the T-shape to safety razor design. However, his template looked more like a hoe – still with a single shaving blade attached to a handle.
Just a few decades later, the Kampfe brothers patented the design that looks quite a bit like today’s safety razors and coined the term “safety razor”. Their improvements included placing the blade in a frame which affixed to the handle. This allowed a “guard” between the skin and the blade, directed the angle of the blade, and made the whole contraption safer to handle.
All of these innovations still created a single shaving edge and required some type of sharpening. So, while they made shaving safer and created a surge for at-home grooming, there was improvement to be made.
The explosion of safety razor design
In the early 1900s, an innovation by King Camp Gillette really put the safety razor on the map.
Building on the design of the Kampfe brothers, Gillette created a razor with two cutting edges (double-edge shaving!) and perhaps more importantly, he used growing technology to create extremely thin razor blades that could be disposed of and replaced inexpensively.
Shavers got a fresh blade (which was hygienically safer), two cutting edges (which was environmentally safer), and a guard and less blade handling (which was physically safer). Another boost to Gillette’s design was a contract with the US Government. During WWI, Gillette’s razors were general-issued to all troops. Of course, soldiers took that razor home at the end of the war and continued to buy Gillette’s disposable blades.
The modern push for “more” in safety razor design
The demand for at-home grooming continued to grow as did the razor design industry. The Gillette company itself continued to introduce more and more options. They honed the design to make the blade more accurate and improve the grip.
The Schick company patented an electric razor in 1930 that allowed shavers to remove hair with rotating blades powered by electricity (and without water).
In the 1950s, Gillette introduced the first adjustable razor that allowed the user to twist the handle and change the blade angle mechanically.
Gillette made a brief foray into a “continuous blade” razor that worked on a spool and retracted into the handle. This meant you never had to touch the blade.
But the modern demand for more coupled with a planned obsolescence model of American consumerism, pushed razor design into a quick, easy, disposable realm. Gillette, Schick, and other razor companies began to develop fully disposable, plastic razors. The predetermined blade angle made shaving quick and when it dulled, you threw the whole thing away. Or you kept the handle and purchased cartridges that held the blade. . . then then more blades. . . and then more blades.
With the blade affixed in a permanent angle, we were back to single edge shaving, but razor manufacturers just added more blades. And then they added pivoting heads to allow the razor to follow the contour of your face. Then lubricating strips because those multiple blades scraping over the skin caused irritation. Then a “skin guard” to prevent the blades from cutting the hair below the skin leading to in-grown hairs. And then a heated razor option. . .
The resurgence of safety razor popularity
Whew! All this gimmickry began to turn off consumers. As their razors became more expensive, more irritating, and less effective, shavers began to wonder if there was a better way. And more and more discovered that the best razor design was already out there: the simple, effective, double-edge safety razor.
Along with renewed interest in this traditional shave came developments in modern design. CNC (computer numerical control) machining has led to exceedingly well-made razors with exacting tolerances. New developments in materials like carbon fiber, aluminum, and more make safety razors better balanced, more durable, more water resistant.
While we’ve come a long way from a wooden guard, we’ve also come to appreciate the simplicity of earlier safety razor designs. Shaving is a simple, daily task that could be the poster child for over-engineering, but traditional wet shavers are reclaiming the meditative process.