A Close Shave with the Past – My Grandfathers Razor

Families build a sense of themselves, and of their place in the world, through the construction of narratives and the passing on of stories attached to pictures, artefacts and rituals[i]. This essay is about personal, symbolic and public meanings embedded in a cut throat razor my grandfather gave to me when I was 15. This cut throat razor is just like many other common everyday objects from the past; we now no longer use them, but accept them into our lives because they have always been there.  As with any everyday personal object, it can be seen and looked at for precisely what it is, in terms of its functionality, the job it was designed to do, it’s historical value, who made it, where and how. Finally it can have a personal value; being a very personal object it can give us messages from its dead owner[ii]. When it was given to me, my grandfather was 74 and was already quite ill having suffered a stroke in recent months. This was not his first stroke; he had already had a stroke when he was 60. Subsequent to this he had a further debilitating event and was admitted to a geriatric hospital, where he later died, never regaining a sense of reality or recognition of any of his family.

After he had died I realised how little I actually knew of him as a person. He was a very quiet private individual who I am sure believed in the platitude ‘children should be seen and not heard’. He certainly did not converse well with young people and in fact always made me feel that he had a set of unwritten rules about adult talk and knowledge and the censored version for the children, ‘mind your own business’ was his favourite phrase. He would visit us on a regular basis, coming for dinner most Sundays and calling in during the weekdays, but his conversations were only ever with my parents or the other adults. The reality is that just as I reached the age where I could qualify for membership of this very exclusive club, he died; therefore everything I know about my paternal grandfather is second hand factual information. I know nothing about his personality or his past[iii], all I have was this one very personal possession, his cut throat razor.

Public and Personal Meaning

Patricia Holland, in her 1997 essay, ‘How Sweet it is to Scan’, talks about two different positions from which a viewer might attempt to understand a photograph. One may be compared to the theory of French writer and critic Roland Barthes in which he explored private meaning in relation to photography, which he called the ‘punctum’[iv], the other to his ‘studium’[v], the public, or culturally constructed meaning in a photograph[vi]. We must ask ourselves, can this principal be applied to an everyday object? I have therefore adapted this model for examining the razor.

As Sally J Morgan quite eloquently argues “the photographs seem like icons; graven images that are confused with things that they depict; seemingly to become or contain them rather than simply being a description of the configuration of the light on flesh at a given moment in time…]”. This object of mine, this Joseph Allen & Sons cut throat razor that I have owned for nearly 40 years, has now started to give up its secrets. As I have grown with it, I have discovered new ways to look at it, as I grow both personally and intellectually, with my new found knowledge, I am discovering new ways of looking at it, slowly peeling away its historical layers.

When you stop and look and start to unpeel the layers, a whole new set of concepts reveal themselves in quite subtle but definite ways, taking you on a journey back into the past. To most people the cut throat razor itself is an icon of the past; it is something that their grandfather owned. It often invokes memories of older family members possibly long gone, and has a unique longevity due to it being a much personalised object, whose origins usually mark some moment or event in time, in relation to a family member. Objects can tell untold stories about a person, shaping a family identity, displacing attention into the past and giving the object a great deal of power through its emotional potency.

For me to fully understand this object and form a bridge between the unspoken gulf of my childhood and adulthood, we have to follow a process and a chronology so that the razor can tell ‘its’ story. A story about its form, function, the manufacturing process and its effect on world economics. From this chronology we can build the bridge back to the unknown personality of my grandfather.

‘One small object, one great big history’.

Public meaning

In his paper ‘Not Looking at Kettles’, Ray Bachelor developed a model that stemmed from his work at the Science Museum, London, which highlighted the point that objects are capable of multifaceted interpretation through the analysis of a deliberately mundane, mass produced entity. Although Bachelor eschewed the creation of a model diagram, his analysis was through clearly demarcated areas of idea or invention, material, manufacture, marketing, history of design and use[vii].

First: The idea or invention

It may be difficult to perceive that the cut throat razor did in fact originate as a simple straight frame instrument that folded like a pocket knife, but never acquired the back-spring. It was really very similar to the old English ‘penny knife’ that was so common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries[viii].

