Schick sticks to his ideas

On March 18, 1931, the first practical, electric shaver went on sale in the market. Invented by American Jacob Schick, these razors made dry shaves possible for men. A.S.Ganesh takes a close look at how Schick struck succes.

Updated - November 10, 2021 12:20 pm IST

Published - March 19, 2018 08:26 am IST

Image for representational purposes only.

Image for representational purposes only.

Depending on whether your father sports a clean-shaven look or a bearded look, you might have got to see this often. If he does belong to the former category, then his everyday routine while getting ready would surely include having a shave. This he might be achieving either with a wet shave or a dry shave. If he washes his face, applies foam on it and then takes to a razor, he is having a wet shave. If, on the other hand, he uses a electric razor to get rid of facial hair, he is having a dry shave and might well have to thank Jacob Schick for it.

Stint with Army

Born in Iowa in 1877, Schick learnt English, Spanish and German as a child. His father was a German immigrant who set up a coal company and Schick started working there at a young age. By the age of 16, his father put him in charge of building a railway line that would allow them to transport coal to a smelting forge.

Schick enlisted with the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War that began in 1898 and his fluency in Spanish earned him a ticket to the Philippines, where he was recognised for his abilities to organise military construction crews. It wasn’t all good though, as he developed severe dysentery in the tropics and required year-long recovery in the hospital.

Even when he was declared fit to return to service, he was transferred to Alaska as he was stipulated to work in colder climates to minimise the risk of another bout of dysentery. Working in a staging camp for military construction projects, Schick was involved in building miles and miles of telegraph lines in the remote, harsh, frozen terrains of Alaska.

Arctic temperatures

It was here that Schick confronted his shaving predicament. A stickler for the clean-shaven look, Schick found it extremely difficult to have wet shaves in the Arctic temperatures – what with icy waters and frozen fingers. So when he injured his ankle during an exploration for gold in the 1910s, forcing him to stay put at the camp to recuperate, he set about solving his shaving problem.

Schick did come up with crude plans that included a shaver with a shaving head connected to a flexible cable and driven by an external motor. He duly sent out his drawings to manufacturers, who rejected the bulky invention.

Inspired by weaponry

World War I saw Schick return to active duty and serve as a lieutenant colonel, heading the Army’s intelligence and criminal-investigation team in England. His mind was never far off his razor though and he built on his experience with repeating rifles to build his Magazine Repeating Razor. Based on the principle of repeating firearms, these razors had a disposal and loading mechanism that automatically pushed out the old used blade and replaced it with a new one, never once involving human contact, removing the risk of cutting one’s fingers.

Even though this product was a hit, Schick sold his stakes in this business in order to return to the dry electric shaver that he had in mind. He did the same with two pencil sharpeners, Pencilaid and Pencilknife, that he developed earlier in the 1920s while working on the Magazine Repeating Razor, selling his patents to raise more capital.

Early models fail

His early models of the dry electric razor were ready for the market in 1927, but they were still clumsy. It didn’t help that the Great Depression was just around the corner as well, meaning that these models didn’t sell well. In order to have the company going and keep himself afloat, Schick even mortgaged his house.

By this time, Schick realised that the reason for the device’s failure was its bulky nature. In order to make it more handy, Schick got rid of the flexible cable that had been a part of his design, instead putting a small motor inside the same unit that housed the shaving head. An appliance cord supplied powered to this unit, which was sleekly encased and snugly fitted in the hands. A simple turn-wheel switch was employed to turn the razor on and off.

Finally clicks

Schick set up a new company for his dry shaving razor and opened a factory in Stamford, Connecticut, employing nearly 100 people. And on March 18, 1931, his new dry shaver razor went on sale in New York City.

Despite being priced at $25 (nearly $400 today), nearly 3,000 units were sold in the first year – a number that ballooned to 1.5 million by the time Schick died in 1937. Even though the shaves weren’t as close as promised to be, and definitely not closer than wet steel blades, people realised that these devices were rather convenient.

When the costs involved in wet shaving – such as blades, foams and razors – were factored in, dry razors didn’t seem that expensive after all. The market also started seeing competition from other new players, which not only led to price drops and innovation in the dry razors, but also ensured that these devices were there for the long haul.

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