The double bladed safety razor had been introduced at the turn of the twentieth century and when the US Army went to war in 1917 it was safety razors that were issued to her men and the doughboy’s return helped popularise the product in civilian society. It took longer for the safety razor to gain popularity in the United Kingdom, but by the Second World War most young men were using them in preference to the old cut throat razor. The War Office recognised the change in society slowly, but did start issuing the newer safety razors and of course the accompanying blades. The contracts for these blades went to a number of different firms and today we are looking at a pair of blades marketed as ‘The All British Safety Razor Blade”:
The packaging was certainly patriotic and this continued on the reverse:
And even when you opened the packet:
To indicate that these blades were for a military contract, rather than just for the civilian market, the standard broad arrow mark is etched into the blades:
At this period the blades were made of carbon steel, which was very prone to rusting so many of the blade designs have a thin layer of grease over the blades to help protect them, although in use this quickly washed off and without drying the blades after use they could rust quickly. It would be 1962 before the first stainless steel blades were introduced and today most safety razors blades are made of this material.
The biggest manufacturer or razor blades during this period was Gillette and Edith Lambourne worked their, as recalled by her daughter:
The sisters shared the job of looking after their mother, but Mum also worked at the Gillette razor blade factory on the Great West Road. She had been a factory girl before she married, but until the War all women were expected – indeed, forced – to stop work when they got married. Mum didn’t think this was unfair, although she did know some girls who had kept their weddings secret so that they could keep their jobs. The War changed the rules, and Mum went back to work at Gillettes, before conscription for women was introduced.
The hours for the machine operators were 8 to 6. Working the machines was quite physically tiring, and the factory was very noisy. The girls communicated by signs and lip reading. They were usually on “piece work” i.e. paid by the number of items completed, and if the machine was faulty or broke down, you just lost the money for the number of “pieces” you couldn’t do. Repairing the machines was a man’s job, and the repairmen could be very awkward and bloody-minded about coming to fix your machine – they would often claim that there was nothing the matter with it – the girl must be doing something wrong!
A film clip of workers at the Gillette factory singing along to “Music While You Work” is often shown in TV programmes about the Home Front, and although Mum is not in it she could name most of the girls who were. There was supposed to be a “top secret” department somewhere at Gillette’s which made items for agents who were to be dropped behind enemy lines — razors with secret compartments and so on