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.