Vintage Gear Exploration: Gillette Aristocrat (1946-47)

Posted: July 19, 2016 in Shaving Articles
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By now, it might be clear that I’m becoming a bit obsessive when it comes to picking up old safety razors. Every hobby has its compulsive component, the one that sees you buying and collecting far more stuff than you really need in any realistic sense. Need has nothing to do with it. This is want, pure and simple. This is an example of grown people letting their inner kid out to play. Now, in shaving, it’s usually called RAD (Razor Acquisition Disorder), but it can more broadly be considered GAD (Gear Acquisition Disorder), which can strike and strike hard. Count yourself lucky if the objects you’re obsessed about are relatively inexpensive, and won’t put you in the poor house.

Like a lot of other people who started in on wet shaving, I initially had to buy all the equipment. When I went into that process, it seemed like the best course to start with all new equipment. Honestly, that’s probably the way to go, unless you have been fortunate enough to inherit some really suitable gear. Do your research, buy what seems like it would be right for you. I have some info in that regard here on the old Caveman Gym, for what it’s worth.

In terms of blades, soap, and brushes, today is a great day. There are so many good examples of all of these items. Likely better than ever.

But razors…hmm. Yes, there are some really great razors today. Some of them are reasonable in price. Most of the really high quality razors are quite expensive, in regard to the size and simplicity versus the price. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a new wet shaver go out and get an expensive razor right off the start. Let yourself learn for a while. You’ll soon enough be able to decide if the hobby is really for you. Although the Feather AS-D2 would be a great razor for a lot of people, and certainly would do fine for a beginner, it’s a lot to spend on a first razor. Unless you’re driving a Bentley. Then, hey, swing for the fences.

I have suffered a digression. Back to razors. There is something to be said for any device that is put out at the time when it is the dominant technology in a burgeoning market. Not a stable market where businesses try everything to maintain market share, but one in which they are striding forward, confident and producing products without a thought to anything but making their best. There was a period of time in the middle of the 20th century when the safety razor market was enjoying a stratospheric success. The practice of shaving daily had become popular, if not expected. Gillette was the heavyweight champion at this time. They were selling razors as fast as they could make them, and all the blades they could stamp and grind. The safety razor idea was a hit, and all the other companies were playing catch-up.

Now, there is no overall golden age for the world. Anyone who tells you there was either never lived during that era or was somehow living a charmed life at that time that was not reflective of the world at large. Things are not at all fun for a percentage of the populace. Every year, this is the case. Right from the beginning…

Damn. I digress once more. To foreshorten the course, Gillete was making killer razors from the time of their inception, through into the 80’s when they stopped producing double edged safety razors. From the 40’s to the 60’s is often viewed as their greatest age. The razors were all metal, beautifully designed and engineered. Nearly indestructible, if you took care of them. No engineered obsolescence here.

There are always luxury versions of popular items. They’re a little more ostentatious. Flashier, maybe. Maybe quality control is a little more obsessive. The Gillette Aristocrat is one of those. The Aristocrat nameplate dates back well before the twist-to-open model I have. They typically have been plated in gold. The model that Gillette fans typically think of is the 1946-1951 era. It’s a thick handled, twist to open razor. The head is  roughly the same as the 40’s era Superspeeds, while it is just slightly more massive than the later “low profile” models. Especially in the first few years, they are known as a somewhat aggressive razor, by vintage Gillette standards.

I found mine at a local antique store called Jitterbug Antiques. Actually, I’ve purchased all my vintage razors there. They are nice people, and allow me to twiddle about with their stock until I find one I like (or two). The model I walked away with was in excellent mechanical order, which was the primary concern for me. It shows signs of wear, as well it might at its age. If, at some point in the future, I feel that I need to get it put back to perfection, I can have it tuned up and re-plated. For now, it is a user, and any small battle scars in the gold electroplate serve to lend character.

Upon getting the razor home, I dropped it into my Kerr jar filled with alcohol and lemon oil and allowed it to stand for a good while. I scrubbed the razor with a toothbrush thoroughly, re-dunked it in the Kerr jar, and dried it off. This proved to get a good measure of the gunk out of the knurling, and, at least to my satisfaction, sterilized the razor. Any germs that can withstand 91% alcohol for an hour are welcome to jump onto my face and attempt to do me in.

