While the razor has been in existence since before the Bronze Age (the oldest razor like-object has been dated to 18,000 B.C.), its modern counterpart was invented in the 18th century, and the 1930s saw the invention of electric razors. In the 21st century, the safety razor – electric or not – is most commonly used by both men and women, but other kinds still exist.
Various forms of razors were used throughout history, which are different in appearance but similar in use to modern straight razors. In prehistoric times clam shells, shark teeth, and flint were sharpened and used to shave with. Drawings of such blades were found in prehistoric caves. Some tribes still use blades made of flint to this day. Excavations in Egypt have unearthed solid gold and copper razors in tombs dating back to the 4th millennium BC. The Roman historian Livy reported that the razor was introduced in ancient Rome in the 6th century BC. by legendary king Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. Priscus was ahead of his time because razors did not come to general use until a century later.
The first modern straight razor complete with decorated handles and hollow ground blades was constructed in Sheffield, in England, the centre of the cutlery industry, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Benjamin Huntsman produced the first superior hard steel grade, through a special crucible process, suitable for use as blade material in 1740, though it was first rejected in England. Huntsman's process was adopted by the French sometime later; albeit reluctantly at first because of nationalist sentiments. The English manufacturers were even more reluctant than the French to adopt the process and only did so after they saw its success in France. Sheffield steel, a highly polished steel, also known as Sheffield silver steel and famous for its deep gloss finish, is considered a superior quality steel and is still used to this day in France by such manufacturers as Thiers Issard.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the wealthy had servants to shave them or could frequent barbershops. Daily shaving was not a widespread practice in the 19th century so some people never shaved. The custom of shaving every day among American men is a 20th-century innovation which was started after World War I. Men were required to shave daily so their gas masks would fit properly and this became much easier with the advent of the disposable safety razor which was standard issue during the war. In the 19th century, cutlers in Sheffield, England and Solingen, Germany produced a variety of razors.
Straight razors were the most common form of shaving before the 20th century and remained common in many countries until the 1950s. Barbers were specially trained to give customers a thorough and quick shave, and a collection of straight razors ready for use was a common sight in most barbershops. Barbers still have them, but they use them less often.
Straight razors eventually fell out of fashion. Their first challenger was manufactured by King C. Gillette: a double-edged safety razor with replaceable blades. Gillette's idea was the use of the "loss leader" concept, in which the razors were sold at a loss, but the replacement blades earned a high margin and provided continuous sales. They were immensely successful because of advertising campaigns and slogans denigrating the straight razor's effectiveness and questioning its safety.
These new safety razors did not require any serious tutelage to use. The blades were extremely hard to sharpen, and were meant to be thrown away after one use, and rusted quickly if not discarded. They also required a smaller initial investment, though they cost more over time. Despite its long-term advantages, the straight razor lost significant market share. And as shaving became less intimidating and men began to shave themselves more, the demand for barbers providing straight razor shaves decreased.
Around 1960, stainless steel blades which could be used more than once became available, reducing the cost of safety-razor shaving. The first such blades were made by the Wilkinson firm, famous maker of ceremonial swords, in Sheffield. Soon Gillette, Schick, and other manufacturers were making stainless-steel blades.
These were followed by multiple-blade cartridges and disposable razors. For each type of replaceable blade, there is generally a disposable razor.
In the 1930s, electric razors became available. These can rival the cost of a good straight razor, although the whole straight-razor shaving kit can exceed the cost of even an expensive electric razor.
Straight razors with open steel blades, also commonly known as cut-throats, were the most commonly used razors before the 20th century.
Straight razors consist of a blade sharpened on one edge. The blade can be made of either stainless steel, which is slower to hone and strop, and holds an edge longer, or high carbon steel, which hones and strops quickly, but has a less durable edge. At present, stainless-steel razors are harder to find than carbon steel, but both remain in production.
