A Gift of Razors
Soldiers from Fort William and Port Arthur joined the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in August 1914, and more joined the second contingent in the fall of that year. Those men travelled to Winnipeg before being sent overseas. While the 52nd Battalion was assembling and began training at Gresley Park, the City Councils of Fort William and Port Arthur voted to provide gifts and supplies to those who had already departed. Among these gifts were thirty safety razors.
Shaving, at this time, was a necessity, and personal care products like razors were a growth industry. The elaborate facial hair signifying masculinity of the late 19th century was already declining in popularity by the start of the war. But soon it wouldn’t be just a matter of fashion: Once gas masks became a necessity, facial hair became a hazard. A beard would interfere with the proper fit of the gas mask, essentially rendering it useless. A clean shave was a matter of life or death.
Members of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces were issued razors as part of their kit, but one can imagine how quickly the blades would dull, and replacements may not have been easily available. Letters from the front frequently thanked family members for sending supplies including new razors or replacement blades.
The Auto Strop Safety Razor Company razor provided by the City Councils was a top-line product at this time, marketed as easily sharpened and long lasting, and costing $5. The main competitor was the Gillette Safety Razor Company’s razor, at the same price, but with disposable blades. Wartime advertising had high stakes for these companies, as many young men were forming brand associations and loyalties that might last for life. Auto Strop put forward a promotion in 1914 to send a free razor to any member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which must have been made use of by many.
It seems reasonable, then, that the City of Port Arthur tried to recoup its costs by taking advantage of this promotion. This was contested on a technicality – the razors were sold through a local hardware store, which was not considered eligible for reimbursement – but the company relented and provided several more razors for free in recompense.
1918 was a turning point for the future of the entire personal care products industry. Gillette was awarded a contract to supply its disposable razors to the entire United States Armed Forces, which effectively quadrupled its annual sales that year alone. The effect this had on the Gillette brand cannot be understated. After the war, Gillette proved unstoppable, weathering lawsuits, technological developments, and the expiration of its initial patents, and is the dominant brand worldwide today. The Auto Strop Safety Razor Company, supplier of those Lakehead soldiers of 1914, would be bought out by Gillette in 1930.
The gift of razors was only one of the many financial contributions made by Fort William and Port Arthur to departing soldiers, to their families and dependents, and to the 52nd Battalion over the four years of the war. While the Canadian Expeditionary Force was the responsibility of the national government, supporting and providing comfort to municipal residents was adopted as a municipal obligation, taken on willingly by the City Councils. The $5 gift per soldier would be worth a little over $100 each in today’s money.
Contributed by Sara Janes – City of Thunder Bay Archives
 The Small Box Respirator, a close-fitting gas mask, was introduced in 1916. Earlier gas masks would have cinched around the neck.