Although it certainly wasn’t necessary, I then worked the razor over, every nook and cranny, with Nevr-Dull polishing wadding. This brought out every bit of sparkle to be had. Other than aforementioned battle scars, the razor looked pristine. Not a bit of gunk anywhere.

Forgive a further aside, as I seem constitutionally incapable of staying to the point. Nevr-Dull, or Magic Wadding as it sometimes is called, is one of the universe’s great wonders. A bit of it the size of a cotton ball can polish all the nearby metal in your environment. The stuff lasts forever. Everyone should have some. Seriously. Put your socks back on, go to Auto Zone, and get some. Now. Are you back? Good, let’s get on with the rambling nonsense of the article.

How does it shave, I suppose, is the logical question. After all, it isn’t a coin or a painting, a postage stamp or a flower arrangement. It’s a device with a functional purpose.

In brief, it shaves tremendously well. Staggeringly well.

I have a 1967 Superspeed with an anodized aluminum handle. It is a much lighter razor. All things being equal, a razor that is lighter will typically be a milder shaver. However, a light razor also tempts a shaver to apply pressure, in order to cut through the growth of hair efficiently. This can cause people to cut themselves worse with a mild razor than with one that has that feeling of “dude, I mean business” on your face.

The Superspeed is a very, very mild razor. It gives a great shave. It doesn’t cut off quite as much hair for each pass, but it does not want to bite you. It’s a golden retriever. It just wants you to be happy.

The Aristocrat is heavier. Its blade angle and head design are more aggressive. That being said, perhaps “aggressive” – the going term for a razor that get with the program and puts the razor on the face like it means it, is not very apt. Efficient is another term, and perhaps better. Really, efficiency and aggression are two different things. The dream, of course, is a smooth and comfortable shaver that cuts the hair off quickly. The Aristocrat comes damn close to that dream.

I used Proraso Red preshave and soap for my first shave with this beautiful razor. I loaded in my reference middle-of-the-road blade, the Personna Lab Blue, straight from the pack. I quickly noticed that the Aristocrat didn’t need as many strokes across the face to accomplish its task. It had a slightly more purposeful feel on the face, but still glided without any juddering, skating, or sense of “bite” against the skin. It still felt like a vintage Gillette, but one that was in no mood to fool around.

After each pass, as I rinsed off, I thought, “Well now, Livingston, it appears that you’re on your way to getting quite a shave this evening.” I sometimes refer to myself as Livingston, speaking from the perspective of a fellow named Chet Brunton. This typically only happens during a shave. And when I’ve gone off my meds. (Shrug. Yeah, who knows where this stuff comes from?)

At the end of the shave, when checking out the results, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “This might be the best shave you’ve ever had. Ever. That notion reverberated in my head while I splashed the Captain’s Choice Sandalwood aftershave on my face, feeling no irritation, no burning, no stinging. Best shave ever. At the very least, equal to a few other glorious efforts.

It is both a wonderful and terrifying realization that, with good, but perfectly common accouterments and a razor from the 1940’s, I could get a shave this great. It took no special effort, no obsessive cleanup passes, no overshaving. Just typical technique. The only special thing here was the Aristocrat. It was special enough to suffice for all the other parts.

Now, I don’t have every vintage Gillette. Not even close. I don’t have a Red Tip or an adjustable of any era. Yet. Still, the Aristocrat is, to my limited experience, a high water mark in classic era razors. They could well have stopped here. They could have sent the engineers home and called it a day. They’d found it. All these years later, all the hundreds of different razor designs that have come and gone, and nothing about the way the Gillette people designed the Aristocrat has been invalidated. The disconcerting thing for me in all of this is that this old veteran can, without any special provisions or squinting, shave as well as ANY razor I’ve ever used, regardless of the price or era. Better than all but one or two. Imagine if a ’51 Mercury was not only beautiful, but did everything as well as any car on offer in 2016. Wouldn’t that put everyone on their ears?

Yeah. The Aristocrat. What a machine.

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