The blade rotates on a pin through its tang between two protective pieces called scales: when folded into the scales, the blade is protected from damage, and the user is protected. Handle scales are made of various materials, including mother-of-pearl, celluloid, bone, plastic and wood. Once made of ivory, this has been discontinued, although fossil ivory is used occasionally.
Disposable blade straight razors (Shavette)
These razors, sometimes referred to as shavettes, are similar in use and appearance to straight razors, but use disposable blades, either standard double edged cut in half or specially made single edge. These shavettes are used in the same way as straight razors but do not require stropping and honing. Although the blades of disposable razors wear quickly, useful blade life can be extended with proper care, including drying the blade after use.
The first safety razor protected the skin from all but the very edge of the blade and was invented in 1762 by a Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Perret, who was inspired by the joiner's plane. Perret's design was essentially a straight razor with its blade surrounded by a wooden sleeve. Around 1875 a new design with a smaller blade placed on top of a handle was marketed by the Kampfe Brothers as "the best available shaving method on the market that won’t cut a user, like straight steel razors."
The term safety razor was first used in 1880 and described a basic razor with a handle attached to a head where a removable blade may be placed. The edge was then protected by a comb patterned on the head to protect the skin. In the more modern-day produced safety razors, the comb is now more commonly replaced by a safety bar. There are two types of safety razors, the single edged and the double-edged. The single-edged razor is essentially a 4-centimetre (1.6 in) long segment of a straight razor. The double-edged safety razor is a razor with a slant bar that can be used on both sides, with two open edges. The blade on the double-edged safety razor is slightly curved to allow for a smoother and cleaner shave.
In 1901, the American inventor King Camp Gillette, with the assistance of William Nickerson, patented a new variation of safety razor with disposable blades. Gillette realized that a profit could be made by selling an inexpensive razor with disposable blades. This has been called the razor and blades business model, and has become a very common practice for a wide variety of products.
Many other brands of safety razors have come and gone. Much of the competition was based on designing blades that would fit only one style of razor until the blade shape was standardized by the inclusion of a multi-faceted central channel to the blade which would accommodate the various designs of blade securing systems; e.g. three pins, a slender metal bar, etc. Even today, these various securing forms still persist in their variety in DE razors, all accepting the same universal blade design.
Exploiting the same razor and blades business model as pioneered in the early 20th century, cartridge razors were developed in the 1960s and are now the most common form of shaving in developed countries. Although designed to have a more ergonomic shape at both the handle and head (including commonly a pivoted head which keeps the blades angled to the skin at a pre determined angle through the shaving motion) the concept is very similar to that of the double edge razor. However, here the entire head assembly (known as a cartridge) is removed and disposed of, not just the blade. Also, it is common for these cartridge heads to have multiple razor blades set into them, commonly between two and five blades.
Disposable safety razors
Disposable safety razors are highly similar in design to Cartridge Razors, constructed from inexpensive materials (commonly injection moulded polycarbonate), yet are meant to be wholly disposable after use with no blade sharpening or replacement possible. One device was invented in 1963 by American entertainer and inventor Paul Winchell.
The electric razor (also known as the electric dry shaver) has a rotating or oscillating blade. The electric razor usually does not require the use of shaving cream, soap, or water. The razor may be powered by a small DC motor, which is either powered by batteries or mains electricity. Many modern ones are powered using rechargeable batteries. Alternatively, an electro-mechanical oscillator driven by an AC-energized solenoid may be used. Some very early mechanical shavers had no electric motor and had to be powered by hand, for example by pulling a cord to drive a flywheel.
Thick, rigid, single-edged razors such as utility knives are used for various hand-held tasks. Applications include detailed carpentry work like sanding and scraping (in a specialized holder), paper cutting for technical drawing, plumbing and finish work such as grouting and cleaning, and removing paint from flat surfaces such as panes of glass. Unlike shaving razors, the industrial-grade blades used in these tools are usually made from a non-stainless steel like carbon steel, and have a tougher and duller edge.