At the edge of reason: shaving and razors in 18th-century Britain

Shaving's history is richer than you might think, and has links with technological progress, the Enlightenment, and the vagaries of fashion, as Alun Withey and Chris Evans explain

An aquatint shows barbers at work, with varying degrees of success. (Wellcome Collection)

This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

Advertisement

“Sirrah I tell you, you’re a knave/ To cry up razors that can’t shave”

So wailed the ‘country bumpkin’ in a 19th-century satirical poem entitled The Cheap Razor Merchant. A host of other Georgian caricatures poked fun at the figure of the inept barber with his blunt razors like ‘oyster knives’ who scored away at the beards of unfortunate customers. “Zounds, how you scrape!” cried another poor victim as the unhappy prospect of a shaving rash loomed.

Today, millions of men across the globe will start their day with a shave, and the types of razors available are multifarious. From single-use, plastic-handled slashers to the luxury, gel-dispensing models and the ubiquitous ‘close as a blade’ electric shavers, the choice is seemingly endless.

What, though, prompts so many to favour the freshly shorn face? Is it comfort? Hygiene? Habit? Of course, the practice of shaving reflects wider social attitudes to facial hair. The 18th century was unusual in this respect. 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 chose to dramatise Russia’s embrace of western modernity by ordering his noblemen to take off their luxuriant beards.

But something else was at play here too. In the mid-18th 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.

Crucible steels were of particular importance. Tough and durable, yet able to be polished to a mirror shine, they were a godsend to a new generation of razor makers. Here, technology met flesh, and Enlightenment ideals of taste and bodily care were inscribed on the skin. Cleanliness and control over the self dovetailed with broader ideas about the possibilities of harnessing nature through technological and scientific progress. Hirsute wildness spoke of debasement and, almost literally, losing oneself. Although Enlightenment thinkers often championed the state of nature, they had no wish to embrace nature in the raw. Modern society necessitated fashionable conveniences, such as the simple wig. Better a wig that was simple to maintain and quickly put on than hair that was unkempt and lousy.

For the well-to-do, presenting a clean-shaven face to the world was essential. Some gentlemen retained a manservant who had been trained to handle a blade, but by far the most usual means of obtaining a shave was to visit the local barber. Traditionally, barbering was just one of the functions of those who practised the craft of the barber-surgeon. That was now changing. In London, the Company of Barbers officially split from the Barber-Surgeons’ Company in 1745, although many barbers still undertook traditional medical roles such as tooth-drawing or blood-letting. Barbering became a more specialised and recognisably modern trade. By the mid-18th century, though, shaving oneself was the coming thing.

Razor-makers had, for example, started to target the individual shaver rather than the professional barber when publicising their products. Advertisements began to address “those gentlemen who shave themselves” and an accompanying literature explored the practicalities of using a razor. This was no easy business in the days of the open razor (the safety razor was a 19th-century development), especially for those with pock-marked or ‘scorbutic faces’.

One of the first such publications appeared in France in 1770, when Jean-Jacques Perret – a Parisian master cutler – produced Pogonotomie; or the Art of Shaving Oneself, effectively an 18th-century beginner’s guide to shaving. Similar tomes followed in English. It was vital, argued William Nicholson in 1802, for prospective shavers to buy the best razor they could afford, since a cheap blade would never sharpen satisfactorily. He also offered tips on how to avoid blunting the razor, urging users to warm the blade gently before shaving. Benjamin Kingsbury’s A Treatise on Razors, “in which the weight, shape, and temper of a razor, the means of keeping it in order, and the manner of using it, are particularly considered”, was first published in 1797; it was in its ninth edition by 1821.

Sweet-scented lather

Shaving yourself (technically called ‘auto-pogonotomy’) required that the razor be used in conjunction with a growing range of ancillary products that were clearly aimed at individuals. In 1772, Charles Woodcock of London was advertising his ‘Paste for Shaving’ which promised a “sweet-scented lather” making shaving closer and smoother and “without the least disagreeable smart”. After securing (so they claimed) the approval of the “first characters of the Kingdom”, the makers of British Shaving Paste felt confident to “offer it to the public” in 1793.

In the end though, everything depended on the keenness of the blade. In the 1770s, one Fleet Street perfumer boasted of his premises where could be found soaps, creams, pomatums and, tucked away near the end of the advert, his own branded razors. But by 1784, these “concave razors, made of the very best steel” had become the headline of his advert, suggesting that this part of the business was booming. To deter imposters he stamped his name on every blade – “Sharp!”

The metallurgically savvy artisan who used the new steels that came on stream in the 18th century was very often a razor maker, now starting to spin off from the ancestral trade of cutler as a specialist manufacturer. Many of the most respected razor makers were indeed part of well-established cutler dynasties. The Savigny family, probably of Huguenot descent, were one such dynasty that rose to prominence in 18th-century London. The first was Paul Savigny, who advertised his skills as a maker of “razors, scizors, lancets” and a range of other “carefully ground” goods at “reasonable prices” from around 1730. Some 70 years later, his descendent John Horatio Savigny was making high-quality cast steel razors and penknives, and also issued an extensive catalogue of his surgical instruments, which is not easy reading for the squeamish. Other renowned makers, such as William Riccard and John Palmer, sold a range of cutlery and instruments from their own specialist ‘manufactories’. Among Palmer’s products were ‘symmeter’ (scimitar) razors, the name perhaps used to lend an air of eastern exoticism to his products.

