Frankincense and whirr

My friend Jack asked nicely — a year ago — to see this one again, an oldie from the archives, about the sacred synergy between Christmas and the electric shaver. I’m reprinting it here, not because I think it’s all that, but because of the top-notch headline that ran with it — “Frankincense & Whirr” — which brings to mind some glory days of the Style section copy desk. I wonder who came up with it? (David Hall? Pat Myers? Rose Jacobius?) Anyhow, enjoy!

FRANKINCENSE & WHIRR: What Makes Electric Shavers Such a Jolly Gift? Too Many Nicks.

By Hank Stuever | The Washington Post | Monday, Dec. 18, 2000

Something powerful, and odd, and possibly beautiful connects household appliances to the birth of Christ. If only there were such a thing as a retail theologian, who could explain to us how two millennia of faithful adoration resulted in, say, the Salad Shooter.

Which brings us to the lamentable death of the Norelco Santa.

Which, in turn, brings us to that holiest of synergies: the electric shaver and Christmas.

Which, at some point, brings us to Silver Spring.

“I don’t have time to talk to you,” huffs Mrs. L.D. Wilson, president and proprietor of the Electric Shaver Shop Inc. of Maryland, a small storefront on Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring, which her father, Charles A. McKean, opened in 1953. “We’re very busy here today.”

No matter. It’s nice in here. It’s December 1953 in here.

There are three older male customers in her store. One is wearing a fur-trimmed hat and a camel-colored trench coat. Another is sitting on one of three chairs, waiting for his well-used and probably quite beloved electric razor to get diagnosed for repair. Another is standing in the corner at a three-way medicine cabinet mirror, taking a new Norelco out for a test spin: mmmmmnnnnnnnnzzzzzznnnn . . .

On two wall shelves and in glass-top counters around the store are four decades’ worth of vintage shavers — dozens and dozens of them collected by Wilson’s father — which are not for sale. All rest in their felt-lined, clamshell gift boxes, the swirls of cursive script logos: Schick, Sunbeam, Remington, Norelco and its European cousin, the vaunted Philishave. They are sleek, fist-size, compact, macho, secret-agent-looking marvels of postwar design and convenience. Stainless steel beauties. Curved plastic. You think of Perry Como in cardigans. You think of telling playmates: “My dad can beat up your dad!” Or the sound of your dad in the bathroom, door shut, the weird electric buzzing, which stops . . . and then starts again.

“You’ll have to come back,” says Wilson, the shop’s lovable grump. “I can tell you everything about the electric shaver, but not right now.”

* * *

The next morning, she’s calmed a bit, has more to say. It’s not easy running one of the world’s last electric shaver stores. You’ve got your Wal-Mart, your Kmart — who can compete? The clientele is getting older. The products are complicated. “This Syncro Shaver,” Wilson says. “I wish these people at Braun would listen to me. Look at this thing: It’s so technical, it’s so complicated. It does all these things, but these older guys don’t know how to use it. It’s not what they want. It’s not simple. I can’t even figure it out.”

Of all the stuff that ends up beneath Christmas trees, no appliance enjoys — and consequently disavows — a seasonal boost quite like the electric shaver, be it Norelco or Braun or Remington or Panasonic or Wahl or any other brand. Something like 2.7 million shavers are sold during the holiday rush; TV and print advertising for shavers quadruples during these weeks.

It’s a world of patented MicroScreens and Quadra Actions and Syncro Systems, the touted technological joys of a more comfortable shave transmitted to us in a season of ironically full-bearded icons: Santa Claus has a beard, as does Joseph the carpenter and shepherds in fields where they lay. Wise men from afar sport Arabic goatees. (Even for the Holy Virgin, there’s always the Lady Remington. It feels like a sin to ask if Mary shaved her legs. Only Baby Jesus and the angels are the true smoothies of the manger scene, and maybe that’s the ultimate subtext here: hygienic hairlessness as godliness.)

About 51 percent of all electric shavers, by estimate of a market research firm called NPD Intelect, are sold after Oct. 1, spiking just before the holidays; a smaller spike in sales occurs around Father’s Day and graduation time. The Christmas rush on electric shavers is as predictable as a carol refrain.

But maybe it’s about so much more than that.

On a simple level, it’s about what to get Dad this year and never quite knowing. (Never quite knowing in any year, except for that one Barcalounger year. Dad is always the last to unwrap anything, because Dad doesn’t care, because Dad knows what we all know — that the presents he receives are terrible. All those personalized golf balls. The wrong pants. The glow-in-the-dark TV clicker. The Ban-Lon shirt.)

On some deeper level, there are questions about masculinity and the presence of an electric shaver under the tree. Here is the $49-$259 gift that both asserts and acknowledges the essence of a man — whiskered papa, stubbly husband, fuzzy junior — and then requires him to tame it. This most popular of gifts is also one of the most personal, entering a tricky conversation about a man and the quality of his shaving, his ability to shave himself. The quiet angst between a man and his daily duty is a complicated subject. If he’s frustrated with his shaving, he’ll usually seek out the solution himself, or grow a beard. Who is the man who wants to move his hygiene issues to the public forum of the family’s Christmas morning?

A step too far would be the nose-hair trimmer.

It almost goes without saying that the nose-hair trimmer also sees a sharp increase in sales this time of year.

Another example of the wretchedness of Christmas.

* * *

Norelco Santa, remember? Sledding down hill and dale of fake snow on his pivotal-head Norelco, for more than three decades of Yuletide TV cheer. “Floating heads, floating heads,” sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” Norelco Santa was snuffed three years ago, the victim of a calculated shift in that tricky science of advertising.

