Shaving in the Trenches of World War 1 was a requirement of many soldiers and may seem like an unnecessary burden. As part of ANZAC day commemorations on 25 April we will be looking at the history of shaving during World War 1. Throughout April we will be publishing a series of articles looking at life in the trenches for the common soldier and the requirements and practicalities of shaving. In Part 2 we look at the development of the safety razor and the role King C. Gillette played in supplying the front line troops with a usable razor, read on below.
Grooming in the Trenches
As we discovered in Part 1 grooming was mandatory for soldiers in the British army during World War 1 even for those fighting on the front lines and in the trenches. But how exactly did the soldiers manage to shave and groom themselves in the front lines?
During the early years of the war the most common shaving tool was still the straight razor or cut throat razor. In everyday life outside of war and fighting a typical man of the time would frequent a barbershop for his grooming needs. The skills and tools required for using a straight razor meant that the average man did not shave at home but relied on barbershops.
In the trenches of World War 1 shaving with a straight razor became a difficult task. Personal grooming supplies to the front line were hard to come buy and soldier often relied on family members back home to send items such as razors. It was common for soldiers to have access to only a blunt or rusted razor blade that was shared among friends. Fresh water for grooming was also scare on the front lines. There are accounts of entire companies having to use the same basin of water to shave themselves.
With the constant stress of fighting on the front lines many soldiers suffered from nervous disordered resulting in shaky hands. This made it even more difficult for soldiers to shave with a straight razor and it was not uncommon for the men to be bloodied and cut from the use of a blunt and rusted razor.
This began to change in the late 1800’s due to the advent of the double edged safety razor which was to make shaving in the trenches somewhat easier.
The Development of The Safety Razor
The first basic designs for a safety razor were developed in 1847 by William S. Henson. The design was improved on in May 1880 by Fredrik and Otto Kampfe who were located in Brooklyn, New York. The Kampfe Brothers design increased the distance of the blade from the handle by positioning a metal plate between the blade and handle which resulted in a smoother shave. The blade was held in place by metal clips and not screws meaning that it could be removed and sharpened when required. The shape of the razor head or frame is a distinguishing feature of the Kampfe Razor which doubled as a lather catcher.
The Kampfe Razor was widely successful and many competitors copied the design. Due to the competition the Kampfe brothers increased their marketing campaigns along with the range of products offered which now included a variety of cased sets with intricate handles and stropping devices. The continuous success and popularity of the Kampfe Brothers razors resulted in a large number of patents for new designs, one of which came from King C. Gillette.
King C Gillette
Born on 5 January 1855 in Wisconsin, King C Gillette began his career as a salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company which manufactured bottles and metal beverage and food cans. Gillette noticed that the bottle caps and corks were often thrown away after the bottle was opened which made his realize the value of creating a product that was used more than once before being discarded.
At the time men were shaving with straight razors which were sharpened regularly after use by using a strop and hone, a time consuming process. Straight razors were expensive and dulled quickly therefore Gillette thought that a razor blade that was inexpensive to produce and buy which could be thrown away when dulled would be a profitable and popular item.
Safety razors had already been developed in the mid 1800’s however they still used a forged blade that meant the razor needed to be re-sharpened regularly. Gillette’s first foray into the market was with a stamped steel razor blade that retailed for $5, a substantial sum of money at the time but his product sold by the millions. Development of the blades was challenging as thin steel was difficult to work with and sharpen but Gillette’s team of machinists were able to improve designs and manufacturing techniques and were soon able to mass produce disposable blades at low cost.
In September 1901 Gillette founded the Gillette Safety Razor Company and obtained trademarks for his image and signature on his packaging. The first sales were made in 1903 totaling 51 razors and 168 blades. The subsequent year however sales increased dramatically with over 90,000 razors being sold along with 123,000 blades.
American Entry into World War 1
By 1915 Gillette was selling more that 450,000 razors a year and over 70 million blades. In Europe the events of World War 1 were unfolding however the U.S. had no appetite for war and President Woodrow Wilson was actively trying to keep the Americans out of the War. The American mentality changed over the course of the early war years due to a series of events conducted by the Germans including the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, the Zimmermann Telegram and the continuing sinking of American merchant ships in the Atlantic. The U.S. entered the war on 6 April, 1917 and American troops began arriving in Europe shortly after.
In 1918 the U.S. Government bought 3.5 million razors and 36 million blades from Gillette to supply their troops while fighting in Europe. This was a significant increase of sales for Gillette who in 1917 had sold 1.1 million razors. To meet the increased demand Gillette hired an additional 500 staff with shifts working 24 hours a day. Gillette’s products were now being supplied to a large number of men, many of whom would continue to use his razors in the post war period. Gillette became synonymous with front line soldiers shaving in the trenches.
Shaving in the Trenches
The Gillette Safety Razor Company introduced two razors sets during the First World War for shaving in the trenches, a khaki set supplied to front line soldiers and a metal set that could be purchased for $5 from retailers such as Sears Roebuck and Company.
The Khaki set, or Gillette Military set, was a khaki covered hard case with a snap closing mechanism. Inside the set was a Gillette safety razor, two blade holders, a soap tube and a brush tube. All Gillette razors sold to the military were marked with a serial number beginning with the letter J.
The Metal set, or Gillette Service set, was sold through retailers in the U.S. including Sears Roebuck and Company. There were at least three versions of the Service set including two sold in American and one in Canada. The Service set was marketed to friends and family as a gift to a soldier and many were sold and shipped to men fighting on the front lines. The Service set came complete with a metal tin, a safety razor, a pack of blades and a mirror on the interior of the lid. The exterior was embossed with the U.S. Army and Navy insignia.
Post War Period
Millions of front line soldiers return to the U.S. following the war, many of which became lifelong customers of Gillette after using their razors for shaving in the trenches. The Gillette Company undertook a series of advertising campaigns focusing on the victorious and clean shaven soldiers returning home. Being clean shaven was promoted as being manly and Gillette sales continued during the post war period although like many companies the 1930’s would prove difficult due to the recession.
Gillette had successfully grown his customer base during the war period thanks to the help of the U.S. Government. For many men shaving in the trenches was a difficult chore that often resulted in bloodied and nicked faces and necks. The introduction of Gillette’s safety razors as part of the standard soldiers kit made the requirement of shaving in the trenches easier for the men.