Sharpening the razor with such a thin edge was a task in itself. Unlike the edge of your common kitchen knife, if you tried to chop celery with a straight razor, you might actually break the edge. You'd certainly dull it really fast, and at the very least, bend or curl the fine line between deftly cutting thick hairs at pore level or dragging a small rake across your face that had been sharpened by evil fairies. The edge would dull simply by aging after a week. So using such a fussy device to shave one's face where a lot of important veins and arteries were close to the skin in a very visible disfiguring area took a certain kind of crazy.
These people would come by and ask for the usual accouterments: lathering soap, a bowl, a brush, and a "strop." A strop was a strip of leather that also had another parallel strip of cloth with a very, very mild abrasive impregnated into it. Because the blade dulled with practically every use, an aficionado of risky facial cosmology would need to make sure that the edge of his thin scythe was not only as sharp as it could be, but was also clean and free of any warping. So before every use, they would hone the blade with the white cloth, and then "deburr" (remove microscopic bits of metal) the blade with the leather strap. You may have seen this in a movie, where it looks like the barber is wiping the blade on some leather strap. But you can't just do that without a degree of skill; it requires knowing exactly what angle and direction to swipe the blade. And after so many shaves, the razor may actually need sharpened in the classical sense: on a hone, a kind of slippery piece of slate-like stone lubricated with only water or maybe some shaving soap.
After all that, after every use, you have to oil the blade because it's such a high carbon steel that it will rust from the moisture present in the air. I am not shitting you. I have seen some of these blades where there are dark pits where water was left for a day or so, and if you just leave it un-oiled, after a few weeks, the blade starts to stain black.
This is not a hobby for the lazy. This is not a weekend thing where you can keep coming back to it on your spring break like you've been meaning to. I can't tell you if this process is better than any other kind of shave, and any straight razor zealot will insist it's better even if it only means, "I have to justify I am not some kind of lone nut!" I don't think I'll ever want to know because a friend of mine in the SCA once trusted someone who was "skilled in this art" at Pennsic to give him a shave. Even though "the bleeding was not that bad," he had to grow a beard until the scars went away on their own.
The whole point of this story came about as I was explaining to someone about making sure never to say something aloud until you were sure there were no customers in the store. One day, a man came in, looking to buy some supplies for his dabble into the art of facial scarring near-misses. Like many of his ilk, he was an older guy who wore a newsboy cap and a plaid sweater vest under a suede jacket. The kind of guy who was nostalgic for his father's time when he was assured it was simpler. A scoutmaster who insisted on dressing like he was from Roosevelt's rough rider calvary on his weekends instead of the jeans and camp shirt like all the other guys. He had tortoiseshell frames over thick glasses and probably ate sensible meals with vitamin supplements. And now he was going to prove the last few generations wrong by abandoning the safety razor and shave like a man's man.
Trouble is, he was like many book-educated men; he had read about the process, but never discussed it. He started talking to the salesguy near the shaving section, our resident Vietnamese smartass named Charlie (really, and he knew the joke, too).
Man: I am interested in buying a straight razor.
Charlie: Well, you came to the right place... [blah blah blah] and we have various scents of soap, honing oil, and the strop.
Man: How much is it with everything including the strap?
Charlie: Will, with the strop this starter kit comes to $140 with everything you need to get a decent shave.
Man: And the strap is sharpening-ready?
Charlie: The strop is ready to go. We also sell the grit once the white side gets dirty.
Man: If I have my own strap can I buy the kit without it for a discount?
And so on. Eventually, the man was dissatisfied we wouldn't break a kit, and felt the cost of the pieces individually without the strop was too much. "I see," he said, assured that the book he read on how to make a good sale would cause Charlie to eventually lower the price rather than lose the sale. But we didn't make the price; corporate did. So Charlie just went back to cleaning the countertop. Then, suddenly, the store manager's voice came loudly over the office door...
"Will somebody tell that MORON it's pronounced STROP???"
Charlie dropped his cleaning rag and ran into the back office. I was at the other end of the store, and watched as nonchalantly as I could the man ambulate his way out of the store in a mosey that suggested he hadn't heard what my boss had said. When he was gone, I went to the back of the office to see my boss and Charlie hiding under the desk, stifling their laughter, their eyes in tears.
"Oh my God, I swore he had left the store!!!" my boss snickered.