The average age of men who use electric shavers, according to Norelco’s research, is 56. That’s a problem. The Gillette Mach 3 generation has turned away from the electric shaver.

Or, as Nina Riley, the senior marketing director of Norelco, puts it:

“Certainly, Norelco Santa was a big part of our brand recognition over the years. We wouldn’t have a 60 percent market share without him. But what we really need now is to ensure that Norelco stands for ingenious male grooming solutions beyond Christmas.”

That is exactly what she said. Ingenious male grooming solutions. Sometimes public relations people manage to be sweet and brutal and surreal all at once, and you can only take notes and marvel at the beauty of the season.

An epiphany, usually right around Epiphany: The tree comes down and sits out with the garbage. He gets the ladder out of the garage to take down the outdoor lights. By Jan. 10, your dad has put the electric shaver away, in the box it came in, on a shelf, in the back of the linen closet. He has done this without comment, discreetly, as dads can do. What about the patented three-head system? The gentle Lift and Cut (a registered trademark) technology, adjusting to hug the contours of your face?

For some men.

Not for all men.

The sorrowful mystery of the electric shaver.

“It’s thoughtful, it’s convenient,” Riley, the Norelco spokeswoman, goes on. “It’s a wonderful gift for men who are dissatisfied with the way the blade shaves them.”

In giving Santa the boot, Norelco hoped to skew younger. The new campaign is called “Put It to the Test,” and it offers a 21-day guarantee. It’s fast and sweaty, taking its cues from the “Top Gun” dogma of selling. The men of the Virginia Military Institute are seen giving the Quadra Action a whirl; so is the Hartford Wolfpack, a minor league hockey team. Tough young faces succumb to the gentle, self-gel grind. “We wanted real men,” Riley says.

* * *

The little secret of the electric shaver is that it takes the face a few weeks to adapt to the format change. Most men aren’t happy with their first few shaves with an electric shaver, but over time, manufacturers insist, they convert — and occasionally go on to proselytize.

Three, almost four, of every 10 adult male shavers use an electric.

Of any four guys using the electric, two are what the industry calls “dual users,” switching from blade to electric and back again.

At least one of those guys is using his Christmas present to shave his chest and sing Ricky Martin songs in front of the mirror, and we aren’t talking about him. (Yet the holidays do have their particular joys, do they not?)

Like all appliances, the electric shaver has its fetishists, its committed devotees, its wise gurus atop mountains of foam. A man named Igor Ravbar, in Slovenia, has amassed a wicked museum display of Iron Curtain-era electric shavers from the 1970s (they have vays of making you talk), which for him “are like collecting postage stamps.”

Electric shavers, Ravbar reports, didn’t enjoy the Christmas-gift status in his homeland the way they did in Cold War America. (That’s because, well, nothing in Slovenia enjoyed Christmas-gift status after 1948, when Christmas was made illegal.) But freedom rings: Ravbar’s wife just picked up a Philishave HQ433. “When I show [her] your e-mail,” Ravbar writes to us, “she wanted to give it to me as a Christmas present!”

Closer to home, there’s Gary Flinn.

By day he works as a computer technician in Flint, Mich.; in his leisure time, he goes by Mr. Steel Beard, master of his own Electric Shavers Web site, a forum for electric shaver users to praise and gripe about products, trade obscure parts to repair shavers and root out surpluses of European shaving gels so rarely applied to the American face.

Here you can learn the history of the shaver, starting with Col. Jacob Schick’s winter delirium in Canada, 1910, stranded with a sprained ankle while on an exploration, eating moose and highly dissatisfied with his shaving. It is here where he hatched his idea for a dry shaver, which led to the hugely unpopular, not quite electric, “magazine repeating razor,” which led to his first electric shaver, which went on the market in 1929.

As Mr. Steel Beard (so named after the original Philishave mascot), Flinn answers all kinds of questions from the troubled stubbled:

“I have been using the Norelco 815RX the last several years and am concerned it is so loud I may be experiencing hearing loss from it . . .” (Flinn cheerfully recommends some quieter, newer models.) Another reader wants to know, “Quadra has holes and slots which are meant for longer hairs and short stubbles. But Syncro has a triple cutter . . . I am so confuse [sic]! I like the design of Quadra but it seems like Syncro is a better buy. Can you please give me some idea? I would plan to buy it before Christmas . . . Thanks, Paul.” (Flinn: “As to why the Quadra Action is a waterproof shaver but NOT a wet/dry shaver, I was told that this shaver works better when used dry. . . . I hope this helps and thanks again.”)

Flinn has been doing this for a few years. It began when his uncle died and Flinn inherited a 1980 Philishave razor. He wanted to repair it — for sentimental reasons but also to use it — and had to drive across the border to Canada to find parts. That search led him to an Internet community of electric shaver fans and collectors. Christmas, Flinn says, may as well be the high holy day of the shaving set: “As a gift, it is about a lack of originality. People don’t always know what to get a man, in terms of a gift he’ll really like.”

* * *

Unwrapping, unwrapping, unwrapping. A rattle of tearing, ripping, the excruciating emotions between giver and receiver, the amplified kid tantrums, the quiet failure, the occasional flashbulb making bad snapshots.

Dad, with bed head, unwrapping.

“An electric shaver, looky that. Hmmm. Well, thank you, uh, everyone.”

What he’s feeling, really, is unclear.

Later there is the sound from his bathroom of the buzzing, the soft cursing, more buzzing. The Christmas shaver tradition is unbroken. He emerges, smells like Old Spice or English Leather. He has new socks on, too.

(c) The Washington Post

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