Is Less Really More?


Leonardo da Vinci famously said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Quite surprisingly, in shaving, that turns out to be true.

It seems that the standard shaving cartridge today holds five blades. It also has a lubricating strip on its far edge and some kind of rubber fin or fins to pull your skin taut. Clearly a marvel of modern engineering and production.

So why would anyone in their right mind choose to “regress” to a single blade, fixed in place with no lubricating strip or fins? Moreover, a single blade was used throughout human history. Yet, as we moved through the last century technology and advances in manufacturing brought us up to five blades with rotating heads, fins and all. It would stand to reason that it must be better, or so you’d think….

An old Gillette advertisement which advises consumers not to strop their safety razor

I’m sharing this post with you because I was under the assumption that all these blades are better and more innovative designs, until I started doing research. This research was fueled by the fact that I was getting surprisingly better results from a single blade, a method that has been the only way to shave until, surprisingly, 1971. It turns out that the story of multiple blades is the story of Gillette’s business strategy. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Until deep into the nineteenth century, shaving was done with a straight razor. A single metal blade, honed and stropped. Once shaving moved away from the domain of barbers and butlers, you could save time using 7 razor sets, stropped in advance for every day of the week. It then made sense to make those blades shorter and use a holder with an easy handle to maneuver, but you would essentially still have to strop the blade each time before you used it, which was time consuming. Those were known as ‘wedges’ and were around from 1878 (and these built, obviously on other designs, and led to another whole class of razors in the Gem and Ever Ready, and directly led to today’s single edge razors, upon which we’ll expand in a future post).

This brings us to the turn of the twentieth century and to King C. Gillette. What he actually invented, and for what we’re all indebted to him, is the disposable double edge blade. There’s a story there too about the technicalities of manufacturing, but the bottom line is that in 1901 he presented a complete razor and disposable blade system with no more stropping or honing. There was a wafer thin blade held by a sturdy razor eliminating the thick blade needed until then.

Gillette New Type Long Comb (1920s) and Old Type (1910s)

The Gillette razor cost $5, which was a third of the average weekly wage for a factory worker back then (a quick calculation of say a $12 an hour wage today puts that at $180 for a razor and a box of 10 blades!). He applied for a patent, which was granted in 1904, and was the sole supplier of soldier’s kit razors for the American troops in World War I, which created a generation of loyal users.

The story really becomes interesting in 1921, when the original patent expired, allowing anybody to make and sell razor blades, which would have wiped out profits on the blades, which were obviously the money makers. Here started the cycle which led to today’s over fluffed products. In order to maintain market position, Gillette had to create a new razor, a better razor, and one that could be patented, while lowering the price of the older, legally duplicatable design, to match open market competition. Hence, when you look at the successive generations of Gillette razors, From the New Type in 1920 to adjustables in 1957 to the continuous spool razor (the Techmatic) in 1965, they all represent simply the expiration of patents and Gillette’s commitment to being the world’s number one men’s shaving company in the world.

In 1970, Wilkinson introduced the Bonded cartridge, which was a single blade embedded in a plastic cartridge, basically eliminating the danger of getting cut. In response, Gillette released the two blade Trac-II, and the blade race was on. Then came tilting heads, springs and in 1998, Mach 3 heralded the three blade cartridge, now up to five, but the sky’s the limit.

Is it possible that a century of advances, from the wedge to the adjustable double edge razor in 1957, made shaving as good as it can get, and from here on we’re just escalating a “blade race”?

I submit to you that a single blade will shave you just as well, if not better, than a five blade cartridge, without irritating your skin or causing you ingrown hairs (haven’t had one in six years), and with a good soap and hand whipped lather, having prepared your face for the shave with a brush, you’ll have better protection than some canned gel or foam can provide, and a better overall shave.

In our next column, we’ll look at just what you need to get started in wet shaving.