I’ll be giving a public seminar at the Wellcome Library, London, on Tuesday 5th of February at 6.15pm. Click the link below for more details, including an abstract.
I’ll be giving a public seminar at the Wellcome Library, London, on Tuesday 5th of February at 6.15pm. Click the link below for more details, including an abstract.
It’s ‘Movember’. Like many others I’m currently sporting a handlebar moustache for charity. Unlike many others, mine is ginger, and white at the tips. I can’t decide if it makes me look distinguished or like a third-rate drug peddler. Here’s the link to my ‘Mospace’ – you decide (and please feel free to make a donation – it’s for a very worthy cause). http://mobro.co/4243057
If I was to be sporting this particular piece of facial topiary in eighteenth-century polite society, it is highly likely that I would be frowned upon. As I’ve detailed in a previous post, facial hair of any sort fell dramatically from favour sometime around the mid eighteenth century. The reasons for this are complex, and by no means mutually exclusive. One strong possibility is a shift in concepts of masculinity. As ‘polite’ society became refined, so fashions for men became increasingly feminised. This was the era of the bag wig, silk hose and face powder – at least for those in the upper levels of society. Facial hair connoted rough, earthy types and was not a feature of the polite gentleman’s visage.
Medicine, too, might have played a part. In the early modern period, facial hair was viewed as a form of excreta resulting from too much heat in the liver. Like any other form of bodily waste, it was being expelled and so to remove it was to rid the body of a potentially harmful substance. But another interesting point is that this period also witnessed an astonishing shift in the technologies available for shaving, mostly made possible by the potential of new types of steel – most notably cast steel, often referred to as crucible steel because of its manufacturing process. Unlike its predecessor shear steel, which could be brittle and of uneven quality, cast steel had perfect properties for the manufacture of razors. It was capable of being sharpened to an extremely keen edge and, more than this, could be polished to a mirror-like shine, meaning that cast steel razors could look beautiful, as well as being functional. But the availability of new materials was not, on their own, enough; what was needed was a new breed of technologically-savvy makers to develop new products. In fact, this was exactly what happened.
London, in the mid-eighteenth century, was a hub of technological and manufacturing expertise. But, we should not think of this in modern terms of factories or large-scale production lines. Instead, there were hundreds of individual small artisanal workshops involved in a multiplicity of trades, many of which required metallurgical expertise. Watch and clock makers, for example, required steel for their tiny components, but also in the tools needed to manufacture them. Makers of scientific instruments likewise needed precision tools to make their highly specialised products, as did surgical instrument manufacturers. It is important to note that many carried out their own experiments with metals tailored to their own individual needs, and this made London a centre for metallurgical innovation. Many trades became concentrated into certain parts of London making mini clusters of expertise. Into this milieu we can place razor makers and some notable names in particular.
Typical of this new breed of metallurgical innovators was John Horatio Savigny of Pall Mall in London. Savigny was likely of Huguenot descent, his family coming to London in the seventeenth century. The ancestral trade of the Savignys was surgical instrument manufacture, and several others of the family were engaged in similar manufacturing trades. But John Henry, or JH, Savigny as he was often referred to was perhaps the most prominent and widely esteemed.
From his base at number 129 Pall Mall, Savigny was continually involved in the manufacture of a range of metallic goods. In 1778, for example, he advertised his new type of lancet which, he informed “Gentlemen of the Faculty” were made using “a method […] lately contrived whereby these instruments are brought to such a degree of accuracy as will greatly lessen the pain of the patient and totally remove all apprehension of disappointment in the operator”. Notice the emphasis upon his “new method”, referring to his experimentation with steel.
In 1776, Savigny referred directly to his new methods of manufacture in another advertisement for lancets. Again addressed to “Gentlemen of the Faculty” – i.e. London Physicians, he laid special emphasis upon the fact that “he has invented a new Vertical Machine, particularly calculated for the perfection of Lancets”. His “Cast Steel Convex Penknives”, according to a 1775 advertisement, had “received the Approbation of the most eminent Writing Masters”, and could be bought in person from Savigny at his shop near the Haymarket.
But it was razor manufacture that really made Savigny’s name and, once again, his experimentation with steel lay at the heart of his advertising pitch. By 1764, his “Razors tempered by means of a new discovered process” could also be bought from his shop. Tempering suggests the remelting and refinement of steel, a difficult and intricate process requiring specialist equipment and knowledge. These new razors were functional and attractive. More than this, they appealed to a new market of male toilette, one in which polite gentlemen were increasingly beginning to shave themselves, rather than visit a barber. A range of new products was becoming available to them, from shaving powders to soothe the face, to travelling kits and even beautifully carved and constructed shaving tables.
A raft of advertisements followed, with razors often prominent among the products listed. By 1800, Savigny could boast an entire printed catalogue of products, aimed at enticing customers to browse, and hopefully to buy.
