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Close Shave: How Objects Go Time Out of Mind

At first it just seemed to be missing. Missing in the way that you’d say a person or a thing isn’t really gone, but just misplaced for the moment. But I’m finally convinced it’s not coming back. The systems that furnish and replenish my local environment with objects have written this product out of the distribution algorithms.

When I first started shaving my face as a young man, I decided to use a shaving brush and a cake of shaving soap. I’m a fan of simple solutions. Shaving soap seemed to solve the problem of shaving lather. The product innovations in this area haven’t seemed much like real improvements. The exotic flavors, textures and delivery methods of lather and foam seem more like narratives of advertising than a solution to the problem of shaving one’s face.

Fancy shaving soaps are available in all the places you’d expect. But the one that’s gone missing is called “Williams Shaving Soap.” It’s a serviceable shave soap, you might even call it ordinary. But “Williams” was available everywhere, at all the local grocery and drug stores. It was the remaining shaving soap, it held down a humble spot on the store shelves. Its disappearance from the local stores marks a significant event in the arc of this product’s existence. The soap was created in 1840 by James B. Williams. It was the first shaving soap created for use in mugs.

It’s clearly the case that “Williams” is available for order on the Network, and it may still be available on store shelves in other parts of the country. But in San Francisco, it’s vanished. A young man today, about to make some decisions about how he might want to go about shaving his face, peering at the shelves of the supermarket, won’t notice what’s missing. If that young man were to come across a cake of “Williams”, it would be in the context of a nostalgic experience. Its circulation would have no currency, it would float on the alternate currents of wet shaving “traditionalism.” We tend to think that physical presence has become less important in the era of the Network, but if you’ve never seen something, how will you know to submit a query to look for it?

Once another generation passes and this object shifts just over the horizon, it’s only a brief distance to becoming time out of mind. Even now I only experience it as an absence on a store shelf. Wet shaving and getting up a lather has its adherents, but in the era of the shave gel and the five-blade razor, will we ever recognize how the shaving technology industry is over-serving our whiskers?

Published in brand culture desire simplicity tribes