Industrial Art Meets Your Face: Classic Gillette Safety Razors
We promised when we started VCH that we’d get around to this: Gillette safety razors from the golden era — roughly, 1915-1965.
Before razors were meant to be thrown away, when they were still made of metal with nickel, gold, and sterling silver plating, Gillette safety razors ruled. They are still keeping men’s faces baby butt smooth today —100 years or more after many of the razors first saw the light of day.
Years ago, while in college, I shaved with one of my dad’s old Gillette safety razors to save money on blades. I was a Gillette Atra guy back then, but I could buy cheap safety razor blades in the drugstore for pennies apiece.
The razor shaved okay, but not as smoothly as my Atra. But hey, I was saving some much needed cash. I eventually left college, got a job, and forgot all about old safety razors and their cheaper, if inferior blades.
Fast forward a few years. I had moved on from Atra to the latest, greatest new Gillette disposable razor, the Mach3. I was running low on blades one day and got sick and tired at the thought of buying more of the exceedingly expensive Mach3 blades. My mind flashed back to my dad’s old safety razor…
It was long gone, but I knew where to find a new one: I would go antiquing. Sure enough, I soon found one just like his in a local junk shop. I now know I was extremely lucky to find the exact same model he’d used in my first foray.
It was a Gillette “Slim Adjustable” model made in 1964. They were actually date coded in those days. The razor adjusts thanks to a twist-able bottom piece that goes from 1 to 9, mild to more aggressive, to tailor the shave to your beard and face's sensitivity. It's an eminently useful feature that only Merkur duplicates today. More on Merkur later.
Speaking of Slim Adjustables, Sean Connery used one in Goldfinger in 1964. Not a bad first razor to start one’s safety razor career with…twice actually, in my case.
1964 Gillette Slim Adjustable
I bought that nickel-plated beauty in the junk shop for all of $7 American, and fled home with it. But what about blades? I remembered the ones from the drug store back in the day were pretty mediocre. It was 2009, and there was now this internet thing. Could it help me find better blades?
Turns out it could do just that.
An Embarassment of Riches
I did a little research and soon discovered a lot had changed since I'd last used a safety razor. There were a bunch of safety razor blades available now, most from countries overseas where safety razors are still popular. My favorite blades, the Shark brand, are made in Egypt.
Plenty of online vendors were selling shave stuff; many who specialized in old school shaving gear like safety razors and soaps also sold perhaps my favorite new discovery: shaving brushes.
I had used a cheap drugstore shaving brush years before, but its rough acrylic bristles were nothing like the soft badger hair brushes I began to read about and use.
Websites like West Coast Shaving and Bullgoose Shaving sold a ton of new-to-me things like old-world shaving soaps and creams made here in the USA and in Europe; when combined with a fine badger brush, they actually made shaving enjoyable for a change, instead of a chore.
I read Leisureguy's Guide to Gourmet Shaving. I began to collect a dizzying array of classic safety razors, mostly Gillette, and tried them all out, from the Old Types of the early 1900s and 20s to NEW models of the 1930s to Gillette Techs of the 1940s and 50s. The Techs in particular are very forgiving of a newbie's heavy handedness and make a good first safety razor.
I found that safety razors can nick you more easily than modern multi-blades; when handled properly, the shaves are amazing. Some classic razors shave more aggressivly than others. Different blades do, too.
The better online shaving dealers all sell sampler packs of blades that let you try many different blades on the cheap, to find the best blade for your beard and shaving style.
The rare and beautiful Depression-era NEW Deluxe with made-in-Israel Red Personna blades became a favorite combo that I used almost exclusively for several years.
Over the course of a few years, I found the aggressive open comb NEW and Red Personnas began to beat up my face pretty badly with a few too many nicks — especially when I was in a hurry, despite an improved, more experienced technique. I tried many different combinations, but eventually settled on a late 1940s Gillette Aristocrat — milder than the NEW— with Shark blades.
Current Favorite: Aristocrat and Shark Super Chrome Blades
I even tried my hand at straight razors—but lost interest soon after I had mastered them. Using a straight means occasional honing and it definitely means stropping the blade on a piece of leather every day, something I had little interest in doing long term.
But it was fun to learn, and I recommend the experience to anyone looking for a bit of a challenge, shave-wise.
With many premium safety razor blades coming from overseas, so-called “wet shavers” here fear the “Shavepocalypse” that's said to be coming.
(It's called wet shaving because you use a lot of water in the shave; that and your soap/cream and shaving brush to moisten your face and beard, instead of relying on multiple blades like modern razors do, to cut through your beard with brute force and numbers.)
Shavepocalypse is the day you are no longer able to buy cheap, high-quality foreign blades because the folks there start using Atra and Mach3 and Fusion blades. I don't know that there will be a Shavepocalypse, but do have hundreds of safety razor blades stockpiled, which I guess does make me a "prepper" of sorts. At least as far as shaving goes.
Newly-made razors are available that channel some of the vintage verve the old Gillettes had. Merkur of Germany makes some of the best, and they are all-metal, high quality beauties. The 34C model is a good safe bet for those new to wet shaving, and West Coast Shaving has them for under 40 bucks.
What do I like about these old razors? For one thing, they were over-engineered and made to last, and beautifully made at that. I used to have a few of the the American Button Company (ABC) Pocket Models that Gillette sold in the years before and during World War One as a luxury item for discriminating gents.
The handles looked like Grecian columns and these little pieces of art still give you a fine shave today. One of them has more character and élan than a thousand Mach3's or any plastic razor made in the last thirty or forty years.
If you are ready to start enjoying your morning shave, try a razor that isn't made of plastic and use a decent shave brush to whip up some real lather — not canned goo— and see what happens.
Many of us have traded in a morning drudge for a pleasant bit of zen-like pleasure. Accept our challenge, then decide for yourself. The only thing you have to lose are some whiskers.
ABC Pocket Model, restored badger brush, and Currier & Ives Mug