Early GEM razors are often called lather catchers. This was because, like the Kampfe Bros’ Star we looked at last week, the head could hold a lot of lather while shaving. American Safety Razor Corp several patents for various designs, and Jeremiah Reichard’s patent filed in 1906 is one of the simpler yet interesting designs.
Simple in that it’s little more than a shaped piece of springy sheet metal, bent to form the head and blade holder. Interesting in that it shows good industrial design – making a single part make several jobs – and in that it’s possible the earliest patent to show what became what we today know as the GEM razor blade.
Before the safety razor as we recognise it today was invented, there was a rich history of “almost-safety-razors” that were invented, patented and sold. One of the more interesting ideas was patented in 1874 by John Monks from Gloucester in England.1 What we have here today is the US patant on his invention that he was granted in 1878 – three years after the Kampfer Bros had likely started manufacturing the first Star razors.
Sometimes referred to as the “pig scraper”, for reasons that should be clear reading the patent:
One of the earliest recognisable safety razors – as the term is commonly understood today – was Frederick and Otto F. Kampfe’s 1880 patent. There is some indications that the first razors were made as early as 1875, but the Star trademark seems to have been in use since 1880. The patent1 for the Star razor is also one of the earliest – if not the very first – use of the term “safety razor”.
Be it known that we, FREDERIC KAMPFE and OTTO F. KAMPFE, of New York, in the county of New York and State of New York, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Safety-Razors; and we do hereby declare the following to be a full, clear, and exact description of the invention, such as will enable others skilled in the art to which it appertains to make and use the same…
US patent 228,904
The Star razor used wedge blades, which were replaceable but not disposable per see. The shaver was expected to have the skill and knowledge to sharpen and hone the blade as needed. In addition to the removable blade, the patent claimed the comb guard as a novel invention, as well as the ability to store the handle in the blade holder. The blade holder was – as can be seen from the patent drawing – was much larger than the head of a Gillette style razor.
The size of the head is also – I do believe – why the early Kampfe razors sometimes are called lather catchers. As it is described in the patent text itself:
The sharp edge of the razor rests against the grated or toothed edge of the front plate, and as the hair and soap are removed in the operation of shaving such refuse matter will be forced through the opening G in the bottom plate, and be retained within the hollow holder, thereby permitting of the use of the device without danger of soiling the fingers of the user.
US patent 228,904
In other words; it was designed from the start to retain the lather in the head, thus keeping the shavers hand free of soap and whiskers. The fact that this also allowed for the handle to be stored in the head seems to mostly have been a happy coincidence – good design often allows any one piece of a device to do multiple functions.
Kampfe’s Star razor was remarkable successful for being such an early design, and variations was for sale until after Gillette and others had popularised the idea of replaceable and disposable blades. During the production run several alterations and refinements were made to the razor, and Kampfe got at least twenty three more razor related patents. The handle was made slimmer and longer, and gained the familiar stars. The blade retention mechanism was refined and improved. The head shrunk some in size, and gained the word STAR on the guard plate.
Advertisement was aggressive, even more so after Gillette hit the market. Some of the advertisements were direct attacks on Gillette’s claim that the disposable blade made stropping and honing a thing of the past. Others advocated the superiority of the convex blade over the flat. In 1911 an advertisement claimed the Star razor had five million users, and other ads claimed that the many imitators proved it’s success.
Despite the claims of success, it was clear that the day of the wedge blade was over. In 1913 Kampfe introduced the Star Cru Steel2 rib backed blade – a a single edge thin rigid blade having a folded reinforcing rib clamped to the blade opposite the cutting edge. The broadly similar Stoll blade they introduced around 1915 was advertised as being suitable for “Stoll, Superior, Ever Ready, Gem, Gem Junior, Star and other safety razors”.3
It’s also worth nothing, I believe, that one of the founders of Gem Cutlery Co – who would go on to make the GEM razors – was a former employee of Kampfe. In addition the Kampfe Brothers became a subsidiary of American Safety Razor Corp., which was formed when GEM and EverReady merged. So the history of the GEM and the Kampfe is intertwined and most likely complex.
As far as my sources tells me, the Star razor was last offered for sale in the 19204 Sears Roebuck catalogue. The wedge shaped blades were last listed in the same catalogue six years later before that too disappeared. Not a bad run for a razor that was first introduced in 1875 as the very first safety razor.
For those wanting to learn more about the history of Kampfe Brothers, I would recommend Robert K Waits’ “Safety Razor Compendium”.