Because of the precise qualities they looked for in the materials they used, razor makers played an important part in driving technological change. The 18th century can be seen as a (perhaps the) great age of innovation in metals. Technological developments undoubtedly improved the quality of iron and steel through the period. Iron and steel, however, were but part of a growing metallic palette. Artisans experimented with new alloys, some of which became desirable as ersatz precious metals. ‘Pinchbeck’, for example, an alloy of copper and zinc invented by the London clockmaker Christopher Pinchbeck, had the appearance and appeal of gold, but at a fraction of the price. It enjoyed something of a vogue. Likewise, when Thomas Boulsover fused silver onto a copper base (‘Sheffield plate’) he effectively created Sheffield’s metal and silver plating industry. ‘Silver’ goods could now be had without the expense of solid silver.

Razor and surgical instrument makers were a part of this new metallurgical milieu. In their efforts to steal a march on competitors, they continually experimented with different types of steel and different tempers of hardness. This gave them a unique insight into the potential uses for new types of steel which, in turn, served to make them important arbiters of quality. A London merchant who started to import bar iron from the North American colonies in the 1760s had a sample worked up by “Mr Sevigni a famous Cutler in Pall Mall”. Savigny pronounced it good and vouched that it would make “excellent Steel”. Savigny would shortly afterwards advertise his scientific credentials by publishing in 1771 An Essay on the Mystery of Tempering Steel, a translation of work by the French savant Réaumur.

A generation later, another London razor maker, James Stodart (1760–1823), was even more deeply involved in metallurgical R&D. Trading from a shop in The Strand as a maker of surgical instruments, cast steel razors and “superior articles in cutlery”, Stodart began to publish articles in popular science periodicals early in the 19th century. A decade later he was conducting experiments at the Royal Institution on steel alloys in collaboration with Michael Faraday, the colossus of early Victorian science.

An emphasis on the ‘scientific’ foundation of new steels began to creep into razor makers’ advertising. James Stodart’s razors were “tempered by thermometer” rather than by eye, which, he stated, removed all elements of uncertainty. William Riccard’s razors were of a “peculiar construction”, using metal of fine “temperament and even purity”. Another maker of Ludgate Street in London went further, making the claim (one that became increasingly common in the late 18th century) that his razors had been made according to “philosophical principles”. Far from being an everyday chore, shaving was now the domain of scientists and philosophers!

The increasing effectiveness of razors could not compete, however, against changes in fashion for facial hair. In the late 18th and early 19th century, beards were restricted to the social margins. A smooth face indicated man’s status as a refined, social animal. Beards were most commonly found – at least as far as contemporary artists were concerned – on hermits or religious ascetics; they signified individuals who had renounced social pleasures and bodily concerns. A man who went unshaven was eccentric or worse. The notoriously wayward Lord George Gordon, who gave his name to the Gordon Riots of 1780, converted to Judaism in 1787 and grew a beard as a token of his new faith. To the general public such an action only confirmed what was already widely thought: that Lord George was unhinged.

After the Napoleonic Wars, however, as new models of masculinity came into play, whiskers started to be seen again. By the 1850s the full-blown beard was back, now seen as a sign of virility and male authority. Manliness was now hirsute; trim elegance in the 18th-century manner was no longer the thing.


Elements of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a new spirit of intellectual enquiry in the 18th century that challenged accepted ideas about religion, science and the state of man.

Enlightenment thinkers championed rationality and empirical observation as a means of investigating the natural world. They also held out the possibility of improvement. Indeed, the Enlightenment invented ‘progress’. As the royal court and the church lost their monopoly of intellectual authority, Enlightenment ideas found expression in new arenas and in new forms of behaviour. For example the coffee house, which was open to all who could pay – a place where newspapers could be read and ideas debated – was characteristic of the age.


DIY shaving

Why did people begin to shave themselves rather than go to the barber? This is a difficult question. Firstly, and most simply, the market for shaving products expanded in the 18th century. Makers of new cast steel razors began to realise the financial benefits of targeting a potentially much bigger customer base of individual shavers rather than professionals.

Secondly, the greater availability and quality of razors, and the growing instructional literature of shaving, may have convinced many that the services of a third party were no longer required. Changes in attitudes to medicine might also have played a part. Traditionally, shaving, like bloodletting, was a bodily routine which belonged firmly to the barber-surgeon. It was something regarded as only to be undertaken by skilled practitioners. When the barbers and surgeons split in the 18th century, however, barbering moved more towards appearance than health. No longer associated with the esoteric workings of the body, it was effectively de-medicalised and brought into the realm of the ‘ordinary’ person.

Finally, the novelty and appearance of cast steel razors also appealed to acquisitive and fashionconscious gentlemen. Such men did not always stoop to shave themselves however; job advertisements for menservants might stipulate that prospective applicants were sufficiently skilful in the use of a razor to serve their masters.

Advertisement

Professor Chris Evans teaches history at the University of Glamorgan. Dr Alun Withey is a historian at the University of Glamorgan, specialising in health and medicine in Wales.