Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Some things last too long

"Valet" AutoStrop Safety Razor

One of my nephews, along with his wife and young daughter, stopped by for a visit recently. I'm posting this ad for the Valet AutoStrop safety razor for him. He'll be interested in this as he is very concerned with waste. I can understand his concern as I've been against waste all my life.

When I was in high school I used a Valet AutoStrop razor. I sharpened the blade on a strip of leather which had belonged to my dad. He had used it once to sharpen a straight razor; my mother used it to spank her son: me.

I still have the razor along with a box or two of blades. The blades are single sided with the name Valet completely punched out. The metal missing from the blade leaves letters which overlay raised bits of metal in the razor head itself. This interlocking system holds the blade firmly in place.

The company that made the Valet razor stopped producing the razors in the late '40s, I believe. But the blades were available in stores until the mid '60s. When I worked at a drugstore in the early '60s, I can recall selling the red packages of blades to diehard Valet AutoStrop users. They swore by these blades. Some claimed to get two months of shaves from one blade. It was important, though, to keep the blades sharp by correctly using the unique leather strop which by the '60s was no longer available. A box of five blades, which cost less than a dollar, would last the better part of a year, according to these users.

When Wilkinson-Sword came out with the stainless steel double-sided safety razor blade, the market for the Valet product began to dry up. The stainless steel blades seemed to last indefinitely compared to the common Gillette blue blades which were prone to rust between uses. Often, one got one shave, and one shave only, from these carbon steel blades. The rule for Gillette users was "If it's a new morning, it's a new blade."

Some men tried to prevent the rust by submerging used blue blades in a small glass filled with rubbing alcohol. It was a lot of trouble and there was the constant risk of the tumbler being knocked to the floor and broken. Squeezing more shaves out of Wilkinson blade was a little easier. Some users stropped the shiny blades by rubbing them back and forth on the inside of large glass.

The Wilkinson blades didn't last as long as the Valet blades but they gave a closer shave when new. Sales of the the old blades softened and the blades once famous for their longevity disappeared from stores.

But the longevity record does not go to the Valet blades with their AutoStrop technology. No, this award may go to the Personna 74 tungsten steel blade released in the early '70s. These blades lasted so long that there was no money to be made in making them. With a microscopic layer of titanium protecting the edge, Personna took the concept of reusable too far. The carbon steel blades simply lasted and lasted and lasted. The Personna 74 was removed from the market.

I understand that the razor industry is worth $30 billion worldwide. Whether it is an AutoStrop system or superior blade technology, lasting too long isn't the goal today of manufacturers: It's sales. The inventor of the Valet system would be appalled by today's disposable razors sold in huge packages containing a dozen or more big, plastic razors. What a waste!

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