Barbers and Shaving in early modern Britain.

As the beards project rolls merrily forward, I’ve recently been turning my attention to barbers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Over the past few months I’ve been looking at a large number of sources relating to barbers and barber-surgeons, and have been looking at questions of how they trained, guild membership and, at the moment, what we can learn from their shops from probate inventories.

In the early modern period, barber-surgeons were firmly part of the world of medical practice. In fact they were probably the most numerous of all practitioners. It was they who dealt with medical tasks from patching up wounds and minor surgery, to bloodletting, digging out earwax, scraping the tongue and combing the dandruff and scurf out of sweaty, unwashed heads. On the barbering side, they also cut hair and shaved.

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(Image courtesy of – Wellcome Images)

In fact I’m also currently looking at the question of barber occupational titles, and especially those who were ‘just’ barbers. It’s long been argued that, outside London, there was little difference in practice between barbers and barber-surgeons. I’m finding some evidence that there were differences in what barbers did, as opposed to barber-surgeons. Still, that’s a matter for later on in the project.

One question I’m particularly interested in is that of how often men went to the barber in the 17th and 18th centuries and, more specifically, how often they shaved. Why does it even matter? Well, for instance, the degree of stubble raises interesting questions about what was the ‘normal’ state of a man’s facial appearance. That is, was ‘stubbly’ in fact the default position for early modern men, rather than what we today think of as clean shaven? In the eighteenth century, men didn’t wear beards. But, if only shaved once every 3 or 4 days, this would be very different to shaving every day.

Part of the problem lies in actually finding shaving within contemporary sources. Some diaries give us a little evidence. Samuel Pepys, for example, notes his various experimentations with shaving, including one fairly short-lived experiment of rasping the beard hairs away with a pumice stone. Parson James Woodforde leaves quite a lot of detail about his shaves, including buying shaving equipment, visiting the barber, and doing the job himself.

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In terms of barber visits though, the way that payments were made serves to obscure how often men actually went. Rather than, like today, payment being taken at each visit, early modern barbers were often paid quarterly on account – known as the barber’s ‘quarterage’. For barbers this had the advantage of enabling them to establish long term working relationships with clients, and to guarantee income for some periods of time.

For customers, barbering was a profession that relied on trust. Submitting yourself to lie still while a stranger hovered a lethally sharp blade over your jugular required some estimation of their ability! So visiting the same barber for a long period of time enabled the relationship to build over time.

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The problem with barbers’ quarterage though, is that it doesn’t tell you how many visits were included. So, in 1655, when Giles Moore noted in his journal that he had ‘payd for barbouring for six moneths, 7s and 6d’, we don’t know how many times he had been. At the same time in Oxford, Anthony Wood regularly paid four shillings for his barber’s ‘quarteridge’, on one occasion also mentioning a further 2s and 6d ‘for powder and mending of my periwige’.

These sources raise a further problem, which is that of terminology. How can we separate shaving out from other tasks. To take the example of Giles Moore, when he paid for ‘barbouring’, what was included? Was this a shave? A Haircut? A head shave or wig dressing, or a combination of any or all? Matters are complicated by the elastic definitions attached to terms. The Rev. Oliver Heywood’s early eighteenth-century diary has repeated references to his being ‘trim’d’ by his barber. ‘Trimming’ is often taken to refer to hair cutting, but contemporaries understood that it equally referred to cutting the beard. Even ‘shaving’ is not reliable since heads could be shaved in preparation for a wig. So, when Sir Thomas Tyldesley paid ‘Tom Ordds pro shaveing’ in 1712, we can’t be sure whether this was his face or his head.

One source perfectly illustrates the frustrations. A barber’s bill for Sir William Kingsmill in 1681 contains a list of payments, which, at first appear straightforward. Every day over two months has an unspecified payment of one shilling, whilst every third day has the entry ‘shav’d’, with the higher price of 2s and 6d. So, at first glance it might seem that Sir William’s face was shaved once every 3 days, with the barber attending every day for other reasons – maybe bloodletting, wig-dressing etc.

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(Image taken by author)

But one single entry gives a further clue. In April 1681, one entry notes ‘head shav’d’ at 2s 6d. So, a more likely alternative is that the barber shaved Sir William’s face every day, at the lower price of 1s, then shaved his head at the higher price every 3 days.

