Professional men can’t wear much in the way of jewelry. The gemless wedding band, the watch, the belt buckle, the key chain—possibly the quietly costly blue-enameled pen in a shirt pocket—are among the few sanctioned outlets for the male self-embellishing urge. Occasionally permissible are the shirt stud, the cufflink, and the nautical brass blazer button. Bas-relief suspender clasps, various forms of tie and color tackle, and chunky nonmarital fingerware are allowable on men who make a living by commission. The demotion of smoke has eliminated the ornate cigarette lighter. Neck and wrist chains are inadvisable. Metalwork for the male nostril, tongue, ear, or foreskin is an option only to outlying areas.
But fingernail and toenail clippers—the unworn but elegant accessories to all men’s fashion, since no man has ever looked presentable with long nails (long being anything over three-sixteenths of an inch)—continue to glitter legitimately in an otherwise unpolished age. Like fancy pens and pocket watches, these palmable curios have a function—that of severing corneous shrapnel from key areas of the human form with a bracing abruptness, a can-do metal snap, that leaves their user with the illusion that he is progressively, clip by hardened-steel clip, gaining control of his shambling life. They offer some of the satisfactions of working out on exercise machines without the sweat of gym shorts; some of the pleasures of knuckle manipulation without the worry of arthritic deformity; some of the rewards of cracking a nut without having to eat it. You may crouch over the wastebasket while you operate, but there is happily no assurance that anything clipped will end up there; for just as certain insects will hop or fly off so fast that they seem not to displace themselves physically but simply to disappear on the spot, so the clipper chip vanishes at the very instant the jaws meet and chime, propelled toward a windowsill or on some other untraceable tangent, never to trouble anyone again unless a bare foot happens to rediscover it.
The market for clippers is apparently unsaturable. This year, millions of men will buy one, as they have for decades, despite the fact that these maintenance tools almost never wear out and are entirely unnecessary. You can cut your nails just fine with a pair of scissors, assuming a rudimentary ambidextrousness; in fact, from one point of view a scissor cut is less labor-intensive than clipping, since, despite the helpful curvature of the clipper jaws, it often takes three angled snips to approximate the arc of a given fingernail. (The cut facets thus formed are surprisingly sharp the first time you scratch an itch, but they wear away in a day.) Clippers sell steadily because, like clippings, they disappear (in the back of drawers, in glove compartments) and must be replaced, and because they are beautiful and cheap. A big clear drum of ninety-nine-cent Trim-brand clippers sitting near the drugstore’s cash register like a bucket of freshly netted minnows is an almost irresistible sight. They are the ideal weight and smoothness; they exploit the resiliency of their material both to maintain their assembly without rattling and to hold their business edges apart. They appear to have aerodynamic virtues. And, once bought, they can alter their profile in a single puzzle-solving flip-and-pivot of the lever arm, without excessive play or roughness or torn rotator cuffs, from minnow shape to grasshopper shape and back again. They were our first toy Transformers: metallic dual-phase origamis that seem triumphantly Japanese and yet happen to be, in their perfected form, a product of the small town of Derby, in southern Connecticut, near the Sikorsky helicopter plant.
In the forties, the W. E. Bassett Company made “washers” for the rubber heel pieces on men’s shoes (those stopped nails from piercing through to the foot area) and artillery components for the Army. After the war, William E. Bassett, founder, retooled his equipment in Derby, and devoted himself to the production of a superior jaw-style nail clipper, the Trim clipper. The jawed design had been around since the nineteenth century, but Bassett was its Bernini. He added, for example, two thoughtful nibs near the base of the tiny (and, in the experience of some, unused) nail file that together keep the lever arm aligned in its closed position; and he replaced the unsatisfactory pinned rivet with the brilliant notched rivet. (The Chinese still use pinned rivets in their cute mediocre but cute baby-nail clipper, manufactured for Evenflo.) The stylish thumb-swerve in the Trim’s lever (patent pending) was Bassett’s idea, too.
According to William’s brother Henry (who died, as the chairman of the board, in May of 1994, at the age of eighty-four), the best fingernail clipper Bassett ever made was the Croydon model of the late forties. It was stamped with a clipper-ship emblem and was promoted in Esquire for the jewelry-store trade. (It flopped—a case of overqualification.) But William Bassett’s sons William C. Bassett, now the president and treasurer, and Dave Bassett, now the company’s manufacturing engineer manager, continue the work of innovation and cost-manicuring. Despite some exciting recent work by the Koreans, who manufacture all Revlon’s more expensive but not quite so well-finished clippers, along with the Gem line, the Trim clipper by Bassett continues its reign as the best on the planet. (Clippers are chrome-plated after being assembled. The finished Revlon clippers frequently betray their undercoating in those areas where one part obscured another in the electrolyte solution; Trim clippers, designed to minimize this shadowing, almost never do.)
