Me and My Shaving Soap

An Informative Page In Which A Caring Author Discusses The Most Common Shaving Mistake As He Relentlessly Plugs His Book… (Which, Naturally, Everyone In The World Should Buy)

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Shaving Soaps

   Okay. You got me pegged. I admit to considering myself a traditionalist. What else would you call a guy who shaves with a brush, soap, mug, and special new kind of straight razor? What?!? Yeah, I’ve had people call me that for most of my life but I get along ok… No gimmick shavers packed with 6 (or more) blades for me! ONE blade works just fine, thanks. Only 5% of American men, by the way, shave the old-fashioned way. Well, I take solace in the words of writer Robert Heinlein, who once asked: “Does history record any case in which the majority was right?”

   As I explain in my book A Modern Way To An Old-Fashioned Shave, I shave the traditional way because it offers a mindful, soothing, and relaxing opportunity to set aside time in the day just for myself. By shaving in a traditional way, I give myself a chance to go outside the world of stress and decisions and worries by stepping out of the mundane world for a quiet, almost meditative experience. In my book, I compare the experience of a traditional shave to the transcendental joys of the classic Japanese tea ceremony – while the “normal” chore of shaving which most men rush through compares to dunking a stale teabag into hot water and hurriedly scarfing down the results. You can read about what I do, why I do it, and how you too can do it, in my book. But right now I want to discuss just one aspect of the classic “wet” shave… the soap.

il_570xN.591226870_t6nuWhen I began shaving, soon after the Pleistocene Epoch as I recall, shaving soaps by Old Spice, Colgate, and Williams (Regular or Menthol) seemed ubiquitous. In my late teens, I had certainly not yet reached the advanced Old Spice scent age (and I hope I still have not!) so for my shaving needs I bounced between Colgate and Williams. Colgate has long since gone to The Land of The Fizzies®, as I refer to Product Heaven – leaving me with Williams, and just the plain version at that since they had already discontinued their zesty menthol shaving soap. Recently, during a bout of Spring cleaning, I discovered that I still had some boxed tablets of Colgate and Menthol Williams soap stashed away in a long-neglected drawer. Sentimental old fluff that I am, I immediately sold these vintage items on Ebay at extortionist prices that would have made even Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik blanch (Same goes for Jake’s wife Blanche).

The Big “Problem”

Glycerin Soap

Look At That! HYDRATES And SOFTENS, They Boast. And All Those Oils In Addition To Glycerin… And SORBITOL? A… SWEETENER? (Most Likely Used As A Humectant To Add Moisture). And DUAL PURPOSE? No, A Shave Soap Makes A HORRID Face Soap. Oh, Wait. It Comes From L.A. What A Shock…

   While I enjoy using plain old Williams shaving soap, today’s Shaving Hobbyists avidly gravitate to all manner of overpriced soaps; each tablet laden with moisturizers and oils. Even as these men fill their cabinets with exotically scented soaps, they look down on inexpensive, plebeian Williams Mug Soap.
  Williams soap dates back to 1840, when its maker, according to company legend, invented “mug” soap. The main gripe the hobbyists have against Williams comes from a difficultly many of them have in whipping up the soap into a hefty lather; a problem I have never experienced. But then, up till a week or so ago I had never used any of the easily whipped glycerin-based soaps. Had I used that kind of soap most of my life, I suppose I’d feel spoiled too. BUT… is it worth it, using oil-filled soaps? Simply put, no – because they will not give a man a proper shave. To explain this, I shall now quote from that venerable 1905 book: Shaving Made Easy.

