By Tim Bean
Tucked in the muggy shade of ancient maples, the 120-year-old house looked like a toothless skeleton of a home. Two stories, weeds growing in the gutters, and not a pane of unbroken glass left. Our thoughts of renovating it changed to razing it.
But first we needed a look-see. Like many antiquated homes, people thought it needed preservation for posterity, but that’s not really the case. Sometimes an old house is just that: an old house. Nothing much had ever happened in or around this one. That’s the difference between historical (old) and historic (old and important). Here’s a free tongue twister: historic houses are always historical, but historical houses aren’t always historic.
Even before entering, all three of us knew the house was doomed, but like seasoned coroners, we had to go through the routine. I started with the largest bathroom—tiny by today’s standards—since you’ll often find the worst damage there. I propped my toolbox on a broken toilet bowl and decided to punch some holes in the walls first. I punched through the cracked ceramic of the wall where a pedestal sink once stood. The claw end of my framing hammer tore and jabbed in a cloud of dust and cracked ceramic.
What fell out was like something out of a horror film.
I’ve busted open walls before, and I’ve seen all sorts of nastiness tumble out. A mummified mouse that had chewed into hot 220v wiring. A winter discovery of a hornets’ nest filled with hundreds of sluggish stingers. Newspapers from the 1800s. A $20 bill. A Matchbox car.
But I had never seen a rusted pile of ancient razor blades tumble out of a wall. That was something new. And profoundly disturbing. Cutting myself with a rusty razor meant a tetanus shot, and my last tetanus shot had given me a 101 degree fever for three days along with a throbbing shoulder.
Hundreds upon hundreds of double-sided safety razor blades spilled in a fan near my feet. All of them had a dry patina of red rust, but the metal still gleamed matte gray. Serviceable, meaning they’d slice my hand open quicker than a shark tooth. I could read the faded name Gillette beneath the rust.
In the late 1800s, King Camp Gillette, a salesman born in Wisconsin and living in Chicago, concocted a way to create inexpensive, disposable razor blades and improved upon current razor designs to patent the “safety razor.” The term “safety” is no great mystery. In his day, men either used a carefully-honed straight razor or, if they could afford, visited a professional barber. Professional barbers were so adept at shaving that patrons were given a full refund if they received even the slightest nick.
The truth is straight razors are simply dangerous. They required constant stropping on denim or leather to retain an edge and even the most accomplished shaver had difficulty mastering the grip. They also required immaculate care and storage. The slightest rust or pitting would deliver a painful shave. Repairing a nicked or pitted blade was hard work. Shavers today see the straight razor as a nostalgic tool of the past and sales have skyrocketed. It’s just a matter of time before they realize why we abandoned this brutal tool in the first place.
Gillette knew all of this. Once he perfected and patented his double-edged safety razor and his stamped razor blades, his company plunged headfirst into the men’s market in 1903. Few people seemed to care, at first. Sales limped along in the first year. Men were reluctant to adopt new shaving habits, having inherited techniques from their fathers and fathers’ fathers. This took time to erode.
Once word of the safety razor’s convenience spread, Gillette became a household name. His first year, he only sold 51 razors. His second, 90,884. When World War I arrived, he won the US Army contract for 3.5 million razors and supplied American soldiers with shaving kits…who in turn introduced them to Europe. These soldiers also brought kits home after the war, inspiring a new tradition stateside. 15 years after its founding, Gillette became an institution.
But…what about the razors in the wall?
One process with the safety razor remained dangerous—disposal. Owners had to frequently change blades, since the inexpensive carbon steel dulled quickly. You couldn’t simply throw them in a garbage can, since they could easily tumble out. A razor blade might be dull for shaving, but it could slice open skin easily. Add rust to that and you’re talking tetanus. If you’ve ever cut yourself on a razor blade, you never forget ( I have, and I won’t).
Manufacturers of home fixtures came to the rescue. From 1900 until (roughly) the 1960s, it was common to find an open slot in a medicine cabinet or even embedded into the wall. Most were simply a slot to nowhere but dust and darkness between wall studs. Some had RAZOR BANK or RAZORS HERE stamped above them. All of them went to the same place: nowhere. After all, razor blades were thinner than cardboard. It would take centuries to fill up a wall with them.
That solves my little mystery. Although the tumbling pile of rusted razors surprised me, as soon as I mentioned it to my father, he nodded knowingly and said, “That used to happen all the time. Good contractors watch out for it. It’s just one of those things in old houses.”
Absolutely true. Old homes, historic or not, might be beautiful, classy, and well-built, but they’re also dusty piles of accidental booby traps and construction nightmares. Occasionally they’re worth fixing. Most of the time they’re just old, moldy houses…with razors in the walls.