Some sources, though, are more explicit. Sir John Lauder’s 1670 journals note several examples of paying the barber ‘for razeing me’, together with a price of sixpence. In a range of entries, sixpence occurs very frequently and, whilst it is certainly possible that this refers to having the head shaved, the face seems more likely. In 1674, William Cunningham paid his barber several shillings ‘for razeing and haircutting’, separating the two tasks out specifically.

In the coming months I’m heading back out into the archives, to look at more evidence of barber shops and their role both as medical practitioners and ‘managers’ of men’s bodies and appearance. I’m also going to be looking at how the barber’s role changed after the split from the surgeons in 1745, and how shaving was affected as the ‘hairdresser’ began to emerge in the later eighteenth century.

By way of conclusion though, one entry in Thomas Tyldesley’s diary, though, gives us a wonderful example of a man clearly in the wrong job. In January 1718, Tyldesley wrote that he had blood taken from his arm, as he was suffering from a ‘could and a stitch’. Sadly this proved too much for the unfortunate barber, since ‘Tom Tomlinson, barber, who shaved mee, was frighton with the sight of ye blood’!

Robbing the Doctor: 17th-Century Medics as Victims of Crime

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a common complaint against medical practitioners was that they effectively picked the pockets of the sick, whilst doing little for them in return. As the Helmontian physician George Starkey remarked in the middle of the seventeenth century, the patient was “like to pay the price of the doctor fully with his life” – which Starkey regarded as a brave acte’!

But medics, just like anyone else, could sometimes be victims of crime. The records of the Old Bailey contain a fascinating list of these unfortunate practitioners, and the list of crimes and calumnies they suffered. More than this, however, they can offer an alternative glimpse into the world of early modern medical practice.

Old Bailey in the 19th century

(Old Bailey in the 19th century – image from Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes, for example, physicians and other practitioners found themselves the victims of petty crime. In 1686, Edward Newgent of St Clement Danes pinched the periwig of an unnamed ‘Doctor of Physick’. The good doctor testified that he had been walking along the street in the evening, when the assailant whipped off his hat and wig, and pelted away down the street with them. The doctor gave chase and had the thief arrested. For this seemingly innocuous crime, the unlucky Newgent was sentenced to death!

Another victim of circumstance was Richard Allen of Holborn. In 1675, hearing a disturbance in the street, Allen, ‘by profession a Sea-Chirurgeon’, opened his door and was attacked by a mob (including bayliffs on the hunt for a person to serve a writ). Allen, was set upon by the men, ‘they hacking and hewing him without any mercy, that they left him dead upon the place’. So ‘mortal and dangerous’ were his wounds, that a ‘good part of his skull was taken clean off’.


(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

At other times, the medicines or very tools of their trade might be targets for thieves. Surgeons, and their instruments, seem to have been a particular target. Instruments, especially high end examples, could be expensive and decorous, and were therefore worth taking. Consider the case of William Marriott, surgeon, whose house was broken into in October 1693 by the terrible trio of Batson, Dando and Bedford, ‘about 3 o’clock in the morning in a rude manner’. Swearing ‘great oaths’ and ‘offering to send his Soul to Hell’ they relieved him of £42 in cash, a gold locket and ‘a pair of forceps val. 4s, and other surgeons instruments besides’. All were acquitted.

March 1679 saw a “mischievous youth” slip into a barber-surgeon’s shop and observing that the barber was in another room, he made off with a “case of instruments, most of them tipt with Silver”. Crime didn’t pay for the errant youth; he was burnt in the hand for his trouble. A trio of thieves also relieved a London practitioner Peter Hillery of a “case of Chirurgeon’s Instruments” along with his sword. Hillery testified that he was “drinking in a Brandy shop” with one of the thieves, when he found the items missing. Quite why he felt the need to take his instruments to the pub with him is, unfortunately, not recorded.

Highway Robbery

(Image from Lewis Walpole Library)

Accosted by the highway robber, Daniel White, one John Delaphont was forced to stand and deliver ‘two boxes of surgical instruments, together with his hat, coat and shirt!

As well as the crimes themselves, some cases offer us a view into the world of what might be termed ‘irregular’ or ‘unorthodox’ practice. The descriptions of individuals are sometimes telling. In October 1679, for example, “several Bottels of a medicine called Elixar Vite” (otherwise known as ‘elixir vitae’ – a strong distilled water) were stolen from “a very ancient Itallian Gentel Man who has long professed Physick in this Kingdom”. The Italian was Salvator Winter, one of a string of European itinerant practitioners, who toured Britain in the mid seventeenth century, peddling their wares. In other sources, Winter was described as a ‘medical licentiate’, and signed letters testimonial to the skill of other practitioners. The servant of the unfortunate Winter was indicted, but later acquitted.


