Historically Speaking: The Enduring Allure of a Close Shave

Men may be avoiding their razors for ‘Movember,’ but getting rid of facial and other body hair goes back millennia in many different cultures

November is a tough time for razors. Huge numbers of them haven’t seen their owners since the start of “Movember,” the annual no-shave fundraiser for men’s health. But the razors needn’t fear: The urge of men to express themselves by trimming and removing their hair, facial and otherwise, runs deep.

Although no two cultures share the exact same attitude toward shaving, it has excited strong feelings in every time and place. The act is redolent with symbolism, especially religious and sexual. Even Paleolithic Man shaved his hair on occasion, using shells or flint blades as a crude razor. Ancient Egypt was the earliest society to make hair removal a way of life for both sexes. By 3000 B.C., the Egyptians were using gold and copper to manufacture razors with handles. The whole head was shaved and covered by a wig, a bald head being a practical solution against head lice and overheating. Hair’s association with body odor and poor hygiene also made its absence a sign of purity.

Around 1900 B.C., the Egyptians started experimenting with depilatory pastes made of beeswax and boiled caramel. The methods were so efficacious that many of them are still used today. The only parts never shaved were the eyebrows, except when mourning the death of a cat, a sacred animal in Egyptian culture. The Greco-Roman world adopted the shaved look following Alexander the Great, who thought beards were a liability in battle, since they could be grabbed and pulled. The Romans took their cue from him.

But they also shared the Egyptian obsession with body hair. The Roman fetish for tweezing created professional hair pluckers. The philosopher Seneca, who lived next door to a public bath, complained bitterly about the loud screaming from plucking sessions, which intruded upon the serenity he required for deep thoughts. Both pluckers and barbers disappeared during Rome’s decline.

Professional barbers only reappeared in significant numbers after 1163 when the Council of Tours banned the clergy, who often provided this service, from shedding blood of any kind. The skills of barber-surgeons improved, unlike their utensils, which hardly changed at all until the English invented the foldable straight razor in the late 17th century.

The innovation prompted a “safety” race between English and French blade manufacturers. The French surged ahead in the late 18th century with the Perret razor, which had protective guards on three sides. The English responded with the T-shaped razor patented by William Henson in 1847. In 1875, the U.S. leapfrogged its European rivals with electrolysis, still the best way to remove hair permanently.

Nevertheless, the holy grail of a safe, self-shaving experience remained out of reach until King Camp Gillette, a traveling salesman from New York, worked with an engineer to produce the first disposable, double-edged razorblade. His Gillette razor went on sale in 1903. By the end of World War I, he was selling millions—and not just to men.

Gillette seized on the fashion for sleeveless summer dresses to market the Milady Décolleté Gillette Razor for the “smooth underarm” look. The campaign to convince women to use a traditionally male tool was helped by a series of scandals in the 1920s and 30s over tainted hair products. The worst involved Koremlu, a depilatory cream that was largely rat poison.

The razor may be at least 50,000 years old, but it remains an essential tool. And it’s a great stocking stuffer.

Leave a Reply

Next ArticleHistorically Speaking: A Tale of Two Hats