The first modern straight razor complete with decorated handles and hollow ground blades was constructed in Sheffield, England, the centre of the cutlery industry after Benjamin Huntsman produced the first superior hard grade alloy steel through the crucible process in 1740.

Abbydale Industrial Hamlet  1

Huntsman’s process was adopted by the French sometime later. Sheffield steel is a highly polished steel, also known as ‘Sheffield silver steel’ famous for its deep gloss finish. It is considered a superior quality steel and is still used to this day in France by such manufacturers as Thiers Issard. The greater part of our present population has never been aware of any type of vintage razor except the common variety of so called ‘cut throat razor’, to understand it’s development, its use, its fall from fashion, and the recent new interest in cut throat razor see Appendix 1.

Second: The material from which it is made

What I initially found interesting about my grandfather’s razor was the quality of the steel. After 94 years there is no sign of rust, only a slight tarnish. This is surely a testament to the skills of the Sheffield Steel makers, and so really got me thinking about how alloy steel is produced.

Steel has to be one of the most undervalued resources we have today. We use it to build everything from gigantic oil tankers weighing 440,000 tonnes[ix] to the humble needle weighing grams. It is such a part of our everyday life that we take it for granted, and although it’s all around us and in some cases our lives depend on it, we hardly ever notice it; we even quite readily throw it away. My Joseph Allen & Sons cut throat razor is made from high quality tool or alloy steel and weighs in at 65 grams. It would have cost about £5.00 at the time it was made in c1914 (about a weeks wages for an adult mail) if bought today would cost about £350. To help understand why steel was such an expensive recourse, a short description of the Cementation and Crucible steel making process is contained in appendix 2.

Third: Making, or manufacture

The choice of manufacturing methods was governed by the choice of materials, and in turn by the state of the manufacturing arts at the time, in any one place[x]. Steel making was done by small companies setting up small teams of highly skilled crafts people and was a high risk business[xi], as opposed to modern methods of steel making which are done with high volume, low skill based personnel working in low risk business[xii]. Joseph Allen & Sons, Oak Works, Sheffield, would have been just one of the many high risk cutlery makers [xiii] at the time (c1864 to c1925)[xiv], employing a handful of highly skilled operators.

The ingots of steel were sent to the Tilt Forge where the massive Tilt Hammers were driven by the site’s main waterwheel. The forge master and hammer man sat before them and would beat out the ingots of alloy steel into flat stock, and then into razor blanks. The speed of the hammer blows was governed by the speed of the water wheel driving the tilt hammer, hence the expression ‘working at full tilt’. The next step was to clean the blank using a heavy forge. Following the forging stage, a hole is drilled in the tang of the blade. This is a crucial step since after the steel hardening process it would be next to impossible to drill hardened steel. The steel is hardened through a special process using a bath of molten lead in which the forged steel blade is immersed at 800 °C . The annealing stage follows the hardening process, where at 300 °C the steel becomes flexible and looses some of its brittleness.

Abbydale Industrial Hamlet 3

The blanks are ground and polished in the Grinding Hull. In the case of my razor this grinding was a 5/8 inches wide and classed as a ¼ hollow grind, again all carried out by small teams of highly skilled operators. The phrase ‘Keeping your nose to the grindstone’ was coined in these Grinding Hulls.[xv] Finally, after honing the razor was fitted with a pair of cow horn scales, oiled, wrapped in greaseproof paper and placed into its ‘coffin box’ to go off to retail. In all likelihood the handwork would have been performed by women – a perennial way of keeping manufacturing costs to a minimum.

Abbydale Industrial Hamlet 2

Fourth: Marketing

Following research done by Public relations teams and focus groups, objects today are marketed to appeal and to stimulate the desire to buy new, long before the old is either broken or needs replacing. In the late 19th century, marketing focused on the practicality of the object to do the job well. Although the basic design was established in the eighteenth century, the outline has remained basically the same for almost 250 years. Any evolution of features was not intended to make it more attractive, but actually designed to make holding the razor steadier and at the proper angle to do a good shaving job. This and other modifications seem to have been developed mostly during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries following technical developments in the machine tool industry.