But Savigny was keen to diversify beyond instruments, and evidence from patent records shows that he introduced a range of other products. In 1800, Savigny proposed a steel tourniquet to stop bleeding “more effectually than has hitherto been done”. In 1784, he proposed “ A METHOD OF MAKING OF SKAITS, AND PARTICULARLY FOR FIXING THEM ON WITH MORE EASE, SAFETY AND EXPEDITION THAN HATH HITHERTO BEEN DISCOVERED.
Savigny was rapidly becoming an authority on steel, so much so that his expertise was sought by the Birmingham manufacturer and luminary Matthew Boulton, of the Boulton and Watt company. Boulton sought Savigny’s advice on the quality of some new types of steel that he was purchasing from India. Indeed, it was not only in metallurgy that Savigny was seemingly making a name for himself. These adverts suggest that he was an amateur actor, perhaps of less talent than his main business!
All this adds up to a picture of a man who was typical of the new enlightened breed of manufacturers, interested not only in their own businesses, but in the possibilities and opportunities of their age.
In 1789 he attempted to patent his own steel razor. This is an extract from the patent (BL Patent 1716):
“A RAZOR OF AN ENTIRE NEW CONSTRUCTION, FOR THE SHAVING THE FACE AND HEAD WITH MUCH GREATER EASE AND SAFETY THAN ANY OTHER RAZOR OR INSTRUMENT HITHERTO FOUND OUT, INVENTED OR DISCOVERED”
…In the manner following:- Of the purest steel that can be procured, which is to be forged (with very moderate and often repeated immersions in the fire, so that its substance may receive no injury from a separation of its particles by excess of heat, but on the contrary be rendered as dense as possible), into the form of a razor, differing in form from all other razors heretofore made in the cutting part of the blade”.
The problem with innovation is that it can be copied. Whether Savigny ‘invented’ the cast steel razor is unclear, but he certainly had competitors. Amongst these was John Stodart another London razor maker. In 1788, Stodart himself was forced into some measure of quality control:
“STODART begs gentlemen who send for the above articles, will be so obliging as to observe that his name is stamped on the Blade. This caution is made necessary, by his having had Repeatedly razors sent to be exchanged which never were purchased at his shop. It is with infinite satisfaction, he is able to add, that since the above method of tempering, he finds no difficulty in supplying Gentlemen with Razors, which with the assistance of a good strap, perform at all times agreeable to their wishes. “
The razor market was becoming highly competitive by the late eighteenth century, and many other makers rose to prominence, such as James Stodart, Benjamin Kingsbury and Daniel Riccard, all of whom used the ubiquitous newspaper advertisement columns to push their products. Others, like Edward Greaves of Sheffield in 1804, continued to develop the razor, this time suggesting springs to create three lockable positions, making the razor more functional and adaptable.
But the salient point here is how far facial hair, and specifically its removal, carried significance in the eighteenth century. Much time, energy, money and advertising space was expended by manufacturers keen to make their products most prominent. The process of shaving was loaded with social significance; to be facially hirsuite, as I have said, was undesirable. It could therefore be argued that the humble moustache or beard played a central role in spurring metallurgical innovation in Georgian Britain. Far from being a mundane everyday experience, the history of shaving can actually reveal much more about past societies than we might usually think.
If you enjoyed this post, a pre-publication draft of my new academic article on the history of shaving and masculinity during the Enlightenment can be viewed in the papers section of my Academia.edu page here: http://exeter.academia.edu/AlunWithey
This seemingly mundane advertisement appeared in the General Advertiser in May 1752. Daniel Cudworth was one of the many London business owners to take advantage of increased advertising opportunities to push his ‘flat razor strap’. On the surface, there seems little unusual here; a product, some notes about its quality and durability and a list of suppliers. And yet Cudworth’s advertisement actually pinpoints a turning point in male personal grooming. His advert is, as far as I can ascertain, the first example of a product targeted at men who ‘shave themselves’.
Up to this point, the barber was the main source of shaving for the majority of men. There aren’t many personal records to suggest how often men actually visited barbers, but it seems likely that many did so every week, if not every few days. Surviving barber’s accounts also tend to point towards a frequency of every few days, often done on an account settled monthly or even annually.
But, around the mid eighteenth-century, shaving – and male toilette in general, was beginning to attract a range of new products. The availability of cast steel meant sharper, more durable razors. Older steel razors were sometimes brittle and easily blunted; shavers complained about inept barbers whose lack of concentration could prove painful!
But now men could buy their own, high-quality shaving equipment from specialist retailers, who also sold a range of ancillary goods. Cudworth’s main line were razor-straps (strops), long pieces of leather which were used to keep razors in pristine, sharp condition. Shaving with blunt razors was an extremely uncomfortable experience. He makes reference to the poor quality (“thin things”) passed off as steel razors, requiring repair every few months, and notes the importance of maintenance in keeping a sharp edge. Clearly, a razor was becoming something to keep, rather than a throwaway item – disposable razors were not in vogue.