Shaving Made Easy    A wrong idea prevails regarding the use of the soap. The popular impression is that the soap is used for the purpose of softening the beard, in which condition it is supposed to be most easily cut. This is a mistake. The soap is used, not to soften the beard, but to produce exactly the opposite effect—namely, to make the hair stiff and brittle, so that they will present a firm and resisting surface to the razor. A hair, as is well known, is a tube composed of a hard fibrous substance, growing from a bulb or root, which secretes an oily matter. This oil works its way up through the hair, and by permeating all parts, renders the hair soft and pliable. Now in this natural oily condition, it is very difficult to cut the hair with a razor, and it becomes even more difficult if the beard be made still softer by the application of hot water. Many do this, and it is no wonder they find shaving difficult. When this is done, the hairs become soft and limp, and the razor will either slip over them entirely, or else cut partly into them, bend them back and slice them lengthwise, all the while pulling and straining them at the roots, and making the process of shaving most painful. Now soap has the opposite effect. It contains either alkali, potash or soda, which when applied to the beard in the form of lather, unites with the oil of the hair, neutralizing it and removing it, and renders the hairs hard stiff and brittle—in which condition they may be easily and readily cut. For the sake of cleanliness, the face should, of course, be washed previous to shaving in order to remove any dirt or grit from the beard, which might dull the razor; but before applying the lather, the face should be well dried with a towel.

    So there we have the facts, easily explained over 100 years ago. To get a good shave, one must not make the beard softer. Alas, the “wrong idea” explored above not only still exists, but wetting the face before applying lather is nowadays taken as gospel. Even a cursory look though Youtube’s wide array of instructional shaving videos shows almost every self-proclaimed shaving expert making a point of watering his face before applying his soap. Some men even throw away their money on a special misting gadget designed specifically for wetting their whiskers. As explained above, doing this weakens, if not destroys, the soap’s ability to render the whiskers brittle. Many of these shavers also toss around large amounts of money on “premium” soaps, buying many different brands for their bathroom (I’m sorry… I meant for their shaving den). What strikes me as truly odd are the shavers who announce, as they moisten their face, that they do this for the express purpose of softening their whiskers. They seem to believe that softening the hairs before shaving, making the whiskers more pliable, will somehow make cutting them with a razor easier. Go figure.

Williams Box SOFTEN

Notice That Even WILLIAMS MUG SOAP Perpetuates The Myth That Shave Soap Should Soften The Whiskers… Alas, WILLIAMS Ended Its Run In 2022.

How Many “Passes” To A Clean Shave?

   Across many shaving websites you will find the complaint that Williams soap gives a poor shave. Yet the very people who get bad results from Williams invariably – proudly! – wet their whiskers prior to applying the lather. And, as if to prove the worthlessness of this fetish, the same people who water their beard (they call it HYDRATING) will tell us that we need three or even four “passes” of the razor to attain a clean shave. I assure you, you won’t need that many shaves if you employ the right soap and use it properly; rendering the whiskers brittle and easy to cut as explained above. It makes perfect sense: When you don’t dilute the power of a real shaving soap by splashing water on the face, one pass of the razor with the grain of the beard, and one pass against the grain, will suffice.

What About Oils?

    To get the closest shave possible, we do not want oils in our soap. We just want an alkali soap. For this reason, I stick with an old-fashioned shaving soap. If you need to have moisturizer and oil as part of your shaving routine, then by all means use a face balm after – not while – you shave. I do use an aftershave balm because I know that the proper use of an alkali shaving soap will dry the skin.

This Shows Everything Wrong With Trendy Shaving Soaps:

Cavendish Soap

   Look at that soap above. Running about $17 a tablet, you pay a premium price for the privilege of getting a soap that does nothing to facilitate a close shave. Shea butter, a fat used as a moisturizer, has no place in a shaving soap. The company even boasts of this soap’s “Brilliant moisturizing abilities”. Behold SHEA BUTTER:

Raw Shea Butter


Scotch in Soap

Oh, The Things They Put In Shaving Soap! Whisky? How The Hell Does THAT Help Your Shave? I’d Need A Stiff Slug Of Booze After Shelling Out $20 For This!

