I started shaving in the late 1990s, and all I knew was that Barbasol was for old men and shaving gel was better than shaving cream, although the marketers never did tell me why. What I did not know or realize was that men had found ways to shave centuries before aerosol or gel were invented. The art of working up a hot, foamy lather with a thick-bristled shaving brush was a lost art to that point in my life, but, then again, so was my great-grandfather.
As a young private, I once showed up to my Army National Guard armory unshaven. I was given a Bic disposable and sent to the bathroom to “fix it.” I distinctly remember a crusty old sergeant suggesting that I use the foamy soap in the bathroom’s dispenser as shaving cream. What a fool, I thought, you can’t use soap to shave.
I did not begin wet shaving until my junior year of college at the suggestion of a professor who overheard me lament my razor burn. Two years later, the same man gave me my first double-edged safety razor as a wedding gift. All our wedding gifts bore both my name and my bride’s name, but most were intended for her. The razor, though, was mine, and I loved it. Wet shaving became a full-blown hobby soon thereafter.
My maternal grandfather died when I was nine years old, and I remember just enough about the man to know that I miss him. I remember his quiet, witty demeanor and his idle threats to “hang me by a hook” if I acted up.
My mom was an only child and adored her father, so she always supplemented my memories of him. In keeping alive my memories of Papa Herbert, however, I seldom asked anything prior to my mother’s earliest memories. I knew he was born in South Carolina, and I knew he turned down an appointment to West Point to marry my grandmother and enlist in the U.S. Army. Anything prior to that is a mystery.
I was raised far away from my parents’ hometowns, and I did not grow up near close relatives. I missed many old family stories that way, and I never really gave them much thought.
A year after graduating college, working multiple jobs, and contemplating how I was going to provide for my future family, I followed my heart and enrolled in law school, where I am now. Shaving has never been a larger part of my life than it is now as a 1L. I worked six years for a company that required shaving, and I spent nine years in the Oklahoma Army National Guard, 30 months of which were spent on active duty, with 12 months in the Middle East. I have shaved just about every weekday of my adult life, but something is different now.
My generation is not patient, and I am no different. I compulsively check Facebook. I post to Twitter multiple times a day. I am checked in on Foursquare, and I know my Klout score. My wife takes my phone away while we watch television so that I can pay attention, and I have her change my Facebook password during finals week so that I can study undistracted. On top of my social media addiction, I spend 50 to 60 hours a week in class or studying.
In short, I am practically a nervous wreck on any given day, and I actually mean that in the most benign way possible. I am a product of my generation. I am never at ease because I am always thinking, doing, or checking something . . . except for about 20 minutes each morning when I relax and concentrate on one thing only: the perfect shave.
The time I spend each morning turning shave soap into warm lather, rinsing my double-edged safety razor in between meticulous strokes and preparing my face for the day’s activities is the most relaxing part of my day. I am not studying, checking my fantasy football team, reading my RSS feed, retweeting an agreeable statement, or liking a Facebook status. It is my nirvana.
My hometown is a little over an hour away from school, and I have gone there several times since moving away. My parents still live there in the house that I grew up in. Little has changed since I moved away, especially in the bathroom my brother and I shared as youths.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I have spent few Thanksgivings away from home: two at military bases and one in Kuwait on the way home from Iraq. They are not the same without family, so my wife and I made sure to drive home for the holiday. After dinner with both sets of parents, we followed my parents to my old home on Trenton Road. Eventually, I had to use the bathroom and, while washing my hands, saw something that had sat in the bathroom for my entire youth. Only, this time I realized what it was.
Sitting atop the toilet lid were two vintage shaving brushes and a ceramic reservoir with “Razobrite bath” painted above the depiction of a razor. I took them into the living room, where I asked my mom what she knew about them. They were her grandfather’s shaving supplies, she said. My great-grandfather used them, and they had been in plain sight my entire childhood.
My mother graciously gave them to me, and I immediately set out to investigate the find. The reservoir had a patent number on the bottom, which dated it to 1934. The brushes were not as easily dated, but they came from the same period: an Ever-Ready 100 model and an Erskine brush, which is not easily traceable online. Most believe it was an alternate brand name for Ever-Ready. In any event, they were now mine, and I wanted to shave with the same brush my great-grandfather did 80 years ago. However, the bristles were so old and damaged that it was impossible.
I began with the Ever-Ready. The white and red two-tone handle was more to my liking, and it was the only one that had text on the side of the handle rather than the end. I started the restoration by cleaning it as best I could: scrubbing and sanding the years away. I ordered a new badger hair knot online and waited anxiously for its arrival. Removing the old knot was a painstaking process; instead of eventually coming out of the handle in a single piece, I had to drill it out little by little until it was nothing but sawdust in my office trashcan.
After ridding the interior of the handle of all remnants of its former life, I applied the epoxy glue and set the new knot, a glorious 20-mm pure badger one. I repainted the text Ever-Ready with GUARANTEED stamped below to match the bottom of the handle: Insignia Red. Finally, I applied a clear coat and buffed it to a shine.
The project was exciting and calming at the same time. It was an extension of my early morning nirvana, and it gave me an opportunity to make something new again. It did more than that though: it ignited something inside me that I did not know existed.
I began to wonder about my great-grandfather. I wondered if he viewed shaving in the same way I did and what type of razor he would have used. I wondered what he was like, what he did during his life and, most of all, if he would be proud of me, just as I wonder what his son would think of me now.
My mother promises to tell me more, but right now all I know is that she knew my great-grandfather well, he had a quiet wit, and he was a lot like me. I cannot wait to learn more, so I can one day tell my son about his great-great-grandfather, while I teach him to shave the right way: with a badger hair brush and a double-edged safety razor.
I am a firm believer that you can learn all you need to know about being a man through shaving: patience, pride, and the humility that comes with each rare nick of the blade. That is what I will teach my future son when I pass the brush down to him.
[This article originally appeared in The Good Men Project on December 12, 2011]