The Razor’s Edge: Treasure from the Chest

We’re on the Razor’s Edge!”

Billy Hanson's Straight Razor with case. Plastic handle. Still sharp.
Billy Hanson’s Straight Razor with case. Plastic handle. Still sharp.

Today with our electric shavers, disposable razors, and depilating creams, “the razor’s edge” might seem like nothing more than an idiom attached to an antique shaving tool, the straight-razor (aka open razor or cutthroat-razor!). Surprisingly, however, the straight razor is making a big come-back thanks to a scene in the James Bond movie, Skyfall. (Read more about this: The Straight-Razor Start-up Package: How to get into the boutique, nearly lost art of the wet shave, Outside Magazine 9/29/2016). More about Eve, James, and Skyfall below.

What the Hell do I Know About Shaving?

Of course, my friends would probably say: “Who the hell are you to talk about shaving?” A good point. Take one look at any photo of me on this website (or in my entire photo collection going back to 1977), and you’ll be hard-pressed to find me without a beard. Without clothes, maybe, but not without my self-defining beard. I once shaved it off without warning Kate and my kids (who were probably about 6 and 8-years-old). Kate told me she wanted divorce, and refused to talk to me until I grew it back (or at least for the first three days). I have to admit my face looked very short in the mirror. Erin said, “You don’t look like an Alaskan anymore.” That really hurt. As for survival of our marriage, it was a close shave (Yeah, I know, stupid. But irresistible).

Billy Hanson's leather strops for sharpening straight-razor.
Billy Hanson’s leather strops for sharpening straight-razor. Top: Torrey’s Best- patented 1901 2-sided; Bottom: Sheffield’s Magic Strop- 4 sided.

For most of Billy Hanson’s life, shaving meant using a straight razor. Later, he adopted the “safety” razor (first patented in 1901). How do I know? It turns out that Billy seems to have had an affection for his razors, perhaps unable to let such a personal tool go. In his trunk, I find several straight razors and worn-out strops for sharpening them, safety razors, and a supply of razor blades. Perhaps “affection” is unfair. Living far from town, where even groceries required a 40-60 mile drive, and ordering from the “Monkey Ward” (Montgomery Ward) catalog was a staple, I think I’d save these potentially useful tools as back-ups as well.

Billy Hanson's Gillette safety razor in leather case.
Billy Hanson’s Gillette safety razor in leather case. Metal container with blades and spares.

The straight razor had the advantages that it was durable, could be resharpened, gave better control, shaved closer, and didn’t need electricity. The safety razor had the new advantages that it greatly reduced the chance of bloodshed, had extra sharp disposable blades, and still didn’t require electricity.

Several brands of razor blades in Billy’s safety razor box.

The electric shaver advantages are obvious – easy, no shaving cream. But for my minimal shaving, I still use the safety razor and shaving cream, perhaps because it takes me back to Billy.


Hollywood Loves Razors (and I love movies with cool shaving scenes)

Straight razor from Billy Hanson's trunk. Devon Mfg. Co., Germany
Straight razor from Billy Hanson’s trunk. Devon Mfg. Co., Germany

If you haven’t ever seen a straight razor, watch Eve (Naomi Harris) shave James Bond (Daniel Craig) in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall: “Keep still. This is the tricky part.” The straight razor has been a favored murder weapon in the movies, but I think imagination is sufficient to give us the picture, so won’t include a clip here.

My favorite safety razor scene in a movie? Using shaving cream to disguise his face and evade detectives that come through the door behind him, Robert O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, shaves with Eve Kendall’s (Eva Marie Saint) safety razor, the smallest razor ever seen, next to an amazed businessman using a straight razor in an airport restroom: mine is bigger than yours.

A Surprise Aroma in Billy’s Steamer Trunk

Billy Hanson, however, never seems to have retained more than a neatly trimmed mustache, and that was in the early days. In 99% of his photos, he is neatly clean-shaven.

Billy Hanson (50-60 years old) always looks clean-shaven.
Billy Hanson (50-60 years old) always looks clean-shaven.

I remember him as always very particular about shaving, a daily routine that I occasionally caught sight of. More than that, the shaving cream had a distinct fragrance, sharp and masculine. When I was 14, my grandfather gave me two suede leather coats that he had worn for many years, mostly for work in spring and fall. I loved those coats and wore them every day. And even more than the feel of the well-worn leather, I loved the smell of his shaving cream, still distinct and wonderful, that somehow transferred his persona to my brain.

