Safety Razor History

5 December 2017

Ainsley Hunter

Almost everyone has had the opportunity to hold and use a razor at least once in the past few months. While shaving can feel a bit unnecessary, it is quite easy and straightforward – a few glides of the blade and your skin is hair-free. However, this wasn’t always the case, and our ancestors have had to suffer greatly to bring us to this evolved era of safety razors. In earlier times, before the invention of the safety razor, many men preferred sporting beards while ladies continued wearing full-length dresses that covered their legs.

It is interesting to note that the need to be hygienic and groomed is prehistoric in origin. Our ancient forefathers were pioneers in the art of personal hygiene. Grooming and getting rid of facial and body hair has denoted status and its symbolism as well as acts of penance throughout history. The tradition of shaving kept evolving over the centuries. Since the methods and processes of shaving developed, so did the tools to do it.


Prehistoric/ Stone Age:

During the last Ice Age, facial hair was considered dangerous, since wet facial hair could freeze and cause frostbite. Early humans (according to cave painting and implements found) are believed to have been grooming their facial hair using seashells (like a pair of tweezers). This trend later developed to use of sharp and fine obsidian flakes and shards from clams and oysters. Subsequently, the agricultural revolution and metal age allowed for access to metalworking, tools for farming, and metal blades for shaving. Although unsafe, men and women were able to benefit significantly from the advent of these ages.


Egyptian Hygiene:

Since the fourth century BC, the Egyptians were known to have recorded annals about the importance of shaving, personal grooming, and hygiene. Cleanliness was believed to be next to godliness and men, women, and children were meant to bathe and groom themselves daily before offering their daily prayers.

Short hair was also easier to maintain since the spread of disease, hair lice, body lice, and so on was rampant in the humid areas around the Nile. The Egyptians made use of bronze razors with rotary blades for cleanliness and personal hygiene. In Egypt, being well-groomed was also considered a status symbol and only slaves, lower class, criminals, and mercenaries were seen to sport body and facial hair.


Middle Ages:

The spread of the bronze razor reached Europe in the 4th century and was also employed by Alexander the Great. He ordered all his troops to shave their facial hair to protect them from their enemies’ clutches during hand-to-hand battles and wars. The Egyptian bronze razor was reinvented and called a ‘Roman Novacila’ which could hold a thin metal blade-shape.

By the year 1045, the Church was seen to enforce the practice of shaving facial hair to distinguish Church members from their Islamic and Jewish counterparts. The razor continued to make the rounds in Europe for a reasonably long time without too many improvements to it. However, the blades were double-edged and had to be used with extreme caution since they could cut deep and nick the throats of men, and legs and underarms of women.


Modern Safety Razors:

In the 18th century, razor blades were finally made thin and sharp pieces of metal. Till this time, everybody presumed shaving could only be done by professionals and would employ daily barbers for the facial and personal grooming. French inventor Jean-Jacques Perret invented a safety razor by adding a wood guard to a regular blade thereby allowing men and women to shave without the help of a barber. The modern Sheffield razor is an evolved design version of this razor with a rotating guard. In 1880 the Kampfe brothers patented a design for the world’s first safety razors which had a wire guard along the edge and lather-catching head.


The Gillette Era:

In 1895, King Camp Gillette, a traveling salesman, combined the hoe-shaped razor (invented by William Henson) with a disposable double-edged blade. With design assistance from MIT Prof. William Nickerson, King C. Gillette marketed this new disposable razor in 1903 and made an empire out of safety razors.

By the 1920s, electric razors started coming into being, and by 1960, engineers had successfully perfected the production and use of stainless steel in safety razors for clean and close shaves.


Now safety razors come in all shapes and varieties and are often charged by Li-ion batteries that can be used for smoother, cleaner shaves with rotating heads, linear cutters, and stainless-steel blades.