(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Another ‘unorthodox’ practitioner named Blagrave – “a pretender to physick” was relieved of a “Gold chain, a Medal, divers pieces of plate, several rich Cloaths, some Money &c”. The richness of the pickings from Blagrave highlights what a lucrative profession the practice of medicine could potentially be. To possess this level of goods suggested a man of means.

It wasn’t all one-way traffic however. As the records sometimes tell, medical practitioners could sometimes be tempted away from the path of righteousness. The exotically-named Toussaint Felix Urvoy was indicted of the heinous crime of stealing three china dishes in 1760. The case was complicated since Urvoy was owed money by the complainant, and claimed the dishes had been lent to him. Another witness described him as ‘a quack doctor’ who had befriended him in a public house (a pattern seems to be emerging here!) and said he ‘had some particular nostrums by which he could cure several disorders’.

Consider, though, the cautionary tale of the surgeon Stephen Wright, born to a wealthy Irish family, given a good education, versed in arithmetic and classics and sent to Dublin to be apprenticed to a prominent Irish surgeon. All was going well until…

“Unhappily for Stephen he chose to go by the Way of London, and to acquaint himself a little with England, the Place of his Nativity, whence his Forefathers came; tho’, as he said, his Father had a pretty good Estate, besides a handsome Sum of Money in Ireland, to which he was Heir, but by his desperate Misbehaviour, he has effectually prevented his inheriting either one or the other. For some Time after his coming to England, he served a Surgeon in the Country in Surrey, and might have done well, had he kept to his Business and been industrious, as he had good Education, and seemed capable of his Profession. His Friends had advanced to him 180 l. to bear his Expences at the Colleges in Paris. But he not content with that, resolved to improve this Sum, tho’ the Project he fell upon was wrong and foolish, and had no Success answerable to his Desire. In Effect he went to a Gaming-House in Covent-Garden, where in two or three Days, or at most a few Days, he lost the 180 l. designed to bear the Expence of his Travels, and then having no Money left, and not knowing what to do, but being destitute of the Grace of God, he resolved upon desperate Courses of Robbing.”

Given that so much focus is often upon the occupational lives of medical practitioners, it is interesting to see glimpses of their world through another lens. Lists of stolen items, for example, can be extremely useful in gauging what sorts of equipment physicians and surgeons owned, and where they took them. The terms by which medics were referred to and known is also revealing, not least in the colourful characters who sometimes inhabited the margins of medicine. The reason that I particularly like these records, though, is that they offer an intimate insight into the daily lives, frailties and misfortunes of a group of individuals, showing us a side of their lives not often reflected in the usual records of their medical occupation.

Beards, Masculinity and History.

The continuing popularity of beards over the past two years or so has surprised many. A mere few months after beards first became apparent, several media articles suggested that ‘peak beard’ had already been reached, and that the decline of facial hair was imminent. That was Summer 2012 and, despite repeated claims of its impending demise (some wrongly attributed to me!), the beard is still apparent as we near 2016. Several interesting things have accompanied this ‘trend’. First, it is the most sustained period of facial for around thirty years. Second, the style – the so-called ‘Hipster’ or ‘Shoreditch’ beard – may well prove to be the defining facial hair style of this generation, in a way, say, that ‘designer stubble’ recalls the rampant consumerism of Thatcher’s 80s. Furthermore, where male grooming products for men have catered for removing facial hair, a new market has emerged for beard care, including oils, moustache waxes and even beard moisturisers.

Aside from the issue of ‘how long will it last’, ‘what do beards mean’ is a common question. Indeed, it is a question that has repeatedly been asked through the centuries. The relationship between men and their facial hair is complex, but is usually closely bound up with prevailing ‘ideals’ of masculinity. At times in history the beard has represented a basic component of masculinity and manliness. Will Fisher’s work has shown how facial hair in the Renaissance formed part of medical understandings of gendered bodies, and the function of the four ‘humours’. Viewed as a waste product (in fact a type of excrement) it was seen as resulting from heat in the ‘reins’ – the area including the genitals. A thick beard thus spoke of virility and sexual potency, since it indicated the fires burning below. Not only was the beard held up as an ensign of manhood, it was a highly visible symbol of his ‘natural’ strength and authority.