1) The patent can be read either at Google Patents or at Razors.click. 2) Cru Steel is most likely an abbreviation for crucible steel, a form of steel that were considered superior to others when it came to making machine tools and cutting edges. 3) EverReady offered a single edge rib backed blade suitable for “Yankee, Star and Gem frames” as early as 1906 – 50 cents for seven, while the Star wedge replacement blade cost 1 dollar each. 4) 1920 was also the year when Gillette sold two million razors and a whooping 19 million blades.
In the commonly used type of safety razor, the axis of the handle extends at right angle to the longitudinal direction of extension of the blade. The natural and most convenient mode of operating such a razor is to pull it across the surface of the face in a user experiences more or less discomfort.
Otto Spahr in US patent 1,639,441
Reading the introductory paragraph of Otto Spahr’s patent, I get the feeling he could be a bit snarky at times. But he has a point – the common safety razor isn’t the most ergonomic design. And if you’re using the “Gillette Slide” – which some sources indicate was a common technique – it was even less good. Possible solutions includes the slant, an offset handle, or having the head at an angle to the handle.
Mr Spahr picked the later approach, and seems to have gotten the idea that no set angle suits everyone. So he came up with a design that allowed for near infinite adjustment of the handle. In the words of the inventor:
Another object of the invention is to so hinge the razor-carrying frame to the handle that the handle may be adjusted to any desired angle to the blade, so that the axis of the handle will not only extend at an oblique angle to the longitudinal direction of extension of the bla e, but maybe within the plane of the longitudinal centerline .of the blade or at an angle to such plane, as the user may prefer.
Otto Spahr in US patent 1,639,441
A spring loaded ball joint meant that there were no screw threads that can seize up. The spring pressure must be calibrated, to stop the handle from either being beeing too stiff or too loose.
While not an adjustable razor per see, Spahr’s razor offers opportunity for a lot of adjustment. I can certainly see it being of interest for people with less than full use of their hands, for one reason or other.
As most traditional wetshavers knows, a shaving brush works best if it’s not too small. This can have some drawbacks, especially if you’re travelling. To quote the inventor Michel Charles Blondin;
Shaving brushes used for putting soap on the skin before shaving should be preferably somewhat large. Consequently they take a long time drying and are difficult to clean; moreover they are comparatively cumbersome and cannot be put away in a small or flat dressing-case for transportation.
Michel Charles Blondin in US patent 1,786,224
The most modern solution seems to be having your travel brush made out of synthetic fibers, or being able to be retracted into a container. My own travel brush, for example, is an Omega 50014 – which neatly fits in it’s own handle. Mr Blondin’s solution was slightly more complex and actually rather interesting. In his own words again:
My improved shaving brush comprises a plurality of very flat brush elements adapted to be assembled to form the brush ready for use.
Michel Charles Blondin in US patent 1,786,224
As the patent drawing hopefully makes clear, the plurality of brush elements pivoted together could either be folded up as a cube-shaped handle with a squarish brush – or it could be flattened out to a long and flat brush that would dry quickly. Other forms the brush could take would be – according to the patent description – a flat elastic strip that could be rolled up, or small flat segments can can be stacked inside a holder. A holder could also optionally be used for the rolled up elastic strip and the hinged variations of the brush.
The patent drawing shows his new and improved brush in a hinged box with a full set of shaving gear, including soap (item 18 on the drawing). The whole shaving gear would be – he claims – flat enough to be carried in a pocket.
I can actually see the use of a brush like this today as well; it’s a niche market, but it would suit those of us who both like to have a proper shave on the go, and have to deal with living out of a small GoBag for a few days at a time. The only real question is if that niche in the market is large enough for a modern manufacturer of shaving brushes to invest the time, effort, and resources to produce it.
As some of you might have noticed, I like patents for old razors and related accoutrements. Like enough to have many, many posts about them. Enough to self publish a book about them. And more than enough to appreciate the work behind a site like razors.click.
Razors.click is a site mostly about razor patents. It have some added bonuses like a handful of inventor biographies, a few articles on razor related subjects, and short how-to’s on how to make your own wedge blade and taking 360° images. The main focus is on patents though, and where I will show of a patent and either snark on some of the odd details or ramble about the things I like, razors.click lays out the patent in a clear, readable format with interactive drawings.
Razors.click is a good resource for anyone who likes old razors and engineering. Personally I would enjoy seeing more shaving related accoutrements – brushes and bowls – but it is a great resource both for research and relaxation. Go check it out.
As I’ve mentioned before Gillette wasn’t the only one trying to invent and patent a perfected safety razor around the turn of the last century. One of the main competitors was Russ Jackson Christy and his family of Christy Hoe Razors.
I’ve mentioned Christy’s razors in passing before, but here we have the real deal. Not a razor using a Christy blade, not a razor similar to a Christy Hoe, but an early advertisement for a proper Christy Hoe. And while this ad reads rather different than the one we looked at last week – due to being aimed at a different class of audience perhaps – it still have a lot of words and is rather information dense compared to advertisements of today.
