I have wonderful memories of my Mother’s Father, James Solomon McClam – Grandaddy. He died in 1991, when I was 19 years old. A small town boy, he was raised in the tiny town of Lynchburg, in South Carolina’s Pee Dee Region, between Sumter and Florence. Solidly a member of Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”, he was a depression-era survivor, combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient in World War II, an entrepreneur, pillar of his community and Southern gentleman. He was a Thurmond Dixiecrat turned Reagan Republican, though I don’t recall him being particularly vocal around us grandkids with regard to politics. He was a reformed drinker – I imagine a bourbon man, like myself – and a Bible-believing Baptist. He was a colossus of my childhood and his memory still brings me the greatest warmth today. Most of all, what I remember about Granddaddy is his laugh. He had this easy, disarming, room-filling laugh. – it made you happy to be near him.
I remember as a young boy, staying with my Grandparents at their house on the Boulevard Road in Sumter, and from time to time, wandering into the bathroom to watch him shave in the mornings before work or church. There was a process to his shaving which intrigued me – even at a young age – and still resonates with me today.
Like many of their generation, my grandparents both had false teeth, and this was a never-ending source of amazement to me. I remember watching, gape-mouthed and agog, as Granddaddy would take his teeth out of a glass of water on the porcelain sink and pop them into his mouth. Suddenly animated, his face would take on that familiar grin as he often looked down at me with a wink and began his morning shave.
He used an old-school safety razor and badger-hair brush, which he kept along with shaving soap of dubious origin, in an Old Spice mug. I remember him lathering his face with the brush and within minutes, transforming from stubbly, early-morning Granddad into clean-shaven storekeeper. Something about the way he shaved stuck with me. The process of it, the precision, the satisfaction of a wet shave – even experienced vicariously as an eight-year-old boy while glancing at a reflection in a steam-covered mirror. It spoke to me of manliness – of the way things ought to be.
Somewhere between my Granddad’s generation and my Father’s generation, shaving went into the crapper. Was it an attachment to technological advances? Electric shavers certainly made admirable advances during those years. Or was it just that we, as a society, got ourselves into such a big damned hurry that caused the wet shave to lose popularity? Whatever the reason, shaving went from being a process to be embraced – a rite of passage and a thing to be enjoyed – to a rushed, half-assed chore. My first razor, back in ’85 when the most stubborn of whiskers on my pubescent cheeks still fell solidly under the heading of peach-fuzz, was an electric. Even then – even amidst the awkward anticipation of that first shave, I remember the disappointment of the electric razor. It was mechanical, it was cold – it was not my Granddad’s shave. It occurs to me now, that my Father’s generation, in spite their admirable advances in oral health and resulting lack of false teeth, were boring shavers.
Even as wet shaving experienced a renaissance of late, it was ruined by the greed of Gillette and their ilk. A walk down the shaving aisle at the local Target never fails to produce sticker shock at the cost of replacement cartridges for the standard razor. Replacement cartridges for Gillette’s Mach III razor, for example, cost as much as $12 for four (4) replacement razors. Of course, this is due, in part, to the arms race of the past decade or so, in which razor companies have come up with increasingly elaborate and ridiculous blade designs. Three blades, four blades – I think they are up to five blades… all at a greater cost to one’s wallet with no perceptible increase in quality of save. In fact there is some evidence to suggest that the multiple blade designs cause more skin irritation, not less, as is their claim.
Last year, sick of paying exorbitant prices for the standard replacement cartridges, I went on line and Googled “old school shaving products”. What I found was a veritable world of alternative shaving options. There were straight razors, “safety razors”, bowls, brushes – and this is what sold me – I found that I could still purchase Pinaud Clubman Aftershave – that time-honored, manly-smelling staple of barbershops everywhere. Better yet, I calculated a year’s worth of replacement razors for the old-school equipment vs. the Mach III stuff, and the difference was eye-popping. Each Mach III replacement cartridge costs an average of $3. Each double-edged safety blade replacement costs an average of $.50. Over a year’s time, that’s a difference of $130. I figured that over the course of my remaining working life (because after retirement, I’m growing a big damned beard), I would save over $2,500! Further, I could recapture the manly essence of my Granddad’s shave. The razor, the bowl, the brush, the soap of dubious origin… it was all there for purchase on Al Gore’s wonderful invention!
After a brief flirtation with the idea of purchasing a straight razor (hey, I reasoned, let’s go all out!), I was deterred by visions of a severed carotid artery and Rorschach blood patterns on bathroom walls as I lay prostrate and twitching on a cold tile floor. I settled on the good-old mid-century safety razor – a Merkur double-sided one, manufactured in Germany in a beautiful stainless steel. It has this really satisfying heft, and leaves one feeling that they are shaving with an “instrument”, rather than something they purchased at Target. Hard to explain why, precisely, but this is really enjoyable.
I have been shaving like Granddad for over a year now and I highly recommend it. My visits to Target are much less stressful. Each morning as I shave, pleasant memories of my Granddad are relived. I lather my face with a badger-hair brush, and somehow, that’s just fun. And after it’s all done, I splash on a bit of “ye olde” Pinaud Clubman and walk confidently out the door smelling like a barbershop. Somewhere up there, I know Granddad is starting his day off the same way.