Fifth: Art

That form follows function is a principle associated with modern architecture and industrial design in the 20th Century. It states that the shape of a building or object should be predicated by or based upon its intended function or purpose. In the context of design professions, form follows function seems like good sense, but on closer examination it becomes problematic and open to interpretation. Linking the relationship between the form of an object and its intended purpose is a good idea for designers

[xvi].

My razor was made to issue to servicemen in the armed forces in World War 1, therefore other than the decorative horn scales, its function, to shave, predominates. However with the threat from Gillette’s new safety razor in 1901, the cut throat razor manufacturers changed the design to make it more fashionable by giving the impression that this was not just a mass produced object at all, but handmade by craftsmen. They achieved this with the inclusion of gold plated bolsters on the ends of the scales, gold wash, and intricate engravings on the blade. A well made blade, in a nice handle, with a well crafted etching and decorated shank carries a sense of craftsmanship and ownership difficult to associate with a disposable blade from a safety razor. A well kept cut throat razor can last for decades and can become a family heirloom that can be passed from father to son[xvii] (or even grandson).

Sixth: Use

In First World War Britain, British servicemen were issued with cut throat razors. The official reason was that with the likelihood of impending poison gas attacks, a clean shaven face would make the gas mask fit better and get the airtight seal that was needed around the gas mask[xviii]. In reality the army needed men, the majority of whom came from rural areas where for many, personnel hygiene was not the first item on the agenda. There were many men with long hair, beards, nits and lice, so the armed forces had with the impeding gas attacks found a good driver for improved hygiene.

Interestingly my grandfather was issued with his cut throat razor[xix] when he became an engineer in the Royal Air Corps at the age of 18. He would have just been learning to shave, although the Armed Forces policy was that everyone shaved daily ‘whether they need it or not’.

Personal Meanings

Objects embody unique information about the nature of man in society, but how does one extract information about culture and mind from mute objects? We have been taught to retrieve information in abstract form, words, and numbers, but most of us are functionally illiterate when it comes to interpreting information encoded in objects[xx]. Description is restricted to what can be observed in the object itself, that is, to internal evidence…[xxi].

Description

What we have here is a Joseph Allen & Son NON XLL (a trade mark of Joseph Allen) cut throat razor made in Sheffield, c1914[xxii]. It weighs 85g including its coffin case and has ox horn scales, brass pins at each end and a pewter wedge keeping the scales apart. This razor is a 5/8 inch[xxiii] blade, with a ¼ ground wedge, 145 mm long. The black coffin case has the trade mark cross and is embossed to look like a Victorian lead lined coffin.

Deduction

The second stage of analysis moves from the object itself to the relationship between the object and perceiver. It involves the empathetic linking of the material (actual) or represented world of the object with the perceiver’s world of existence and experience. To put it another way, the analyst contemplates what it would be like to use or interact with the object…][xxiv]. If I am to develop the relationship with this object further, and peel away another layer, I must place myself in the position of a user of such an object by learning to shave myself with a cut throat. This was no easy feat as not only do I have to learn to shave all over again, but I have to be able to use and maintain a cut throat razor which means both being able to hone and strop it, and obtain proper shaving soap and brush. Fortunately as cut throat razors are still quite popular there is a fantastic internet resource on how and where to source shaving supplies from. Without going into detail, as this would need another essay, I soon learnt the importance of the phrase ‘your father teaching you how to shave’. Fortunately I am quite a hands-on person who adapts to new manual skills very quickly, however saying that, this was to say the least, challenging, (I have the scars to prove it). I did however stick with it and now each morning, with my ‘Dovo Bismarck’ 6/8 razor, I take a nostalgic trip back in time, to engage with a way of life, long gone.

