Shaving like Granddad


I have wonderful memories of my paternal grandfather, James Solomon McClam – “Grandaddy”. A small town boy, he grew up in the farming community of Lynchburg, in South Carolina’s Pee Dee region. Solidly a member of Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”, he was a depression-era survivor, combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient in World War II, entrepreneur, and pillar of his community.

He was a reformed drinker who liked his beer as a younger man, I’ve been told. Following an arrest for drunken driving and an ultimatum from my grandmother, granddaddy quit drinking after their second child, (my uncle Jim), was born. He testified humbly of how his faith enabled him to overcome alcoholism.

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.

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I have fond memories of weekends spent as a young boy with my grandparents at their house on the Boulevard Road in Sumter. Each morning, I would awake in their back bedroom to the sound of pots and pans clanging, as the aroma of bacon and coffee wafted through the house.  On occasion, as grandma prepared breakfast, I’d wander into the bathroom to watch granddaddy shave in the mornings before work or church. There was something elemental about the process of his morning grooming which resonated to me. 

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, 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 looked down at me with a wink and began his morning shave.

He used a 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 granddaddy 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 granddaddy’s generation and my dad’s generation, shaving went into the crapper. Was it a blind attachment to technological advances? Electric shavers certainly made admirable advances during those years. Or was it 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. Around 1985, when my first crop of peach-fuzz arrived, my first razor was an electric. Despite the vague excitement of that first shaving milestone, 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 dad’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, something was still not quite right. The cost of replacement cartridges never fails to produce sticker shock while roaming the shaving aisle at Target. Replacement cartridges for Gillette’s highly popular Mach III razor, cost as much as $12 for four (4) replacement razors. 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, all at greater cost with no perceptible increase in quality of shave. In fact there is some evidence to suggest multiple blade designs cause more skin irritation, not less.

Weary of paying exorbitant prices for replacement cartridges, I did a little research on old-school shaving products. What I found was a veritable world of alternative shaving options. There were straight razors, safety razors, bowls, and brushes. Perhaps most enticing, I found Pinaud Clubman Aftershave, that time-honored, manly-smelling staple of barbershops everywhere, was still available for purchase.

Moreover, 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 meanwhile costs an average of $.50. Over a year’s time, that’s a difference of $130. Extrapolated over decades, that starts to add up. Better yet, I could recapture the manly essence of my Granddad’s shave. The razor, the bowl, the brush, the soap of dubious origin… it all seemed right, and so I took the plunge.

After a brief flirtation with purchasing a straight razor, visions of a severed carotid artery and Rorschach blood patterns on the bathroom wall deterred me. I settled on a mid-century safety razor – a Merkur 34C. Manufactured in Germany in beautiful stainless steel, it has a highly satisfying heft. It feels like an “instrument”, a thing to be taken seriously, and it is somehow just satisfying to hold. 

I have been shaving like granddad for ten years now, and have never looked back. I lather my face with a badger-hair brush, then go to work with the Merkur, and the process of it all is pleasing. And after it’s all done, I splash on a bit of Pinaud Clubman and start my day smelling like a barbershop. 

Somewhere up there, I know granddad is starting his day off the same way.


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