Why does everyone seem to find it amusing when I say that I’m currently working on the history of shaving? This has happened a few times now. Even at academic conferences when it’s not very polite to snigger at other people’s research, I’ve heard that snorty-pig laugh that people do when they’re trying to stop themselves. A lesser man would be offended.
Shaivng though, is actually a window into a hidden world of eighteenth-century politeness and masculinity and one, for the most part, historians have ignored. Let’s settle one thing straight away. When I say shaving, I’m talking about men’s faces. Why? There are several reasons why I think this is a fantastic topic. First, this was a period of history that witnessed the development of a whole new market for shaving paraphernalia in the eighteenth century – one of the first markets aimed solely at men.
Second, something happened culturally to make beards facial hair deeply unfashionable. The eighteenth century has been described as the first truly beardless age in history, and the reasons why are unclear. It might have to do with anything from health to ideals of the classical body. Whatever the reasons, it is rare to find eighteenth-century portraits of bearded men, but beards were often used as a visual shorthand in satirical cartoons to suggest a dirty, unkempt or even socially inept men.
Thirdly, the invention of cast steel made a whole new range of lethally sharp, but beautifully polished, razors available. Accompanying these, in newspaper advertisements, were a range of other products for male pampering, from face creams to powders and scents. Also, this period witnessed a transition from one where men visited barbers to be shaved, to one where they began to shave themselves. For the upper classes shaving yourself meant getting your servant to do it for you, but it amounted to the same thing.
So, sniggerers, this is actually serious topic of research, with many fascinating avenues to explore. But, in all seriousness, it highlights how even the most apparently mundane of daily tasks can often harbour a range of hidden meanings. It is often worth looking at the minutiae to see the bigger picture. And here endeth today’s lesson.