How Intellectual Property Destroyed Men’s Shaving

Well over a century ago, a salesman named King Gillette patented the design for his safety razor and went on to found the Gillette Safety Razor Company. His invention made him wealthy as American men rushed to buy his razor blades.

Gillette did not invent the safety razor itself, but rather found a way to manufacture disposable blades that were cheap yet held an edge well. In so doing, Gillette challenged at least two professions: the barber with his straight razor and the blade sharpener with his strop.

It’s a classic example of the principle outlined in Andy Kessler’s book, Eat People. Gillette eliminated the cost and hassle of going to the barber or maintaining one’s razor by providing American men with disposable blades. Now they could shave themselves cheaply and effectively at home.

But that success set the stage for a pattern that would repeat itself over and over again through the twentieth century. See, patents expire after two decades or so, and as they did the Gillette company and its competitors sought new patents in order to protect the lucrative disposable razor business.

This drive for new “patentable” razor technology gave us some minor improvements in the classic double-edged safety razor, and after WWII, it gave us the Schick single-bladed injector razor. By the 1970s most patents for the double-edged safety razor and the single-edged injector razor had expired.

The commodification of the razor blade was punishing to the profit margins of the razor companies. So the way ahead was clear: come up with new designs, patent them, and make a killing selling the disposable blades.

Thus the 1970s saw the emergence of the BIC disposable razor. Why replace just the blade when you can throw out and replace the whole razor?

Then in the 1980s, Gillette introduced the double-bladed Sensor cartridges. Now the question was: Why throw out the whole razor when you can just replace the cartridge?

Needless to say, these innovations were driven not so much by an improvement of the shaving experience but by the need to create a technology which could be patented.

Indeed, the injector razor did not improve the shaving experience compared to the classic double-edged safety razor, and the disposable razor was in no way superior to the injector razor. Likewise, the Sensor cartridges did not improve on the disposable razor. These developments only made shaving more expensive.

Of course all these styles of razors were marketed as offering a revolutionary change in shaving. Commercials pointed out the lubricating strips, the pivoting heads, and the supposed benefits of redundant blades.

Now the market is full of razors with 3 or even 4 blades, mounted on cartridges so large they can barely shave in the tight space between the nose and upper lip. Ah, but aren’t 4 blades four times better than 1 blade?

If you think so, then you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. In fact, the redundant blades lead to in-grown hairs, since the first blade lifts the hair up for the second blade to cut it, such that the tip of the hair retreats back beneath the skin surface. As it grows, it turns back into the skin, leading to in-grown hairs.

The fact is that none of these technologies were demanded from the consumer. He was perfectly satisfied with the classic double-edged safety razor.

Indeed, I would argue that even today this classic design remains the best way for a man to shave safely and economically. I myself use a Merkur double-edged razor and, having tried every type of razor imaginable, find this to be the best overall style for every-day use.

Here’s a humorous Amazon review of the Merkur 38HD illustrating my point:

News Flash…2008.

Razor Scientists have developed a radical new razor called the DE or “Double Edge” Razor. This futuristic, yet elegant, device is made of durable metal instead of the usual plastic and it is machined so well that it would be possible that a single DE Razor could last the average shaver a lifetime. This new shaving device uses amazing “mono blade” technology that delivers a shave as close as the finest multi-blade cartridge system, but the blades are completely bio-degradable and have a tiny “carbon footprint.” By a stroke of pure genius the replacement blades will cost about a tenth that of a classic cartridge and will actually provide two complete edges, in essence giving you two blades for the price of one. Since there is only one cutting surface you no longer have to worry about clogging the razor head with hair and shave cream and the DE Razor is less likely to cause bumps and other skin conditions.

An excellent example of this stunning new DE Razor technology is the Merkur Barber Pole DE Razor. Excellent construction, fine finish and craftsmanship combined with real heft and retro styling make this razor a real winner.

Like most state of the art technology, there is a slight learning curve when using this powerful device. The razor does all of the work, so don’t apply any pressure and take short strokes instead of the long ones that you were using with current old-style cartridge system razor. Your small efforts will be rewarded with the knowledge that you are not only more “green” but you also have the latest new tech toy on the block.

