The practice of removing hair from one's body traces its roots to well before the beginning of written history. Prehistoric cave drawings dating from as early as 30,000 B.C. show the earliest humans using clam shells and sharpened flint to (painfully, no doubt) remove hair from their bodies. Since that time shaving has enjoyed periods of great popularity and prominence as well as times of neglect and disfavor, depending on various cultural, technological, and political influences.
Between 30,000 B.C. and 6,000 B.C. razors evolved from clam shells and sharpened bits of flint and obsidian into somewhat more sophisticated instruments. Archeologists have discovered circular razors fashioned of bronze in ancient Egyptian burial chambers. The ancient Egyptians were known to shave their heads and faces, believing that hair was animalistic and uncivilized. By the fourth century B.C. the practice of shaving had spread to Greece and Rome, largely due to the influence of Alexander the Great. Alexander ordered his troops to shave their heads and faces in order to prevent their hair from being grabbed by enemies during battle. During this time the razor further evolved into elaborate instruments made of copper, iron, and even gold. It was under the development of the Greeks and Romans that the razor evolved from a curved implement into the more modern style of straight razor, a design that has persisted to the modern day.
Throughout the Middle Ages, shaving came in and out of style based on the preferences of local lords and the religious climate of the time. In the eleventh century, the grooming industry began to flourish. Perfumes, deodorants, and other hygienic items became very popular, as did shaving. Much of this can be attributed to religious motivation. Following the 1054 split between the Eastern Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church, western clergymen began advocating shaving as a way to distinguish themselves from their rivals in the east, as well as "infidels" such as Jews and Muslims. In 1096 the Archbishop of Rouen went so far as to outlaw the wearing of beards, with the exception of Crusaders and those traveling in the Holy Land, who were permitted to wear beards in deference to the example of the apostles.
Except for occasional advances in metallurgical technology which made razors sharper and safer, there were few developments in razor design between the Middle Ages and the early Industrial Age. The early nineteenth century saw the development of the famous Sheffield straight razor, which resembles the straight razors used today. By this time, razors had become very precise, carefully crafted products. At this time, there was also a boom in the world of shaving-related cosmetics as many perfumers and chemists began to manufacture soaps and creams specifically designed to aid in the shaving process. Many of these companies are still in existence and continue to manufacture shaving products.
The first safety razor was conceptualized around 1770 by Frenchman Jean-Jacques Perret. It consisted of a sharpened straight razor with a wooden guard installed. At this time shaving was a practice left to professional barbers, and was still somewhat dangerous. Perret was a pioneer in that he envisioned a world where men would be able to shave themselves safely. It wasn't until 1880, however, that the first true safety razor was patented by the Kampfe brothers. The razor featured a removable handle, a lather-catcher style head, and a wire guard along the blade. Although safer and more convenient than a straight razor, the blade of the Kampfe razor still had to be removed for sharpening on a regular basis.
In 1895, a traveling salesman by the name of King C. Gillette conceived an idea for a double edged safety razor that would use cheap, disposable blades which never needed to be sharpened. He was inspired by his acquaintance William Painter, who suggested that the way to make money was to produce something cheap which people would need to buy again and again. Technological limitations made the production of the blades difficult. In 1901 Gillette enlisted the help of MIT graduate William Nickerson, and by 1903, they had managed to successfully produce a thin, sharp blade that could be produced in large quantities. Production of the Gillette safety razor then began, forever changing the face of the shaving world. During World War One, Gillette was contracted to provide razors to the US military, thus ensuring that the entire nation was converted to the Gillette safety razor. Over the course of the 20th century, the design for double edged safety razors has remained mostly unchanged, with some notable exceptions being the twist-to-open razor and the adjustable razor.
In 1971, Gillette introduced the first cartridge razor, the Trac II. It featured a removable cartridge with two fixed blades that clicked onto a permanent handle. Since that time, cartridge razors have steadily evolved, gaining pivoting heads, more blades, lubrication strips, wire guards, and even vibrating handles. Cartridge razors continue to be the most popular type of razor.
Aside from some experimentation in the early twentieth century, the concept of a powered razor was unheard of until the 1920s. The first electric razor was invented by Canadian, Jacob Schick. He believed that proper shaving could enable a man to live to the age of 120. His first patented electric razor in 1923 consisted of a large, hand-held, universal motor driving a remote cutting head via a flexible shaft. Knowing that such a device would not appeal to a wide market, Schick waited until he had perfected his design and in 1931, sold his first electric razor. This greatly refined product consisted of an oscillating induction motor (the most powerful in the world at that time for its size) which drove a sliding cutter inside a slotted shearing head. The motor had to be 'kick-started' into life with an exposed turnwheel. All the components were housed in a sleek, black Bakelite shell that could be held comfortably in one hand. Schick's gadget caught the public's imagination and by 1937, 1.5 million were in use and the market for the new 'dry razor' was worth $20 million. Much of the perceived value of the electric razor was in the potential to save money on soaps, creams, and other products necessary for traditional Wet shaving. Furthermore, many valued the speed with which shaving could be accomplished by using an electric razor as opposed to the lengthy process of shaving with a safety razor. Since Schick's original design, many advances have been made in electric razor technology, making the razors smaller, more portable, more stylish, and more effective. Despite these advances, the basic principle of an oscillating cutting surface behind a slotted guard has remained unchanged.
Trends of Shaving
Beards or Clean Shaven?
Women and Shaving
Resurgence of Wet Shaving
Although hard numbers are unknown, a growing number of people are shunning "cartridges and canned goo" in favor of more traditional wet shaving. Reasons given on B&B include:
- Cost per shave
- Tradition ("I want to shave like my ancestors did")
- Effectiveness or to avoid/remediate skin conditions such as ingrown hairs
- Sustainability / Environmental concerns
- Reaction against trends
Shaving in Popular Culture
Articles of Historical Interest
- "Chinese Barbers: Abel's Narrative of a Journey in China";The Casket; 1827
- "The Beard Question"; The Medical And Surgical Reporter; 1861
- "The Perfect Gentleman"; The Atlantic Monthly Press; 1919
- The Science of Shaving; Homo Sum; W.Heffer & Sons Ltd; Cambridge, England; 1931
- "At the Edge of Reason: Shaving and Razors in Eighteenth-Century Britain"; BBC History Magazine; February 2011.