“Moroni Don Gabriel de la Cueva” by Giovanni Battista Moroni (circa 1525–1578) – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Remarkably similar claims were made for beards in mid-Victorian Britain, when the beard made a spectacular return to favour as the ‘natural’ symbol of a man. Everyone from writers such as Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, to physicians like Mercer Adams, were enthusiastically extolling the virtues of this “badge of manly strength and beauty”. More than this, as Adams argued, a moustache was “nature’s respirator while the hair covering the jaws and throat is intended to afford warmth and protection to the delicate structures in the vicinity, especially the fauces and the larynx”. (A. Mercer Adams, ‘Is Shaving Favourable to Health?: Edinburgh Medical Journal, Dec 1861). Here again, facial hair was closely bound up with themes of masculinity, health, male appearance and conduct.



“Edward Bates – Brady-Handy” by Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. CALL NUMBER: LC-BH82- 4097 <P&P>[P&P]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

The eighteenth century, however, represents something of an anomaly in the relationship between man and his beard. While much of the sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries saw men wear at least some sort of facial hair, the eighteenth century has been described as the first truly beardless age in history. The exact reasons for this are unclear but, by 1750 beards, moustaches and whiskers were seriously démodé and, by 1800, the author William Nicholson was able to assert that “the caprice of fashion […] has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards”.

In many important ways, this flight from the beard seems to run counter to what should have represented the masculine ideal. First, humoural understandings of the beard still prevailed. As such it was, at least technically, still an important component of the man. To shave it off, then, was to remove this important ‘signal’ of masculinity. Secondly, the eighteenth century was a period obsessed with the damaging effects of effeminacy in British men, not least in their ability to fight. Importantly this was not effeminacy, with its modern connotations of homosexuality, but literally becoming more feminine. Anxieties surrounded the feminising effects of Frenchified fashions upon young British men. The extreme form of new fashions was the ‘Macaroni’ – the foppish, bewigged and affected dandy. Even wigs were a source of tension in terms of their effect on male appearance. And yet, shaving the face actually rendered it more smooth and feminine.


(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the apparent conflict caused by concepts of the ‘natural’. Nature underpinned the enlightenment, and much time and effort was expended in trying to uncover its meanings, and apply this to new ideals. The body was certainly part of this. Straightness in posture and deportment was considered components of the ‘natural body’. The artist Joshua Reynolds lauded the symmetry of perfect nature, suggesting the ‘Serpentine line’ of beauty, and suggesting that nature was the true model. The face was the most public of bodily surfaces, and smoothness, neatness and elegance were prized. But all of this glossed over the fact that the beard was in fact the natural state; shaving was inherently unnatural. Logically, if the beard was natural, why then get rid of it?

There are several potential reasons for the decline of the eighteenth-century beard, each of which highlights the close relationship between facial hair and contemporary ideals of masculinity. Social status certainly played a part. Whilst neatness and elegance were badges of the refined gentleman, facial hair marked out the uncouth rustic, the hermit, or the elderly derelict. This also raises the important issue of control. Just as enlightened masculinity championed rationality and manners, it also emphasised self-control as a key male feature. According to conduct literature of the time, whilst delicate ladies might blush and swoon, a man should remain in control of his senses and be measured in his emotions. The new vogue for shaving, spurred on by newly invented, sharper razors, fits this well, in terms of mastery and control over one’s own body.

Changing aesthetic ideals also fed into the freshly shorn face. The veneration of ancient sculpture, identified by George Mosse as an important element in the construction of manliness, yielded admiration at the smoothness and tactility of the stone, as well as the subjects. The obvious paradox was that many statues of Greek and Roman heroes were bearded, but this did not seem to have an effect. Coupled with this was the so called ‘cult of youth’. To affect a delicate, fey appearance was highly sought after in the later eighteenth century; shaving the face immediately rendered it more youthful.


(Image ‘Statue of a youth in heroic repose – Mostra di Nerone, – from Wikimedia Commons)

More broadly, however, the shaven face almost literally reflected enlightened ideals of openness and enquiry. Shaving opened up the countenance to the world, in turn symbolising a mind open to new possibilities. In fact it was even acknowledged that beards were inherently masculine. What mattered, though, was the ability to be able to grow one, rather than the need to actually display it.

Through history, therefore, beards have been a central issue in the construction of masculinity and sexuality, but there is no simple, linear path to how they have been construed. At some points in time the beard has been the very symbol of sexual potency, authority and power. At others, however, the clean-shaven face has prevailed. In more recent times, indeed, shaving has become part of the grooming routines of men, and still strongly linked to health and hygiene.