In fact, all Bassett’s grooming aids—from emery boards to tweezers—earn high marks among power users. This past August, for example, Jerry Lewis’s secretary called the company directly to order a dozen five-inch triple-cut Trim nail files (with accompanying blue vinyl protective sheaths), because Mr. Lewis couldn’t obtain them locally. “The tweezer is a very fussy item,” Dave Bassett said recently; each Bassett tweezer tip (its inner edge ground “to help grab that hair”) is inspected manually, under a magnifier. The company makes nail clippers plated in gold as well as in chrome; its Heirloom line offers gift sets like the Saddlebag, which includes scissors, a bottle opener, and folding nail files, along with an anchor pair of clippers. This Christmas, Bassett will be selling the Holiday Family Manicure Kit, with a fingernail clipper and a toenail clipper, two wooden cuticle pokers, some emery boards, and a pair of tweezers, displayed against a background of falling snow and a rising reindeer. (What better way to spend Christmas morning with one’s loved ones?) For Dr. Scholl’s, Bassett has created an extraordinary matte-black and gold-plated piece of toenail-cleaving insanity that would not be out of place dangling from the rearview mirror of a new forty-valve 3.5-liter Ferrari 355.
It won’t do to labor the parallels between caring for a fingernail and manufacturing a fingernail clipper. Making a clipper is considerably more complex. Still, it is striking how reminiscent of human clippings are the spurned little pieces of scrap metal exiting from the side of the deafening Minister stamping press. Once cut (from rolls of Midwestern steel, at an impact force of roughly fifteen tons), the clipper “blanks” must be cleaned of oil, spot-welded, racked, hardened for two hours in a massive furnace, then oil-quenched, cleaned again, tempered in a second furnace to limber them up a little, and finally revolved in huge barrels with sixty thousand of their fellows for several days in a slurry of metal slugs, abrasives, and lime, to smooth away unhandy burrs. Vibrating bowls dither the components into sequential position, preparing them for a definitive riveting, which is accompanied by a Fred Astaire-like volley of air-cylinder traps and flourishes. Each clipper gets a sharpened cutting edge; a digital system checks the finished edges for truth. Eyelets, shot in at the caudral end, affix the nail files; then the entire splayed clipper, racked on hooks, proceeds through the planting sequence—ten minutes in a warm nickel bath, a minute or two of chrome. A nimble piece of pneumatics straightens the akimbo file and closes the lever. At last the basic Bassett fingernail clipper is ready for action. You can determine the year your clipper was made by referring to the inside of the lever arm.
Nail care has been weighing on my thoughts recently, I confess, because the great Steven King, in an introduction to his recent short-story collection, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, describes one of my books as a “meaningless little fingernail paring.” Are we to infer from “paring” that the Bard of Bangor doesn’t possess or know how to operate a Trim (or a Gem, or a Revlon or even a La Cross) clipper of his own? Does he envision himself as the heir of Joyce’s artist-hero, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who was “refined out of existence, indifferent paring his fingernails”? Does he still whittle? (Bassett’s sales are “really taking off” in Ireland right now, according to Barbara Shannon, the company’s marketing manager; it seems that the Irish are through with Joyce’s manual methods and insist on taking, with Trim’s help, the shortcut to artistry.) Or is Mr. King rather implying that someone like me disdainfully pares and fiddles while he, market-wise progressivist, hacks on with the latest technology?
If so, I can assure Mr. King that I, too, clip—not as often as I should, perhaps, but with genuine enthusiasm. When I want a really authentic experience, I sometimes use a toenail clipper on my fingernails, shuddering with the thrill of fulcrumed power; and then, for my toes I step on up to Revlon’s veterinary-gauge Nipper, a parrot-beaked personal-pruning weapon that, despite its chrome plate, looks as if it should be stored in the toolshed. A dense, semiopaque shard cut from this nineteen-dollar piece of spring-loaded Brazilian craftsmanship recently rose from what was left of my ravished toenail and traveled across the room, landing in a box of tax records, where it remains.
We can say with some certainty (and sadness) that Nabakov did not use nail clippers. That is, John Shade, and Pale Fire’s poet, did not:
The little scissors I am holding are
A dazzling synthesis of sun and star.
I stand before the window and I pare
My fingernails &.
The cutting of a fingernail is important in Nabakov: it may constitute for him the act of self-liberation from annotative servitude, since he is demonstrably aware of the traditional scholarly use of the nail’s edge as a marginal place-inscriber. In Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Tatiana learns about Onegin’s mind by studying his library, and she notices (in Nabokov’s translation) that
Many pages preserved
The trenchant mark of fingernails.