There is a sense of pride holding a piece of steel that you have hand crafted to a cutting edge so fine that it will pop the hairs off the back of your arm, or a hair from your head will fall in half under its own weight if dropped on the blade[xxv]. The feeling of job satisfaction as opposed to clicking a plastic handle onto a disposable razor and spraying your face with canned shaving foam makes no comparison. To shave with a cut throat razor you have to recapture time by making time to do it. You have to be totally relaxed and completely committed to the task without any distractions. As the razor glides across your face, ‘singing’ away, there is a process of sensory engagement, and I start to think about my grandfather on a personal level, how he was an immaculately groomed man; his facial skin was smooth and stubble free, his face clean shaven and burnished from his razor into a fine gloss. He was calm[xxvi], collected and never became angry, he was completely unlike my father, always rushing round, wound up and generally stressed.

When you examine an object with a new pair of eyes, new things start to emerge. As I have learnt to hone a razor myself, I can now see what a skilled craftsman my grandfather was. He honed his razor to perfection, accurate and straight with the lightest touch possible, showing only a minimum of metal removed. Clearly this man was a highly skilled perfectionist; both my memories of him and narratives from living relatives confirm this. They say that you just could not rush my grandfather; even though he got up at seven in the morning to make time for his daily shaving ritual, it had to be at his pace with no compromise; he would take all the time he wanted. Was this my grandfather’s private rebellion in a world where the pace of life was getting faster and faster? Was this my grandfather’s way of reclaiming time stolen by the insistence of speed in the functional processes in modern society[xxvii]? To answer this, I have to continue the process of sensory engagement further, to a more personal level, peel back more layers and bring his razor back to life and shave with it so that I could: see what he saw, hear what he heard and feel what he felt.

Conclusion – An Elegy to the dead

When my grandfather gave me his razor, it was the first thing he had ever given to me in my whole life. It’s not that my grandfather had a dislike for me; he treated all my siblings the same, giving very little to them. But why this cut throat razor, his very own personal razor, and why to me? At fifteen years old I was not going to use a cut throat razor. There is of course the possibility he could no longer use it as a result of his second stroke, which at the time was the accepted answer, but not now that I have grown and changed and acquired the ability to look with new eyes at this historical onion and peel back its layers so that this little razor could reveal a different story.

Was this a test? Was my grandfather really giving me an insight into his very private life through a time capsule wrapped up in a complex code, the code’s encryption dependant on what I did with my life when he was long gone, his own hidden elegy left for me to crack the code?

When he gave me his razor, he knew he was very ill. He was a very intelligent man, he was also quite aware of what I was doing with my life. He was not impressed: fifteen years old, studying in an inner city secondary school, or to be honest not studying, about to leave with no qualifications, no job and no prospects. It’s little wonder that I was still not a member of his exclusive conversation club. Did he know at the time, when he gave me this razor that it could remain forever an object with little or no value[xxviii], or become a priceless artefact, the answer dependant on what I did with my life?

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour[xxix].


[i] Daniel Bertaux and Paul Thompson (eds) International Yearbook of oral History and Life Stories Voll ll, Between Generations, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1993, p.1.

[ii] A sub title used by Sally J Morgan in ‘My Father’s photographs: the visual as Public History’, Seeing History: Public History in Britain Now, H Kean, P Martin, S J Morgan, Francis Boutle, London 2000, p. 32.

[iii] ‘His past’ is how he saw himself, not how others saw him or their opinions of him.

[iv] Roland Barthes, ‘Camera Lucida’, London 1993, p. 27.

[v] Ibid.p.26

[vi] Sally J Morgan in ‘My Father’s photographs: the visual as Public History’, Seeing History: Public History in Britain Now, H Kean, P Martin, S J Morgan, Francis Boutle, London 2000.

[vii] Susan M. Pearce, Interpreting Objects and Collection, Routledge, London 1994, p.139.

[viii] Roy Ritchie and Ron Stewart, Standard Guide t Razors, Identification and Values. Collectors Books, Paducah, Kentucky, USA, 2007, p.14.

[ix]The 442,000 dwt vessel named Hellespont Alhambra

[x] Ray Batchelor, ‘Not Looking at Kettles’, Susan M. Pearce, Interpreting Objects and Collection, Routledge, London 1994, p.140.