In a related story, shaving researchers have created a solid shaving lubricant called a shaving soap puck. This highly concentrated pellet can provide at least as many shaves as a can of shaving foam and doesn’t use propellants or a steel aerosol can. Foam is created by simply whisking a wet puck with a soft and long life “shaving brush” which is then used to apply/massage the foam on the users face. The system is so sophisticated that unused foam is automatically recycled to be used for the next shave.

Well, it is all true, but the basic design wasn’t developed in 2008, it was developed over 100 years ago and it is likely that your grandpa and possibly your dad used it. Stop paying $3 for a razor cartridge. Put that cash in your pocket and give the Merkur Barber Pole DE razor a try!

Like this reviewer, there is a growing movement of men who are rejecting the current technology in favor of the sturdy, reliable razors of yore. You only have to visit a shaving forum such as Badger & Blade to see what I mean.

Sadly most men continue to buy the patent-protected razor technology because companies like Gillette are so effective in marketing and distributing their latest gizmos. But I think the pushback is gaining momentum, as more and more men come to understand that current shaving technology exists more for reasons of intellectual property than because they provide any material advantages.

This lesson is a dire warning about the threat of intellectual property to our quality of life. The razor business is an old-fashioned one, not nearly as important to the lifeblood of the economy as high-tech enterprises such as Apple and Google.

The “Gillette effect” is already starting to distort the process of innovation in high-tech sectors. Witness the on-going patent wars over mobile technology.

These developments are harbingers of what lies ahead if we continue our self-destructive obsession with intellectual property. The end result is clear: crappy, expensive technology which is a pain in the follicle.

31 thoughts on “How Intellectual Property Destroyed Men’s Shaving”

    1. Interesting. The fact innovation in DE razors continues even today shows the technology wasn’t perfected but merely replaced with technology that could be more easily patented.

      1. I agree: that whole direction of research and development was simply shut down, not exhausted. In fact, the new (this year!) ARC Weber razor seems to me the best of any of the DE razors I own: turns out there *is* room for improvement of something that’s already quite good.

  1. I’ve spent $20 one year ago on blades for my Merkur. I’m less than halfway through the set.
    And thats about how much a box of Mach3 cartridges costs for a month supply!

  2. Excellent post. I guess I’ve been drinking the Kool-aid all my life. Now I understand why always I’ve got ingrown beard, and that not always the more the merrier. Thanks for illuminating me, now I’m going to look for a Safety Razor, although in two of the countries I live, Gillete is ever-present and is very difficuly to find a Safety Razor, let alone the blades. But thank you. Made me think, thoroughly.

    1. Glad you found it helpful. It took me years to figure out a way to stop the ingrown beard thing. Once I understood the root cause, I went on a mission to find a solution … and I found the solution in older technology.

  3. Callum you do realize that patents, in and of themselves, do nothing to make a market switch right? It’s all the marketing brosky. Patents have covered millions of new product designs that never even made a dent in real life markets because nobody wanted to buy the product.

    In short, direct your anger at the marketers, rather than misguiding it somehow to patents.

    1. Of course marketing is be how they draw people to the new product, but the patent protection is the incentive for the creation of the new product in the first place. Gillette doesn’t want to dump millions of marketing dollars into pushing a product that can be exactly duplicated by a competitor.

      The issue here is that that incentive is now driving change for its own sake rather than driving real, useful innovation, which was the intent of the patent system in the first place.

    2. Says the patent attorney. Ha! Kidding. I recently activated my fairly long-standing interest in the switch from excessive packaging, plastic, and most things that are otherwise wasteful and unnecessary in the world of the ‘disposable’ razor.
      I am thoroughly enjoying the vintage razors which I’ve been acquiring — all Gillettes, thank you very much.

      I conducted a good deal of patent research several years ago for designs of my own which I have yet to see approximated and brought to market by anyone else. I abandoned the process due to expense.