Nabakov’s commentary to these lines mentions that Sheridan’s The Rivals (dismissing it in passing, with his usual harshness, as a “singularly inept comedy”), which someone “cherishes her nails for the convenience of making marginal notes.” Nabakov adds, puzzlingly, “The art is a lost one today.” Hardly so: even with a closely clipped and manly thumbnail, the reader can and very often does, today, in America, score a visible double line to mark an interesting passage, if it appears in a book that he is prevented for one reason or another from defacing. In those midnight moments of the misplaced pencil, too, a nail impression is a less destructive and more spatially precise ad to memory than a turned-down corner. Moreover, the pressure of the reader’s nail, deformed by its momentary trenchancy, against the tender hyponychial tissues it protects, creates a transient thumbwide pleasure that is, or can be, more than literary.
But the most troubling feature of Stephen King’s assessment of my alleged “nail paring” of a novel is his apparent belief that a bookish toe- or fingernail scrap can be justifiably brushed off as meaningless. Last September, Allen Ginsberg sold a bag of his beard hair to Stanford. Surely Mr. King ought to be saving for the ages whatever gnarled relics he clips or pares? And the Master Spellbinder, of all people, should be able to detect the secret terrors, the moans of the severed but unquiet soul, that reside in these disjecta. Think of the fearful Norse ship of the apocalypse, Naglfar, made of dead men’s nails, which will break loose from its moorings during the Monstrous Winter, when the Wolf has swallowed the Sun—”a warning,” in Brian Branston’s retelling, “that if a man dies with his nails unshorn he is adding greatly to the materials for Naglfar (a thing both gods and men would be slow to do).” Gertrude Jobes’s mythological dictionary cites a related Finno-Ugric tradition in which the Evil One collects any Sunday nail parings and “with them builds the boat for transporting the dead.” Lithuanian folklore contends (per Stith Thompson) that “from the parings of man’s nails devils make little caps for themselves.” I didn’t have a chance to ask any of the employees at the factory in Derby, Connecticut, many of whom are first- or second-generation Polish, whether they had heard similar tastes.
Lest someone unknowingly aid the devils in their hattery (would a fingernail hat resemble a wicker knick-knack basket, one wonders, or would the snippets be sewn or glued on, like sequins?), the Bassett Company, in 1990, launched the Easy Hold clipper. The Easy Hold line features an unusual pair of either-handed cuticle scissors, with forefinger-rests that aid fine work (U.S. Design Patent No. 331,867); a foam emery-board holder; and an enhanced tweezer that makes the removal of other people’s splinters even more of a wicked joy than it always has been. But the new nail clippers go further: in addition to a considerate plastic thumb element, they include a housing for the jaw that catches nearly every snippet the moment it is clipped.
Eric Rommerdale, the head of laboratory technology at the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry, in Jackson, is the principal figure behind the development of all the Easy Hold grooming products. Mr. Rommerdale, fifty-two, a white-mustached ex-Navy man, is no stranger to inventive self-care, having in his off-hours developed Sunbeam’s triple-brush, hands-free toothbrushing system (now sold by DKI Inc.) and the mouth-stick-activated urine-bag release valve, both for the wheelchair set. His big fingernail moment came in November of 1987, in a Stop-n-Go, while he was watching a man in his seventies with “hands the size of baseball mitts” trying to clip his nails. Three times the clipper fell to the floor. Out of polymer resin (often used in dental work) Rommerdale built a pair of add-on clipper grips and tried to interest Revlon in them. Revlon said no, unequivocally. But in 1988 William Bassett the younger listened to a pitch by Rommerdale in the lobby of the Bridgeport Hilton, liked what he heard, and asked the inventor to rethink the graspability of the entire manicure line. The University of Mississippi Medical Center then evaluated and refined the prototypes (under a grant from the Bassett Company), videotaping and surveying a group of talkative elderly beta-testers.
Although Rommerdale’s original rounded design gained, in its final, blister-packed form, a few unwelcome projections and some squared-off edges that call out for smoothing (“we could have done a better job on that,” William Bassett admits), it is nonetheless heartening to find that the stylistic history of the clipper—one of the great bureau-top products of the century—is not over. This coming January, all plastic Easy Hold fittings, at present colored a battleship-gray, will turn teal-green, after extensive mall-site interviewing. Eric Rommerdale, using his patent royalties, recently expanded his backyard workshop, and he is currently developing safer tools for meat cutters and a jar opener for the disabled. It looks as if there will still be time for us to clip our nails closely and carefully, as if nothing else mattered, before the coming of the Monstrous Winter, when Naglfar will set sail.