Where the World Learns to Shave

I n a certain room in a certain factory in a quiet part of South Boston something very strange is
By Robert M. Neer

In a certain room in a certain factory in a quiet part of South Boston something very strange is happening. Every day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., a steady stream of men can be seen entering and leaving this room. When they go in, the men have a vaguely scruffy look and finger a thick stubble of half-grown beard. When they go out, however, they are smooth and trim, clean-shaven, and smelling faintly of lotions and creams. This is the Shaving Research Room, the living heart of the world's largest razor blade factory: Gillette Corp.'s World Shaving Headquarters in South Boston.

Prehistoric man, a history of shaving relates, shaved with clams and animal teeth, or pieces of flint sharpened against harder stones. Because of the inconvenience of these razors, however, the practice of walking clean-shaven didn't really catch on until 356 B.C. when bronze razors were available, according to the text. In that year, Roman hero Scipio Africanus celebrated his victory over arch-rival Hannibal with a clean shave and from there on, progress has been steady in helping man's continuing battle against the beard: in the mid-1100s Arab engineers introduced the steel razor, the 17th-century European Reformation brought "a clean-shaven look" along with a new approach to eternal salvation, and in 1903 the first Gillette safety razor was introduced.

It was here that South Boston entered the picture. The 1903 razor--the brainstorm of Brookline, Ma., resident King C. Gillette--was, according to the Gillette Corporation, the first product of its kind in the world. In the year of its introduction the nascent Gillette company sold just 51 razor sets and 168 blades at $5 a set. In 1904, however, a patent came through for the shaving device and sales took off. In 1904, Gillette opened his company's first mass-production manufacturing establishment and shipped 90,000 of his razors and a whopping 12 million of the patented matching blades.

From there on the company's history reads like a compilation of the shaving industry's greatest hits: 1946, Gillette brings the world a plastic blade holder, eliminating the messy, dangerous, individually-wrapped blades that had been the national standard; 1959, the company perfects the extra-smooth silicone-coated razor blade; and 1965, the first razor with a fully-contained multiple shaving cartridge is introduced to American shavers by Gillette.

Then came 1971, and the moment that changed the way the world shaves forever. Working in conditions of absolute secrecy, Gillette scientists perfected a shaving technique known as "hystersis"--a two-blade system in which the first razor gave the beard a rough cut and then cunningly pulled it away from the face. . . where a second blade (placed exactly 60 one-thousandths of an inch behind the first) could snip it close to the skin before it had a chance to fall back in place. The result: the world's closest shave. They called the razor TRAC II.

Even old-time workers remember the excitement that rippled through the factory when production lines started gearing up to meet the huge demand generated by the TRAC II line. "It was very exciting, very interesting," reminisces 45-year Gillette veteran Irene Costello. "You could really feel that it handled better," she adds. Since 1971 the razor has experienced a few improvements--the invention of the economical, disposable Daisy razor for women in 1975 and Good News! disposable for men a year later, the ATRA swivel head system in 1977 and, most recently, the ATRA Plus shaving system with an attached lubricating strip--but the company's committment to hystersis and the double-blade system remains firm.

"Gillette is dedicated to wet shaving versus electric razors, and in wet shaving we are fully behind the double-blade system," says Safety Razor Division spokesman Charles Conway. Conway shaves with the company's newest model, the Atra Plus.

Today Gillette is a monstrous international conglomerate with plants from Johannesburg to Munich. The company does over $2 billion dollars of business every year, selling products that range from luxury fountain pens to ladies deodorant. Fully one third of the corporation's business, however, remains in the bedrock blades and razors division: the action end of the shaving process accounts for one third of Gillette's total sales and two thirds of its profit. The company dominates the U.S. shaving market supplying 60 percent of the country's blades and 70 percent of its razors--that's 1.3 billion blade edges a year, an overwhelming 5.4 million edges a day.

All of those blades and razors are made in shaving's South Boston World Headquarters. Inside the massive 15-building complex, fields of workers stretch away as far as the eye can see in brightly-lit warehouse-sized rooms. The actual blade manufacturing process is a closely-guarded trade secret. Reporters are allowed only to the periphery of the manufacturing area where workers can be seen throwing prepackaged bags of Good News! and Daisy disposable razors into waiting boxes. Mysterious sharpening noises can be heard from massive box-like machines in the middle distance, but the transformation of blades from hystersitic theory to TRAC II practice remains a mystery.

Fortunately, the development of shaving theory does not take place on the factory floor but, rather, in the Shaving Research Room. The Research Room is the practical, populist alternative to the cold technology of the Development Room in the New Products Division (also classified as a sensitive area and closed to reporters). No pointy-headed scientists or threatening electron microscopes here, just a humble row of five sinks, hot and cold running water, and a comprehensive assortment of all the shaving products available in the United States today. Through this room between two and three hundred employees of the company, all volunteers, pass to be shaved. They come on staggered schedules and, after each shave, evaluate the products on computer cards giving good marks for smoothness and ease of use, and black demerits for cuts and scratches. The responses are recorded, tallied and analyzed by computer and used in the development of new products. Given Gillette's history as a shaving innovator the room may truly be said to be the cradle of the razor and blade as we know them today.

The distinction begs a final question. The most extensive shave ever attempted in the research room came in 1975 when, according to 43-year Gillette employee Mary Nagle, an employee came in with "a big grey beard, which had black in it." Apparently driven beyond endurance by the paradox of spending his days making razors while sporting a beard of at least 12 inches (descriptions vary), this man had attempted to end the beard at home, with a TRAC II, but was foiled by the slim extension of the blades. In desperation, Nagle says, he came to the Research Room. Again, the TRAC II was tried without success. After consultations, an old-style double-edged Blue Blade razor was brought in for the heavy work. The Blue Blade managed, in Nagle's words "to get through the thick of it" but a more advanced TRAC II was still required to polish off a few particularly stubborn tufts. Three razors and a jar of shaving cream later, the employee went forth--another beardless male, and another satisfied Gillette customer.