The first adjustable safety razor was a variant of the famously named Monk's Razor (1874) or "Pig Scraper." The adjustable version was patented in 1879 and called "The Fontaine" after it's inventor Pierre Lucien Fontaine of Chartres, France. Razors based on the Monks and Fontaine patents were made or and sold by the American Safety Razor Co..
It wasn't until about 1928 when Paul Richard Kuehnrich, a German born naturalized citizen of Scheffield, England created the Darwin Universal Razor that a true recognizable adjustable safety razor was widely produced and remained in production into the 1950's. Truly this is an adjustable razor that history has almost forgotten. It is based off of the Rolls Razor with some interesting similarities and differences. First for the similarities.
The Darwin Universal Razor is a wedge blade design that can be honed and stropped within it's own case. It came with two blades to switch out allowing the blades to rest between shaves. The hone and strop is to maintain the blade and not fully restore it, but only to refresh the edge. There's where the similarities basically stop. The Darwin was marketed as the "Aristocrat of the Bathroom" and some would say was a step above the Rolls Razor in design and functionality.
Now the differences. The Darwin Universal is a step beyond being a straight razor on a stick and the blade holder is far more recognizable as a true safety razor with it's open comb features. The blade slides into the older and a spring mechanism holds the blade loosely in place until the handle is screwed into the underside of the blade holder locking it firmly in place. The bottom of the handle unscrews revealing a small screwdriver with which the blade gap of the blade can be adjusted before the handle is firmly screwed in place. There are even notches to show the adjustment level, although I found them not as useful as just eyeballing the blade gap.
The handle also can be screwed into either side of the blade allowing for the blade to be moved and positioned either in the blade holder, the stropping mechanism or the spare blade holder without your fingers being exposed the the very sharp exposed blade edge.
The Darwin Universal Razor's inventor was a pioneer in the production of cobalt steel and early double edge razor blades so naturally the blades are made from cobalt steel. The handle I believe is also cobalt steel. The case is beautifully chromed and sturdy. The mechanism works very well. The Rolls Razor utilized a stone hone and leather or cork strop. The hone and strop of the Darwin is leather with one side being "coarse" and the other "fine" with the sharpening characteristics of the hone/strop coming from the application of stropping pastes or compounds.
The leather of my set was still very supple and moist but it had a build up on the surface. I began the process of trying to remove it and I was partially successful. I will need to put further work into the hone/strop though. Although the mechanism works well it seemed like it was uneven. I've ordered new stropping/honing pastes since I do not believe the originals have maintained their best qualities. The edge I obtained using the instructions was not as sharp as needed for a good shave. So I now had a dilemma. Do I send the blades to a friend to get honed or do I improvise. I improvised of course in my Mad Scientist way.
Because I could loosely attach the blade to the handle as though it were a straight razor I tried stropping and honing on the treated leather strops just as though it were a straight razor. It improved the results but it still wasn't the edge needed. I remembered that I had a barber's hone from my straight razor experimentation days. I lightly honed the blade on the barber's hone for a dozen or more passes on each side and followed up using the kit's strops...much better.
It passed the arm hair test with flying colors. This was the condition of the blades for my demonstration shave. I'm writing this blog article before the shave and will add my comments about the shave later.
Tragically Paul Richard Kuehnrich was still in financial trouble following the introduction and sale of the Darwin Universal. During World War I he and his family suffered much hardships and public scorn due to his German heritage although he had lived in England for 25 years before the war. He committed suicide, shooting himself in the head in his locked library in 1932. It's obvious he didn't use his own invention. Maybe if he had he would have reduced his stressors.
Here are more pictures of the Darwin Universal razor and pages from the instruction manual and material included with the razor.
The pictures above are in a carousel format. To see additional pictures just click on the picture.
The Darwin Universal Hollow Ground Safety Razor...an adjustable razor...a piece of art...an example of fine British craftsmanship...a razor almost forgotten, but not quite. In many ways an improvement over the Rolls Razor...closer to a safety razor versus a straight razor on a stick but still utilizing a wedge cobalt steel blade, able to be resharpened, and fully capable of still being enjoyed by modern wet shavers.
POST SHAVE THOUGHTS:
The blades weren't as sharp as I would have liked. Still need to do some work on the leather strop and I've ordered some stropping compound. Nevertheless, I still was able to achieve a DFS performance out of it...could have gotten BBS with a little more touch ups. I'm going to enjoy this unique piece of shaving history. I hope you enjoyed the journey to shaving history.
Don't forget to go to the 3rd Anniversary Contest Giveaway video and answer the two questions for two chances to win a Special Edition Captain's Choice Shaving Bowl. A link is towards the end of the video below.
As always the link to the accompanying video will be posted below.
Good Shaves, Be Happy, Be Safe