One of the downsides of researching a topic like facial hair is that it carries perceptions of quirkiness. How, after all, can something as basic and mundane as the beard tell us anything about history? In fact, though, beards, moustaches, whiskers and beardlessness tell us a very great deal about the ways that masculinity, gender and sexuality have all shifted through time.

Launching the ‘Beards Project’!

This month sees the beginning of my three-year project ‘Do Beards Matter? Facial Hair, Health and Hygiene in Britain, c. 1700-1918’. Around September 2014 I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship from the Wellcome Trust, and was hugely lucky and privileged to have been granted the award in January of this year. It’s been a long wait to get to this point, but it’s finally here, and the next few years will see me delving into the archives to see what delights lay in store. But why should facial hair interest us? Surely something so prosaic as a beard can’t tell us much about the grand sweep of history? I thought it might be an idea to say a bit about why it is important and, in fact, takes us to the heart of a number of key issues in the history of the body, health and hygiene and masculinity.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

The project starts in 1700, a period when the bodily humours still dominated, and older ideas about the body prevailed. As it moves through the Georgian period, it charts a period of almost complete ‘beardlessnes’, which was to be the norm until at least the 1820s. Covering the Victorian ‘beard and moustache movement’ of the mid nineteenth century it culminates at the end of the First World War – a time when moustaches remained popular, while the military motivations for wearing them had declined.

Over time, changing views of masculinity, self-fashioning, the body, gender, sexuality and culture have all strongly influenced men’s decisions to wear, or not wear, facial hair. For Tudor men, beards were a symbol of sexual maturity and prowess. Throughout the early modern period, debates also raged about the place of facial hair within the medical framework of the humours. The eighteenth century, by contrast, saw beards as unrefined and uncouth; clean-shaven faces reflected enlightened values of neatness and elegance, and razors were linked to new technologies. Victorians conceived of facial hair in terms of Darwinian ideas of the natural primacy of men, and new models of hirsute manliness. The early twentieth-century moustache closely followed military styles; over the past 60 years the duration of beard fashions has shortened, influenced by everything from celebrity culture and the Internet to shaving technologies and marketing. At all points the decision to wear facial hair, or not, and its managements and style, involved not only personal decisions, but social, cultural and medical influences, as well as a range of practitioners. Also, from light beards to stubble, and whiskers and moustaches, there are questions about degrees of ‘beardedness’ and the significance of the beard as a binary to the shaven face.

Copyright - Wellcome Images
Copyright – Wellcome Images

But what was behind these changes? Despite recent media and popular interest in the cultural significance of beards (on which point a further blog post is to follow!), historians haven’t really taken up the baton. Works by Will Fisher, Christopher Oldstone-Moore and Susan Walton have explored the cultural and sexual significance of beards in the Renaissance and Victorians periods respectively, while my own article on eighteenth-century shaving charted its relationship with masculinity and emergent steel technology. So far the focus has been on broad changes in attitudes towards beards, elite fashions and concepts of masculinity at given points in history, rather than across time.

This project will be framed around a number of key research questions:

To what extent are beards a symbol of masculinity and what key attributes of masculinity do they represent?
• To what extent did the ‘barbering trades influence beard styles and the management of facial hair? How far did they shape trends that were then replicated in personal shaving rituals? How far did the ‘barbering’ trades cater to wider male health requirements before, during and after the high point of the ‘barber surgeon’ as a medical figure in the long eighteenth century?
• To what extent were beard trends led by the elite and by metropolitan fashion? How far and how quickly did these spread elsewhere? Did the distinct regions of the British Isles have distinct cultures of facial hair? How far did provincial trends influence metropolitan trends through migration?
• What impact did changing shaving technologies have on beard fashions/trends?

Firstly, I want to chart the changing nature of facial hair in men’s views of their bodies and masculinity over a longer period than hitherto attempted. The aim is to recover the series of cultural, scientific and intellectual changes that have affected views of facial hair, and to raise questions about the extent to which beards are indeed a symbol of masculinity, and indicate changing conceptualisations of masculinity.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Secondly, the role of medical practitioners, and in particular barbers, in shaping both conceptions of, and the management of, facial hair has yet to be fully elucidated. How far, for example, were barbers responsible for shaving and how did the relationship alter over time? This period witnessed both the ascendancy and decline of the barbering profession, but the often-close link between barbering and medicine has yet to be fully explored. Margaret Pelling has demonstrated a close correlation between the two in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but we know far less about how that relationship changed over the course of the 18th century as the role of the barber surgeon disappeared, or of the health and medical functions performed by barbers, say, in the nineteenth century.