      I’m rather fascinated with the patent process. I’m astounded by the amount of hubris — and simple greed, as well — which forces shitty concepts for non-essential products into a system-clogging patent application bottleneck. That became a recognized problem for the USPTO a couple of years back, and it was driven by the profit-hungry whores of the approval machine and vainglorious inventors alike. Surprisingly little differentiation from the ‘original’ is required to secure a new patent.

      ‘Intellectual property’ can be an oxymoronic term, and protecting the rights to such cerebral wealth can be both embarrassingly laughable and ethically repugnant. Often, it’s both at once.

      1. Hi Bill,

        I am interested in hearing more about the process you abandoned I am trying to make a vintage womens single blade shaver. I have the original to copy and remake the patent has expired so no one wants to make it for me in the business because it is not able to be protected by a patent. I have the original drawing filed 1972! I located on the USPTO but it does not come up which they say it was typed wrong. It should say expired or active but it says nothing…. I will have to make sure but I could make an improvement and apply for a patent it possibly. I will have to make it again anyways to produce and sell it. Do you think it’s worth making a new filed patent what is the reason I should apply for a patent. I see that the razor company who owned this patent and develops private label razors does not want to help me produce it??? I found that super interesting they wanted nothing to do with helping make it because it’s old technology. The old technology is better and patents ruin it like you said in article. I would like to ask what were the costs that scared you away because i entering the stage now where it might become an issue. Please give me any advice or tips to help since you once were trying to do your own idea which is similar to my vintage idea. I saw a company using a razor with shaving creme in handle which was already in the market place 40 yrs ago and they seemed to remake a product that already existed to bring back an old idea new and revamped.

  4. Sorry, boss. I couldn’t make it through the post. I read about 10 graphs and still didn’t find the nut. Consider moving it up – if it even exists – next time.

      1. I don’t feel that you should ever apologize for being thoughtful enough to spend time developing an idea.

        ‘Ted’ is probably an alright guy, and he certainly wasn’t abusive in his reply, but my experience has rather convincingly shown that most ‘move it or lose it’ impatient types are meatheads whose haste makes them more of a liabiity than an asset in real-world situations outside the scope of competitive sports. Exceptions occasionally apply. Rarely is this so, but the possibility exists.

        You didn’t belabor the point, and you remained acceptably on-topic. Some people always gotta have it yesterday.

  5. Nice story, and agree with the points made about patents. However, I don’t agree with the main shaving point: the classic double edged razor is not as good as a two-blades disposable one (Gilette in my case, Bic are rubbish).

    Being an early-hairy man, I started shaving around 12 yrs old, and my first tool was a very cool-looking double edged Gillette. Now, if you’re the kind of man that doesn’t have a thick beard and mustache, you can shave with pretty much anything without too much trouble. But if you’re a seriously hairy bastard, there’s a good chance you won’t enjoy shaving much. Good disposable two-blades make the whole thing fast and easy, especially after a shower and hair wash (I rarely use shaving cream). Of course, to each his own, but saying the old ways are the best ways just because some of the new ones are developed for other reasons that functional, is just nostalgic thinking.

    My two cents 🙂
    Best wishes!

  6. Your timeline is off a bit. The Schick Injector dates to the 1920s, and the Sensor came out in the 1990s to wild success and acclaim. Many men did not learn proper DE technique, and for them cartridges like the Trac 2 and Sensor were a major improvement.

  7. I was skeptical about the double blade, then the triple, then the quad, then the power. However, when I tried them, each change gave me a closer, smoother shave with fewer nicks, and I have not had ingrown hair problems. The price is another matter; entirely unacceptable. I’m planning to try a single blade again, but wish that I could find one that incorporates what I consider to be the main advantages of the multi-blade cartridges: thinner, more flexible blade, and pivoting head to adapt to facial contours, and non-stick coating on the blade.

  8. The DE safety razor is still the best in my opinion as far as razors. I do not like the disposable razors at all, they feel to cheap and flimsy and did not give me a close shave. I shave in the shower to save time, it’s fast and easy. I probably shave as fast with my DE razor as I do with an electric shaver.

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