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.