Alun loses his beard!
Alun loses his beard!

Thirdly, (and as you might expect from a Welsh/regional historian!) this project moves away from a London-centred and elite-focussed study, instead addressing different regions of the British Isles, and also the question of ‘beardedness’ at different social levels. What, for example, was barbering provision like across both time and location in Britain?

A final key question for me, one close to my heart after recently finishing my book on eighteenth-century technologies of the body, is that of the impact and nature of technologies of shaving upon facial hair over time. New technologies, from cast steel to safety razors and scissors, all had an impact upon men’s ability to fashion their own appearance, but the nature of the relationship between the propensity and ability to self-shave requires exploration. How far were new technologies directly responsible for changes in facial-hair styles?

Image from, used with permission.
Image from, used with permission.

And so, after all this, it’s time to deliver, and to do that will require a large and diverse body of source material. Amongst the things I’ll be looking at will be popular and religious texts relating to beards, self-help books such as Jean-Jacques Perret’s 1770 book Pogonotomia, instructing men how to shave, all of which serve to reveal the cultural context of beards. Medical texts from the 17th to the 19th centuries show everything from conceptions of facial hair to preparations to stimulate beard growth. A variety of personal sources, including letters and diaries from Parson Woodforde to the oral testimony of soldiers in First World War trenches are there to be mined for their gems. Portrait collections show the changing depictions of beards over time, while the records and advertisements of razor manufacturers and sellers offer a glimpse of the marketing of shaving technologies. A huge new database of medical practitioners in early-modern Britain will form the basis for discussion of barbers, along with references to the figure of the barber in popular culture, from literature to satires.

And so, let’s get started! I’ll be tweeting regular updates from the archives using #beardsproject, and a project website will hopefully be in place soon.

Medicine in a Vacuum – Practitioners in Early Modern Wales

In 1975, John Cule argued that the problems facing the historian of medicine in Wales are ‘quantitatively and qualitatively different’ to those of England. Even given the ever-expanding range of sources for medical history over the past twenty years of so, and the massive impact of digitization upon the availability of source material, this remains a truism.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

It has long been held that Wales was a land largely devoid of formal medical practice. Instead, there remains a belief that medical folklore dominated, with cunning folk and magical healers providing the mainstay of medical provision. There are certainly strong reasons to support this view. Favourable religious conditions, laxity in prosecution, a largely rural landscape and the cushioning factor of the Welsh language, all served to provide favourable conditions for unorthodox practice to flourish.

My book on Welsh medicine argued that folklore was only half the picture. The other half was of a country far less medically remote than previously acknowledged. Far from being insular, Wales was remarkably open to medical developments, both in terms of ideas, retail and consumption. The Welsh language, I argued, served to disseminate, rather than limit the spread of ideas, and a wealth of evidence suggests a thriving economy of medical knowledge, manifest in a strong culture of remedy sharing. When I began my trawl of the archives for this project, I was confident that the numbers of practitioners would quickly stack up, since no quantification had ever been attempted.

After three years, however, I have managed to locate only 1300 individuals. Whilst this might sound fairly healthy, it represents the whole of Wales (with a population then of nearly half a million) between 1550 and 1740. To put it another way, there were more medical practitioners in 17th-century Bristol than in the whole of Wales. Understandably this has got me thinking. Have I simply been wrong all along? Have I overestimated the breadth and scope of medical practitioners? Was Wales, after all, really a land of cunning folk? All possible. But, I also believe that the numbers alone don’t give us the whole picture. As I want to argue today, there are reasons why we should not become over-reliant on raw statistics.

To understand the nature of the Welsh medical landscape in the early modern period, it is necessary to understand the landscape itself. One of the most important factors affecting formal medicine was the nature of urbanization. In the early modern period Wales was a rural nation, with a sparse and thinly spread population. Compared to much of England, Welsh towns were extremely small. The largest town was Wrexham, with a population of around 3,500 by 1700. Most of the larger Welsh towns were between 1000 and 2000 inhabitants. This had crucial implications for the structure of medical practice. Since there were no towns large enough to sustain large groups of practitioners, there is no evidence of any medical guilds or companies. Wrexham was the only possible exception, but its practitioners apparently never attempted to formalise the practice of their trade in the town.

