Last week, for the first time in my life, I was the lucky recipient of a wet shave with a cut throat razor. As part of my duties as a BBC/AHRC ‘New Generation Thinker’ I was making a short film about shaving in Georgian Britain, the conclusion of which sees me having my beard shorn off in the Pall Mall barbers in Fitzrovia, central London, a traditional barbers’ shop with a history dating back to the nineteenth century. http://www.pallmallbarbers.com/ (I don’t usually go in for endorsements in the blog, but will make an exception here and say a big thanks to Richard and his team for looking after us. Much appreciated guys).
For someone who has always used safety razors, I must admit that I was slightly nervous. After all, sitting recumbent in a chair while someone sweeps a lethally sharp blade over your neck might not immediately seem like a good plan. I needn’t have worried. My barber, Michael, was an expert and, after a bit of preparatory work with hot towels and various creams and lotions, six months’ worth of beard was gone(smoothly and painlessly) in less than half an hour.
But the experience was interesting for me on another level. Having been researching and writing in various ways about shaving for the past five or six years, this was a chance to get close to the experience of men in the past. Maybe sixty or seventy years ago, the cut throat razor was still extremely popular. Today, being shaved by a barber is something of a luxury. As I sat there in the comfortable chair, being shaved with a modern blade that was…well…razor sharp, I was reminded that this wasn’t always the experience of stubbly men in the past.
In Georgian Britain, shaving could be an extremely uncomfortable experience. Steel razors were already in use in the first half of the eighteenth century. These were often made of a type of steel called ‘shear steel’, which was made through an older process involving heating iron with layers of charcoal so that it absorbed the carbon. Whilst tough, this type of steel was prone to be brittle and not best suited to holding an extremely sharp edge for long. It needed constant re-sharpening with a strop –a leather strap which was held while the razor was swept up and down in long strokes.
After 1750, a new type of steel – cast steel – began to be introduced. Cast steel was more uniform in quality, capable of carrying a sharper edge, and had the added benefit of being capable of carrying a high polish. This meant that razors could look good, as well as working well. This is a model by the prominent razor maker and metallurgist James Stodart.
But even despite the availability of new razors, and the increasing habit of auto-pogonotomy (shaving yourself!), the barber was still the mainstay of shaving services. The problem was that the quality of barbering was, like the razors, not always uniform in quality. In fact, unlike today, barbers had something of a bad reputation for the treatment sometimes meted out to men coming into their shop for a shave!
Part of the problem was the routine use of blunted razors. Anyone who has ever tried to use a razor with modern disposable blades one too many times will probably sympathise with the uncomfortable rasping feeling as the blade scrapes, rather than cuts through the beard. So it was with a blunted cutthroat. Unlike today, there were no ‘lubricating strips’ in razors to help it glide. Shaving soaps and powders were used, and doubtless helped a bit but the poor customer was in for 30 minutes or so of severe discomfort if the barber had ignored the strop. The caption in this cartoon says it all: “Zounds how you scrape!”
Even once the shave had finished the ordeal might not be over. Many would have left with a prodigious shaving rash, not to mention the nicks and cuts that would be difficult to cover. By the 1780s, some perfumers like Robert Sangwine of the Strand were beginning to sell various pastes and potions to soothe smarting skin.
On a more serious note, a visit to the barber could be a threat to health. Razors might be washed between customers, but not in clean water. Matter such as blood and debris left on the surface of the razor, and its handle, could easily be transferred to the next customer, perhaps even into a cut, leaving them susceptible to infection.
It is also likely that, even with well-sharpened cast steel razors, the shave would not be as close as those experienced by modern men. It is also unlikely that the majority of men either shaved themselves or visited a barber more than a couple of times a week. As such, even though beards were extremely out of fashion, a few days growth of beard could well have been the norm. It is interesting to note, though, that a ‘five o’clock shadow’ could render you a target. The prominent Whig politician Charles James Fox was almost always depicted with heavy stubble, partly to highlight his status as a ‘man of the people’. If nothing else, this does suggest that ‘ordinary’ men, especially lower down the social order, were routinely stubbly. Fox is the figure at the far left.
But barbers were sometimes unpopular for other reasons. A raft of satirical cartoons poked fun at barbers who paid little attention to the sufferings of their customers or, worse still, paid little attention to their customers at all! In this cartoon, the barber is lost in his own conversation, talking about an acquaintance in Amsterdam. ‘Hulloa there’ cries the poor customer, ‘don’t you know that you’re about to cut off my nose?”!
This was also a time when barbers were in a period of transition. After splitting from the barber-surgeons’ company in 1745 to create their own occupational identity, the shift away from medicine was also marked by a move towards specialisation in hair dressing. Indeed, the term ‘hairdresser’ was increasingly becoming common towards the end of the eighteenth century. The extent to which hairdressers still provided shaving services for men is one of the questions I’ll be addressing in my new project on the history of shaving in Britain between 1700 and 1918.
In any case, I’m getting used to beardless life again after six months of facial hirsuteness. Many times in the course of my work as a historian of seventeenth-century medicine and surgery I’ve had cause to be thankful for modern biomedicine. My experience at the hands of a modern barber has given me the same feeling with my work on the history of shaving!