But Cudworth also sold shaving powders, the point of which was to soothe a smarting face but also to give it a smoother appearance. On one level these are clearly functional items. But they also represent something of a sea-change in attitudes towards male grooming. Rough masculinity was beginning to be displaced by a predilection for pampering.
At the upper levels of society, it is likely that servants performed the task. A whole set of shaving paraphernalia also became available for gentlemen who travelled, including sets of instruments and even portable shaving cases, including a mirror and bowl to allow the man to perform his task in comfort. Cudworth’s advert makes reference to this new trend; his ‘travelling boxes’ were small enough to be carried in a pocket, allowing businessmen and Grand Tourists alike to take their razors, scissors etwees and so on with them on their peregrinations.
Examples like this remind us that even the mundane and everyday can be fascinating. Even individual advertisements can be revealing about not only products for sale, but changing popular attitudes and social mores. It is often through these little snapshots of history that we can gain a better understanding of the bigger picture.
Much of the work I’ve been doing recently on the history of shaving and masculinity in the enlightenment has concentrated on self-shaving…technically called auto-pogonotomy. The mid eighteenth century was really the first time when men started to eschew the barber and do the job themselves or, if they were well off, get their servant to do it. Some advertisements for male servants even stipulated that the prospective applicant had to be proficient in shaving.
Through my work on medical history, though, I’ve also been interested in the shops and contents of medical practitioners, especially doctors and apothecaries, but also barbers. One way of looking at this is through probate inventories. When people died, as part of the probate process, an inventory was made of all their possessions, and these can often reveal a great deal about material culture and individual lives. Often they are not detailed, and simply lump the goods together under generic titles like ‘household stuff’ or ‘brass and pewter’. But sometimes they are more thorough, and list individual items. In the case of inventories for shop owners, they can give us a real insight into not only what was being sold, but the appearance and layout of the shop itself.
One of the inventories I looked at when researching my book was that of a Wrexham barber-surgeon, James Preston, who died in 1681. (For anyone who might want to see the original, it is in the National Library of Wales, reference MS SA/1681/216). The makers of Preston’s inventory were extremely diligent, and listed the entire contents of his shop. By looking at this closely, we can learn a lot about what it must have been like to walk into his shop in the late seventeenth century.
Like many shopkeepers of the time, James Preston lived above his shop, and appears to have been fairly well off by the standards of the time. Amongst his furniture were ornate “turkey worke” chairs and cushions, some leather chairs and other pieces of furniture including chests and glass cases. In another room over the shop were several feather beds, trunks of linen and a range of housewares including fine cooking utensils and dinnerware. Preston was clearly a man of some standing, since much of what he owned was expensive and out of reach to those on lower incomes.
Preston was described on his inventory as a “Chirurgeon Barber”, and barbering was clearly a large part of his business. Visitors to his shop would have been greeted by an array of shaving equipment, some hanging on the wall, others ready to use. There were, for example “One case of trimming instruments with razours and coumbs”, along with a “douzen and a halfe of washboales”. Clearly this was a business set up to deal with a number of customers at once.
Another entry suggests the process of shaving itself. Amongst the shop items was “Jesamy butter” – a type of unguent soap, presumably applied to soothe recently scraped faces, as was “agyptiacum”. A similar function was performed by the “halfe a pound of damask powder” in Preston’s inventory- the early modern equivalent of a splash of aftershave! The customer would have seen a row of pewter and brass basins, and a set of fifteen razors and scissors. After the deed was done, they might inspect their freshly shorn visage in one of the looking glasses that were present in the shop.
It is also interesting to note that the shop contained six chairs and “instruments of music”. Margaret Pelling’s work on early modern barber and apothecary shops has suggested that these establishments could become places for social gatherings, as well as functional premises, and this might include the playing of music and merrymaking. To find this in a provincial Welsh barber’s shop is interesting.
But, also like many of his contemporaries, James Preston was a medical practitioner, and his inventory shows evidence of debts owed to him for treatments. One Hugh Roberts of the Swan Inn owed Preston £1 for “the dressing of his legg”, and a further seven shillings for “the dress of a quinsy”. He provided a “searcloth” – a type of plaster/bandage for another customer, while he charged two shillings and sixpence for curing a “bustion” on a housemaid’s finger. In all, there are well over twenty ‘cures’ listed, including local elites as well as the poor and servants, and Preston treated everything from broken limbs to sore throats.
It might seem unusual that a barber might administer cures, but it was in fact common. The classification used on probate inventories (in this case “Chirurgeon-barber”) gives a clue – surgeon is put first here. But the makers of inventories often just used the main type of employment of the deceased, even though they might have performed several functions. There was a close relationship between barbering and medicine anyway; facial hair itself was regarded as a form of bodily excreta, so getting rid of it was part of the wider bodily rituals of letting blood and purging.
This is just one source, and even in a few brief paragraphs we can begin to build up a picture of something of the life of just one early modern barber. Used carefully, probate inventories can be fantastic sources, giving us a window into the insides of people’s houses, and the accoutrements of their lives.