A Good Old-Fashioned Soap…

    While I remain a devoted Williams man – I even use the vintage pewter-alloy Williams Bicentennial 1776 Shaving Mug which I bought, new, back in the mid-1970s – I have to say that the soap seems to have changed over the years. Turns out the company has indeed updated their original formula. Not that they’ve harmed it – but the lather now has more of a fluffy texture, unlike the texture I recall from back when I began my shave journey. As we can see from this older box of Williams Shaving Soap, the prior formula lacked the glycerine now in Williams shaving soap:

Old Williams copy

The “Luxury Soap” had a rose fragrance but it used the same basic formula as the regular – again, note the absence of glycerine back then. Happily, the makers wisely restrain their use of glycerin in the current soap, putting it down the list of ingredients in the formula, so glycerin does not dominate; adding a mere hint of fluffiness to the lather. 

Williams Ingredients copy

Marvy Shadow  Recently, in my quest for a simple old-style shaving soap I found a truly “old school” product… the quaintly named MARVY DELUXE SHAVING SOAP. The William Marvy company, purveyors of classic barbershop poles and other such items, has produced this soap from one formula since 1936, keeping it devoid of oils and moisturizers. I wondered if, in this soap, I had found that which I had sought. So throwing caution to the wind, I plunked down about $4 for a single tablet. When I first whipped up the almond-scented Marvy soap, the lather lacked that fluffy quality of other soaps, yet its texture immediately summoned up long-lost memories of the way shaving soap once looked in my old mug. The Marvy soap, at the beginning of the process, holds bigger bubbles in the lather than most shaving soaps will, but continued whipping of the lather with the brush takes care of that, blending the foam to yield a nice thick merengue-like lather with fine peaks, and it does so rather swiftly. While Marvy never achieves the lush thickness of modern soaps, that’s jake with me because that very thickness in trendy soaps comes from unnecessary oils, all of which work against the purpose of a shaving soap. Instead of these unwanted ingredients, Marvy offers just… SHAVING SOAP. How revolutionary is that? And it sure does the job! Using Marvy, I found that I get the closest shave of all the soaps I have used. In fact, I clocked the results and a full 14 hours after my shaves with Marvy, my face still remained free of stubble (my wife can attest to that, and she will also tell you what many women say about men who shave this way: their faces have sensuously soft skin!).Marvy-Deluxe-Shaving-Soap
  I still really like the “new” reformulated Williams, and for many reasons it remains my sentimental favorite so I will never give it up entirely. But for getting the job done in the old-fashioned way, I have to say that Marvy remains the champ because it gives the closest shave. Yes, I definitely need to moisturize my face after using this soap, but that just proves Marvy’s usefulness in making the whiskers dry and brittle. When I need to get more soap I will order a “tube” of a dozen Marvy tablets. By the tube, this costs only about $2.50 per tablet; so much nicer than spending $17, even up to $40 or $50, for a single tablet of a “boutique” soap crammed to the gills with useless ingredients that only serve to make shaving more difficult! Sticking to the basics pays off for the William Marvy Co.

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The book that millions of men have waited for! This book tells all about the modern way to get a traditional Straight Razor Shave – with NONE of the hassle of honing, stropping, grinding the blade, oiling a whetstone… none of the rigmarole! All gone! No need for it now! Just give yourself a good old-fashioned shave with NONE of the bother your grandfather put up with. “The way most men shave,” the author notes, “joylessly rushing through a morning chore, shaving hurriedly with an electric shaver, or speedily wielding a safety razor in the shower, compares to an old-style shave as a tea-bag compares to the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Or Andrew Lloyd Weber compares to Mozart.” You get Step By Step instructions in this book, which is as informative as it is humorous. PROFUSELY ILLUSTRATED with period images from the late 19th Century up to today’s James Bond movies. James Bond? Yes! Did you know that after the 007 movie SKYFALL opened, sales of straight razors shot up over 400%? “Well, I like to do some things the old-fashioned way,” said James Bond in SKYFALL, preparing to shave with a straight razor. That increase in razor sales means that men LONG for the old ways.

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This Just InThe good gentleman from “Friendship Shaving” learns through experience that wetting the face prior to applying shaving cream is counterproductive. If only more Youtube shavers who offer advice knew this… 

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