Fragrance of Billy's shaving lotion takes me back to being near him. Betty & Billy Hanson, Betty Sue (age 3) & Bill Hanson (age 4) 1957
Fragrance of Billy’s shaving lotion takes me back to being near him. Betty & Billy Hanson, Betty Sue (age 3) & Bill Hanson (age 4) 1957.

With all this, I’m completely surprised, and happy to discover that the shaving mug in the chest STILL, even after at least 60 years of disuse, has that same aroma of his shaving cream! Suddenly, I’m no longer looking at his photo. I see his eyes, feel his hand on my shoulder, hear him say, “Hello, Bill,” with that thin dry smile as I arrive for another adventure.


The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen

The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen

Billy Hanson's friend Art "larning this pig to sing."
Billy Hanson’s friend Art “larning this pig to sing.” See the full note from back of photograph. Horse-drawn wagon in background. Wyoming. probably 1910-1920.

Note: This is the second of two connected posts. The first is here: No Letters: I hated Sundays!

As I look back at the written materials in Billy’s chest, I find, old postcards of the ranch, greetings from friends, occasional tragedy or loss, and mundane business records. Even the driest of these take on new interest for me, as I watch him purchase additional land, or borrow money for “chattel” (non-land or building property=cattle and horses).
Like Billy and Betty (or perhaps it was mainly Betty), my mother and father (Milt and Helen Hanson) were diligent letter writers. Mom saved all of the Christmas cards from their friends across the country. Each week throughout the following year, Mom and Dad wrote back to 2 or 3 of the friends who had sent these cards and letters.

When email became available, Dad initiated a blizzard of dispatches to many, many people, becoming the first family spammer. On the other hand, Mom never liked the impersonal feeling of email, and wouldn’t even respond at all. She held fast to her pen and paper, writing in clear cursive. Largely because of Mom, I think, Dad continued to write by hand as well, letters that were much more likely to be read than his email spam.

And yet… despite Dad’s torrent of shared news articles, this blog post reminds me that my email conversations with Dad were much more frequent, more detailed, and more substantive than my pre-email contacts with him. In fact, I’ve discovered research we did together on the history of Billy and Betty and the ranch in emails I had long forgotten.

Helen (Hawkinson) Hanson, Bill's mother, typed letters on her this portable Smith-Corona.
Helen (Hawkinson) Hanson, Bill’s mother, typed letters on her this portable Smith-Corona.

Another snail mail archive became important to my parents. My sister, Bet Ison, transcribed more than 90 letters written by Mom to her family while she was a social worker in post WWII Germany. Mom typed her letters on a portable Remington typewriter in 1949-50, leaving behind a chronicle of her efforts to find homes for refugees and her travels in Europe. The letters were written to be shared around the family.

Letters: A Balm for Dementia

In the first decade of the 21st century, as Mom experienced more and more severe dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Bet suggested reading the letters out loud to her. For the last few years of her life, it was one of Mom’s favorite entertainments, a chance to listen to her own history in a time period from which she still had memories. It was fun for us too, as we had interesting conversations with her. Even when she couldn’t quite remember what she had for lunch an hour earlier, she could identify people and tell us about learning to ride a bicycle as she embarked on a multiple-day cycling trip along the Rhine.

Today, with our kaleidoscope of electronic social media, handwritten letters sent through snail mail have substantially decreased. Perhaps we have lost some measure of the thoughtful letters of the past. And yet, many of our letters of the past communicated simple news of the events in our lives: the health of our families and other commonplace information that seems little different from what we share electronically now. A thoughtful, caring email can be as endearing as any handwritten letter. With one difference… I find that handwritten notes or cards still feel more personal because the sender actually touched that paper, and felt the pen in their hand, and watched the ink flow out onto the paper.

On the side of email, I think we are more likely to retain our electronic archives than we were to save letters. I would dearly love to have an archive of emails sent by Billy and Betty that I could search through with keywords. But although they had the seen the beginnings of automobiles, airplanes, household electricity, telephones, and fax machines, my grandparents died before the advent of email. And so, I will have to “read between the lines” of the few letters, postcards, and pencil scratches on the backs of photographs for the history in the Alaska Billy Blog. There’s just something special about larning a pig to sing!

Note: This is the second of two connected posts. The first is here: No Letters: I hated Sundays!