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.


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William Arthur Hanson (Bill Hanson) is an Alaskan writer who searches for the roots of life in landscapes and the inhabitants they shape. He draws on 30 years as a biologist, forester, and ecologist. He has worked from the rainforests of Southeast Alaska to the subarctic taiga of the Interior. His writing mixes his deep knowledge of Alaska with people and places from his worldwide travels to Vietnam, Russia, Mexico, Ecuador, Europe, Malaysia, and much of the United States.

One thought on “The Razor’s Edge: Treasure from the Chest”

  1. It’s true, those aromas do bring back the people of the past. I was just thinking the same thing last week as I pulled Grandma Betty’s face powder out of the drawer of her old sewing machine. That scent still makes me feel so close to her.

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