[xi] Sheffield had developed a highly specialised proto-industrial workforce, perhaps more so than that of any other English town.  Symonds, J. ‘Steel City: an Archaeology of Sheffield’s Industrial Past’ in Macdonald, S. Materializing Sheffield: Place, Culture and Identity (2006) URL: http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/matshef/symonds/MSsym.htm#metals [Accessed 5 January 2009].

[xii] Pollard. Sidney, A history of labour in Sheffield, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 1959

[xiii] In Sheffield the word ‘cutlery’ refers to ‘that which cuts’, i.e. knives and scissors, but also other edge tools such as sickles, shears and scythes. The rural craft traditions from which the city’s nineteenth century industry developed extend back to the Middle Ages.

 Symonds, J. ‘Steel City: an Archaeology of Sheffield’s Industrial Past’ in Macdonald, S. Materializing Sheffield: Place, Culture and Identity (2006) URL: http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/matshef/symonds/MSsym.htm#metals [Accessed 5 January 2009].

[xiv] John E. and Charlotte S. Goins. Goins’ Encyclopedia of Cutlery Markings, Sell-published, Indiana. 1998.

[xv] Tilt Hammer – Abbeydale Hamlet CD ROM, http://www.tilthammer.com/hamletcd/index.html

Screen clipping taken: 06/01/2009, 13:56

[xvi] Holm Ivar, Ideas and Beliefs in Architecture and Industrial design: How attitudes, orientations, and underlying assumptions shape the built environment. School of Architecture and Design. Oslo, 2006.

[xvii] Dr Christopher Moss, The Art of the Straight Razor Shave – a Basic Guide, 2005. http://www.shavemyface.com/downloads/The-Straight-Razor-Shave.pdf

Screen clipping taken: 12/01/2009, 16:57

[xviii] Anders Larsen, Sharp Practice, the real mans guide to shaving, Transworld, London 2006. P.156.

[xix] The scales of the razor have a number burnt into the horn, this was normal practice and done to razors issued to servicemen.

[xx] Jules Brown, Mind in matter: an introduction to material culture theory and method, Interpreting Objects and Collections, Routledge, London, 1994, p.113.

[xxi] Ibid.p.124.

[xxii] Roy Ritchie and Ron Stewart, Standard Guide t Razors, Identification and Values. Collectors Books, Paducah, Kentucky, USA, 2007,

[xxiii] The standard convention for describing cut throat razor blade width is measured in 1/8 inch increment, therefore a ½ inch blade would be a 4/8 etc.

[xxiv] Jules Brown, Mind in matter: an introduction to material culture theory and method, Interpreting Objects and Collections, Routledge, London, 1994, p.135.

[xxv] The hanging hair test is a method of testing the progress of the honing progress when honing a cut throat razor. When honing and stropping is complete the razor is said to be ‘shave ready’.

[xxvi] During WW2 a bombe dropped by a German aircraft landed my grandfathers back garden. He was so un provoked that did not bother get out of bed but was heard to say to his children; ‘Fuck Hitler and Fuck the Germans’, he then turned over back to sleep.

[xxvii] Tutorial conversation with Paul Martin Ruskin College 14 Jan 2009

[xxviii] Nicky Gregson, Louise Crewe, Second-hand Cultures, Berg, p.115.

[xxix] William Blake,  Auguries of Innocence.

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About morturn

Historian – Photographer – Filmmaker Retired construction professional with a passion for public, social and industrial history. I believe in equality, dignity and integrity for all. Don’t like people who try to belittle the ambitions of others. I am of the opinion that my now life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.
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1 Response to A Close Shave with the Past – My Grandfathers Razor

  1. Hilda Kean says:

    Hi Dave I am really pleased that you are sharing your work from the Public History MA at Ruskin with others online. As you know, I particularly liked your work on your grandfather’s razor. In the new Public History Reader that Paul Martin and I have edited we are drawing on much material we used in our classes including work on objects and material culture. I look forward to reading more!

    Hilda Kean

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