A Double Edged Tale
This is our first week stocked at London’s prestigious Fortnum & Mason department store. They’re stocking the fruits of our labour in our first and second Kickstarter, so we got a little nostalgic about the history of double edge shaving.
This episode deals with the ups and downs of shaving over the past 100 years and why we’ve decided to go against the grain (awful pun intended…).
What we said
(more or less)
Tony: Last week we Matt had a chat with Max, one of the owners of the workshop we’re working with to make the bag.
Matt: I’m still in Italy working on the development of the wash bag and perhaps another product, which we’ll hopefully be talking about soon.
Tony: I’m calling in from Clipper HQ in London. This week is our first week stocked in Fortnum & Masons, the prestigious London department store on Piccadilly. That’s a journey from Kickstarter to Fortnum's in just over a year, and has made us feel awfully nostalgic...
Matt: So we thought it might be worth talking about the history of our very first product, the Mark One razor.
Tony: That’s right. Specifically we wanted to talk about the story behind ‘double edge shaving’: where it came from, and where it’s going.
Matt: By ‘double edge shaving’ of course we mean the type of fantastic safety razors we make at Thomas Clipper, like our Mark One, Mark K and Travel Razor. It’s double edge because the single blade is exposed on both sides.
Now Tony has introduced me to something called the Google Ngram Viewer (which traces the popularity of terms in Google Books over centuries) which gives a useful insight into decline and recent rebirth of popularity of double edge shaving. We’ll pop an interesting chart for the geeks amongst you on the blog afterwards. But in short you can see the rise in popularity of safety razors during World War I, their growth in popularity through World War II until their sharp decline in the 1960s. So what happened?
Tony: well the prime driver behind double edge shaving’s popularity in World War I was a major contract which the Gillette Safety Razor company won to supply razors to the entire US army: 32 million blades to fit 3.5 million razors. This helped cement Gillette’s status as the market leader in shaving whilst also making popular the safety razor model first patented by the Kampfe brothers in 1880.
Matt: right, so really it’s all down to the war and the army?
Tony: well, wars tend to spur huge abouts of innovation and change things. Most major advances of in tech and IT (and of course defence too) come through military based R&D, so it’s probably not a massive surprise that big social changes like wars impact on products and markets. That, coupled with the cultural expectations of shaving in the military made a big difference.
Matt: Sure - we’ll come onto beards later … But back to war… there was clearly a steep decline from the mid-1940s onwards - what’s going on there?
Tony: decline is best explained by three interrelated factors: the movements of the market leaders, the economics of cartridges and disposable razors, and heavy marketing.
Matt: but to start the story it’s important to talk about how the shaving industry traditionally works. It was started really by Gillette who pioneered loss leader marketing in shaving. Basically put that means you give away one thing very cheaply so that you can make money on another thing.
Tony: supermarkets do it all the time - you get a really good deal on a bottle of wine that draws you through the door, and then you end up spending money on your weekly shop.
Matt: the Gillette model was to give away the razor, or at least make it very cheap, and then make a very very healthy profit on the blades. They’d lose money on the first sale but they’d make it back after you bought a couple blades. And then they’d have you forever.
Tony: now this model only works if you can get people to buy your blades. It all falls apart if you can get the cheap razor from Gillette and then get cheap blades elsewhere - Gillette need you to buy their own expensive blades. And that means they need to control the patent for the blades.
Matt: Bingo. And as 60s came to a close, the patents for Double Edge technology - the best shave men had ever experienced - were running out. Which meant Big Shaving had two options: start charging for their razors, or make new blades.
Tony: The loss leader model was just too profitable to ignore so the big companies began developing new razor heads that they could patent and sell at huge margins.
By 1970 Wilkinson Sword developed the first disposable cartridge (with a single blade wrapped in polymer), Gillette responded in 1971 with its twin-blade disposable cartridge the Trac II, and by 1974 Bic had created the first fully disposable razor.
These were technologies driven by marketing, not the search for a better shave. So as you’d expect, your barber doesn’t shave you with a disposable or a cartridge razor: actually as many of you listening will know the shave is significantly better with a double edge razor. But they just don’t make as much money.
Matt: Of course you could call us cynics. The patent race wasn't the only thing driving the move to cartridge razors.
Competition from electric razors which emerged in the 1930s and gained popularity with battery-powered models in the 1960s hitting the popularity of safety razors too, which showed a steep decline towards the 2000s.
And sometimes you’ve simply not got time for a good shave - you just need a quick shave. For those days, a cartridge or an electric razor might be a good call. Although we’d rather just have a bit of stubble to be honest… And as we all know if you’ve got thick stubble, a double edge shave is your best bet.
Tony: That might be part of the reason that people are coming back to double edge shaving. Stubble and beards are making a comeback, so if you want a proper shave you’re likely dealing with more stubble than you were a decade ago.
Matt: Apart from more stubble, the double edge shaving revival has come about for three reasons as far as we can tell.
First off, regardless of how many adverts the big players make, double edge shaving feels better and gives you a more precise shave. You’ll get less irritation from a proper double edge shave than from a cartridge job.
Second: people are starting to think more about craftsmanship and less about disposability. Our shaving gear is made individually and designed not just to get the job done today and well into the future. The only waste is the blade, a thin sliver of stainless steel - and even the blade can be recycled.
Finally: people are starting to get a little miffed about paying through the nose for blades. Our razor blades are brilliant and cost around 19p each. This isn’t some kind of gimmick - you’ll find them just a cheap elsewhere. They’re just brilliant value.
So in part driven by a revival and recognition of the value of heritage and durable goods, a realisation that double edge shaving provides less irritation from shaving than 3, 5 or 7 blade cartridges and a focus on value for money, double edge shaving is, rightly, back in business.
Tony: so onwards and upwards.
Tony: Next week we’ll be talking about the new product that we’re hopefully adding to our leather goods range. We hinted at this last time and have been working hard to get something put together, so fingers crossed we’ll have that for you.
Matt: But in the meantime, you can find all our past episodes at thomas clipper.com / podcast and subscribe to Coming Clean in iTunes to get new episodes delivered automatically.
Tony: We wanted to thank Nate and Solomon’s Hollow for the use of their music: you can hear it now, and it’s on all our podcasts. Find more on Spotify by searching Solomon’s Hollow.
That’s all for this week - thanks for listening, we’ll be back in seven days with more.
Bye for now.