Eighteenth-century shaving and politeness!

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.

8 thoughts on “Eighteenth-century shaving and politeness!

  1. I’m with you all the way here on shaving. The ‘clean-shaven’ are of particular interest to me as part of my wider project on plebeian cleanliness. I love the idea of the construction of ‘other’ through beardiness. Very much looking forward to something in print from you.

    1. Hi Louise,
      Glad to hear I’m not on my own! Yes, the whole clean-shaven idea is very interesting indeed. I’ve just submitted an article to the Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies based on this research, and waiting to hear if it’s been accepted. I look at the change to being clean-shaven in the eighteenth century, and pretty much the themes I’ve discussed here in more detail, including the advertising of razors, the decline of beards – even in institutions – and the depictions of beards in satire. Might be interesting to have a chat at some point too.

      All the best

  2. Hi Alun. A strange Q came up at Paxton House today, & I thought that with your studies into C18th medicine & hygiene you might possibly have heard of this.
    Besides the use of pomanders, did the Georgians wear some sort of device intended to attract body lice to it & away from the rest of their bodies? I’ve never come across this, but one of our tour guides was asked this today.
    Would appreciate any insights you may have!
    Regards – Karen.

    1. Hi Karen,
      That’s a new one on me, I must admit. I can well imagine that such a device could have existed given the Georgians’ constant fascination with bodily devices from rupture trusses to steel corsets and stays. I’ll have a look around and see if I can find any mention of it though – I’m intrigued now!

      Thanks again

    1. Excellent, thanks Karen – it looks very interesting indeed and thanks very much for flagging this up. I’m just about to start some writing on technologies of the body, so this will be a fruitful avenue to explore.

      Hypochondria ok at the moment, but I’m ever vigilant!

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