Secondly, Wales lacked any medical infrastructure until well into the nineteenth century. There were no hospitals or medical training facilities on Welsh soil. Neither, until the 1730s, were any medical texts being printed in the Welsh language, although there was a lively trade in English medical books. Without local facilities, prospective Welsh medics needed to look elsewhere for formal education. Even here we are frustrated though since it seems that a mere handful (perhaps 10) ever darkened the doors of European medical universities, and perhaps a few score to Oxford and Cambridge. Compared to Irish medical students, who travelled in numbers, the Welsh, for reasons that are unclear, remained steadfastly put. We could simply stop here and therefore assume that we are chasing shadows. But, even a brief look at the nature of Welsh source material reveals the extent of the problem.

In general terms, for example, Wales lacks many key source types – a problem familiar to Irish medical historians. Parish registers before 1700 are excellent for some areas, but virtually non-existent elsewhere. A lack of probate accounts inhibits large-scale analyses like Mortimer’s work on southern England. Wills and inventories for Welsh medical practitioners are few, rendering quantitative studies difficult. Other types of sources such as property deeds and parish registers offer statistical insights but offer little in qualitative terms.

Image from Wikipedia commons
Image from Wikipedia commons

As I have mentioned, there were no medical guilds or companies. Practitioners are fleeting figures in borough records; with small towns there is less evidence for things like apprentice registers which might otherwise be revealing. What remains is an unrepresentative patchwork map of practitioners. There are simply more sources in some areas too than others. Monmouthshire, Denbighshire and Glamorganshire are all relatively well served. But for Cardiganshire, for example, I can find only three individuals in total. By any measure, this is simply not correct.

If, however, the limitations are recognised, and the sources allowed to shape the research questions, it’s possible to recover a surprising amount of detail about the types of individuals engaged in medical practice in Wales, their status within local society, training, social networks etc.

To get the full picture we need to look again at the question of hinterlands. In fact, I would suggest it makes little sense to regard Welsh practitioners as a homogenous group at all. Large English towns influenced each area of Wales. For south Wales it was the massive port of Bristol. For mid Wales and the Marches, towns like Shrewsbury, and for North Wales it was Chester, each of which contained large groups of medics and, evidence suggests, strong connections with Wales.

Case studies of individual towns can be instructive, rather than county studies where population density and local conditions, can vary so much. In North Wales the mighty Wrexham gives a much deeper picture of medical practice in a Welsh town than anywhere else in the Principality due to excellent records. In fact, rough patient-practitioner ratios in Wrexham are comparable to those in many large English towns. But what stands for Wrexham does not necessarily follow for Carmarthen, Monmouth or Brecon, so regional comparisons are important as far as records allow.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

A second thorny issue, however, is that of the nature of medical practice itself. Our evidence highlights the dangers of drawing artificial distinctions between practitioner types. Much depends on occupational titles in sources. Medicine could be a part time occupation – perhaps especially important in the case of cunning folk. It must be assumed that such people did not earn a living wage through the occasional use of charming etc. The single practitioner in the tiny Welsh hamlet of Festiniog in the 1650s can hardly have been overworked! But more broadly, tradesmen like blacksmiths often found second occupations as tooth drawers, but this duality is not reflected in the sources. Shop inventories suggest medical goods available in a range of non-medical shops.

In the last analysis it may well prove true that the numbers of Welsh practitioners were lower than elsewhere. Indeed it seems logical that this was the case. But it also depends where the comparison is placed. Comparing, say, Cardiganshire with Cumberland, or parts of rural Ireland, is more realistic than comparing it to London! Many previous studies simply don’t differentiate. Equally, after effectively ignoring them in my book, it is likely that we need to put folkloric healers back in. Whatever the truth may be it is clear that numbers just simply don’t reveal the whole story. The unique characteristics of a country, nation, region, county or even town need to be fully understood before conclusions can be made.

(This is a version of a paper I gave at the ‘Medical World of Early Modern Ireland, 1500-1750, in Dublin in early September 2015).

Zounds how you scrape! Being shaved in Georgian Britain.

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.  (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.

Under the knife!

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.

Image from, used with permission.
Image from, used with permission.

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!”

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

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.

18th-century classified ads...see if you can find Sangwine's advert!
18th-century classified ads…see if you can find Sangwine’s advert!

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.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

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!

