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At the Edge of Reason: Shaving and Razors in Eighteenth-Century Britain

SiBurning

Contributor
At the Edge of Reason: Shaving and Razors in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Alun Withey and Chris Evans
published in: BBC History Magazine; February 2011

After centuries in which men retained one form or another of facial hair they began to go clean-shaven. The very many who wore wigs went shaven-headed as well. Shaving chimed in with Enlightenment notions of gentility, polish, and proper self-presentation. Writing in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Literature and the Arts in 1802, William Nicholson noted how ‘the caprice of fashion, or the modern improvements in personal neatness, has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards’. Facial hair was barbarous. Peter the Great, it should be remembered, chose to dramatise Russia’s embrace of western modernity by ordering his boyar noblemen to take off their luxuriant beards.

But something else was at play here too. In the mid eighteenth century, technological advances in steelmaking saw new varieties of the metal come onto the market –varieties that were well adapted to the needs of those who wielded a razor.
 
a fine addition to the pogonotomous discourse, which is well expounded within these forums. the transition from specialist to individual use is not just the story of auto-pogonotomy, but of the industrial revolution and society at large during the last two hundred years. interesting to see how shaving as a microcosm and sub-culture represent that larger social movement. thanks for the link
 
Somehow I missed this when Steve first posted it. Thanks: this is worth reading.

I want to add a word – or maybe a few hundred – about the brush and its role in the rise of self-shaving. Being shaved by someone else goes back to ancient days, and apparently bronze took an acceptable edge in the hands of a practiced user. Yet there were few self-shavers. The authors of this article emphasize the role of steel, and that was important. So were cultural changes and changes in fashion. And what about mirrors? Not so long ago, mirrors were small and expensive. Sometimes great changes emerge from many tiny improvements, and I think the brush was a key innovation for in the rise of self-shaving.

According to an 1815 English source shave brushes came into vogue in London in 1756. Before that "it was a general custom to lather with the hand". A barber would have an assistant to handle the lather while he plied his razor, or he would use a peculiar trick of shaking the lather off of his hands. Still, these new brushes were a worthwhile improvement for barbers.

But at home by himself, a budding self-shaver would have a harder time without a brush. He would have to work up a lather with his own hands, and learn the trick of that without any help. Then he must apply it, and dry his hands thoroughly before starting the first pass. If he wanted a close shave he would have to repeat the entire process. At first gents would not have known about special soaps for shaving, or could not obtain them, so the lather would not last very long anyway. Add to that a general lack of knowledge about prep and other aspects of technique. Many self-shavers would have an unhappy experience and return to the barbershop.

The shave brush made all this a little easier for a self-shaver. Those early brushes tended to have pretty long handles, so he could build lather without getting his hands soapy. If the soap was good enough the brush would hold the lather, too. If not then at least the brush was standing ready. This might seem like a little thing, but I think it made self-shaving significantly more practical.

By 1799 badger brushes appeared in a list of "advantages of modern times". The author was poking fun at early advertising, but the fact that badger brushes were advertised is significant in itself. Self-shaving had arrived. Once things got rolling, better products began to appear. We have also seen some early how-to guides, for example Mechi in the 1830s and Kingsbury in 1797 and 1810.
 
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i just discovered B&B and am avidly pouring over the myriad topics and interactions occurring within these "pages". i don't necessarily believe we are doomed if we don't remember and understand the events that preceded us, but by the same token, do i think it wise to know where you come from, and what factors and forces shaped the current landscape. i am reading much about the 19th and 20th centuries and the expansion of the industrial revolution and the consequences of this growth. that a development of a small thing, utilized in a new way could play such a significant role in an activity that by and large gets taken for granted anymore boggles the mind as to what the world will look like in another 200 years. a brush, which had been used for other purposes for time immemorial, lends a whole new market and freedom to a task that by all accounts goes back into the dim recesses of our common history, and with that small innovation, the inexorable march toward the computer age and the B&B forums cements itself in the firmament of time.

the barber/surgeon sounds like the most interesting profession out there. can you imagine coming out of triple bypass well coiffed, high and tight? sad that the specialties separated. interesting the history that brought them together, though. an individual skilled with sharp implements must needs diversify to keep up with the demands of the times.

don't mind me, i am enjoying my first cup and enjoying the buildup towards my sotd.
 
Yes, and then the Crimean War brought beards back ca. 1853-56. This led to a downturn in the shaving business in London, both for barbers and for equipment retailers like Mechi. We might call it the Shavepocalypse of 1853.

We can see the same change of fashion in the USA, too: presidents Pierce and Buchanan were clean-shaven, then Lincoln and Grant wore beards. Johnson was a clean-shaven exception: did that have something to do with his impeachment?
 
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