I like his this ad reads much like I expect a gentleman of the era to talk. It comes across as informal, is information dense, yet don’t move into information overload.
Allegedly a delightful razor to use, the also highlights the razor’s simplicity. And with just three pieces – handle, blade, and guard – it’s hard to imagine something simpler. And while Gillette advertised a year or so later than blades were inexpensive enough to be thrown away like an old pen nib, one of Christy’s selling points were that the blades were thick enough to strop and would last for months. This alone suggest that the marked for Christy wasn’t the rich, but the frugal.
For as little as 1.50$ – or about 44 US dollars today – you not only got the razor, but also half a dozen blades. Not bad for a frugal man, since that could potentially translate into three years of shaves at a mere fifty cents a year.
If I’m to judge by the drawing and the date, my guess is that the razor being demonstrated in the Men’s Furnishing Department was based of Russ Jackson Christy’s patent US 788,820. For those that are curious, the patent can be viewed either at Google Patent Search or over at razors.click (easier to read, and interactive).
King Gillette did not invent his safety razor in a vacuum. Around the turn of the last century, there were a race to invent and patent the ideal safety razor. This should be inexpensive to produce, give a good shave, and preferably would be able to be sold in high numbers with good profit. Gillette wasn’t necessarily the best of the bunch, just the most successful in the long run.
One of the less successful inventors were James J Fetzer, of Columbiana Ohio. Mr Fetzer tok out two patents on behalf of the Herbrand Company.1 Both used a replaceable blade with ears, but differed in how the blade and top cap was secured.
Both patents describe simple hoe style, single edge razors, reminiscent of the Diamond Edge razor I mentioned a while back. Both describe making the comb guard – or base plate, in the terminology of today – out of sheet metal with the edge curled. And both seems to have thin handles – but that seem to have been popular on many Christy style hoe razors as well.
His earliest patent – US 819,640 – describes a razor where the nut holding the handle is attached to the top cap, and the handle presses the guard and blade against the cap. One problem I see right away is that over-tightening the handle will bend the top cap upwards. I would have put some reinforcements around the back of the assembly to strengthen it.
His slightly later patent – US 840,449 – describes a razor with a separate top cap, base plate, and jam nut – all of which is both screwed onto the handle. While this avoids the possibility of stressing the top cap, it mean that the user will have to tighten the small jam nut. This will be harder than if you can twist the entire handle, especially if you have wet hands.
In the end I suspect Herbrand – and by extension, J J Fetzer – wasn’t forgotten because their razors were inherently less good than Gillette. Rather they were put aside and forgotten because production of replacement blades2 stopped. Which is a shame when you think about it, because there is a lot of fun history lurking in old razors.
The OCR on both patents – as I found them with the Google Patent Search – is pretty bad. Luckily for me – and you – razors.click has both of them on his website, nicely readable and with clickable drawings. Direct links; US819640 and US840449.
(1) According to Waits’ Compendium, the HERBRAND trademark was renewed in 1929 for razors… and then disappeared.
(2) Blades for Christy and Ender style hoe razors were also manufactured by third part blade makers. For instance Clark’s Blade & Razor Co (Newark, NJ) offered off-brand blades for a wide range of razors. They sold via the Sears Catalogue until at least the end of the 1920’s.
In order to celebrate a couple of things I’m running a countdown deal on the Kindle version of my book “70 razor and shaving patents“!
This is a very unique and interesting book. I have always enjoyed early 20th century patents. This book is full of them – 200 pages worth – all related to traditional wet shaving. What I appreciate the most is the author’s commentary. He points out the most interesting aspects of the patent in a couple of short paragraphs. This isn’t always obvious from the patent drawing itself, so the author has done the work of reading through the patent and describing the vision and features of the invention. The book is easy to flip through with interesting pictures and easy-to-digest commentary.
Review from Amazon
Since this is a count down deal, the sooner you get your copy, the more you save!
From July 4 @ 1200AM PDT / 0700 UTC; 78% off!
From July 4th @ 1200PM PDT / 1900 UTC; 56% off!
From July 5 @ 1200AM PDT / 0700 UTC; 34% off!
From July 5th @ 1200PM PDT / 1900 UTC; 12% off!
Sale ends on July 6th @ 1200AM PDT / 0700 UTC.
Prices for the paperback have also been lowered, although not as much as for the electronic version since I have to take the cost of printing into consideration.
There seems to have been a drive – since Gillette first started to sell safety razors – to simplify production and increase the profit margin. I’m convinced that not all ideas got patented, but those which did can make for some fascinating reading.