‘Rhythmical Essays on the Beard Question’: Beard haters in the 1860s!

In one of the supplements in the UK’s Times newspaper last weekend was a brief article making predictions in fashion for the coming year. Amongst them was suggestion (welcomed by the reviewer!) that we might finally see the end of the ‘Hipster’ beard trend. At the moment, however, there seems to be little sign of this, and the current penchant for facial topiary continues unabated. I’ve even got one myself. It’s worth mentioning that the Guardian were asking the same question in Summer 2013!

But the journalist’s question does raise the interesting and important point that beards just naturally annoy some people. Perhaps the longevity of the current pogonophilic trend is partially the problem. How many men grew beards out of curiosity or perhaps for a bit of fun, then discovered that they liked them…then decided to keep them? If you are not a fan of facial hair then you are certainly not alone. For such a visible and emblematic symbol of masculinity, they have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Even in the 19th century, when it seemed that all the world had huge beards, there were dissenting voices – even from other men.

One was William Carter of London, who fancied himself as something of a poet. In 1868, at the very height of beard fashion in Britain, Carter published his ‘Rhythmical Essays on the Beard Question’ – a set of seemingly humorous poems but often with sinister undertones!


Right from the off Carter didn’t pull his punches. The point of his work, he argued in the third line of his introduction was to ‘remove the grim vestiges of barbarity from the human face divine’. Beardless men in the early 1800s had, according to Carter, better health and were ‘noble looking, fine specimens of humanity’.

While some were arguing that beards were healthy, catching and filtering out germs, soot and smuts before they could attack the throat, Carter was unequivocal. ‘When the mental grandeur of the face is enveloped in the rude untutored animalism of savage life, health is destroyed’. Hipsters beware!

The first of his poems was a general rant against beard wearers.

‘Wherever these long-beard growers you meet/define if you CAN their boundless deceit/Could they lengthen their ears as they lengthen their hair/A cross ‘twixt an Ass and a Grizzly Bear’!

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

At this point things began to take a turn for the sinister, and his descriptions of beards start to feel a little less waggish! Over successive pages he vented his spleen upon facial hair in a series of quite astonishing comparisons. Some examples: In one stanza beards were ‘the rank overgrowth of a tropical soil, concealing within the miasma of death.’

The very breath of beard wearers he found disgusting. Whereas a ‘tinkling noise’ accompanied the breathing of the clean-shaven, a ‘sickening, disgusting and unpleasant sound, like the croaking of frogs which in summer abound’ was the unfortunate lot of the hirsute. Unable to breathe fresh air because of the stifling effects of their beard they were a ‘grim-looking cadaverous class who, whenever you meet them, look sickly and pale’. It’s worth mentioning at this point that we haven’t got to the end of page 3 yet!

The references to health are interesting and refer to the ongoing debates in the nineteenth century about the potential health benefits of beards. See my other posts for longer examples, but contemporary wisdom had it that beards were filters against all manner of diseases. They supposedly captured germs before they could enter the mouth and throat, and protected teeth against the acrid industrial air of the ‘modern’ city. As evidence it was put forth that miners and industrial workers grew beards, which caught all of the dust and particles that would otherwise cause damage. As a result, they were cited as some of the healthiest men in England. Other health benefits of beards were given as protection from sunburn, natural health for the skin and a means to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. None other than Charles Darwin cited his beard as his friend through cold nights while on expedition.

Image from Wikipedia commons
Image from Wikipedia commons

But others, like Carter, argued that it made no more sense to suggest that beards acted as filters than to suggest that they equally attracted dust and disease to the face, collected and kept it there. Carter even had economic arguments, suggesting that the continuation of the beard-growing trend would signal the end of the cutlery trade in England, and the ruination of eminent scientific men who had devoted their life to the art of the razor.

Carter’s other ‘poems’ covered a range of topics. One discussed the good men of the ‘great cotton shire’ of Lancashire who, in imitation of a local magnate, all refused to wear facial hair that, according to him, increased their labour and made them content. By page 27 he was back on form. If men continued to grow their beards the land would ‘sink into ruin and infamous shame/and famine diffuse its poisonous breath/producing a horrible lingering death’.

We could carry on, as Carter does, for another fifty or so pages, but we get the picture by now. Then, as now, beards were proving a contentious issue. Unluckily for Carter the Victorian beard was there for the duration, and was still a prominent feature of the male face fully thirty years after he wrote. Will the current beard trend continue through another year? Only time will tell!