Technology, Self-Fashioning and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain


Last month saw the publication of my new bookTechnology, Self-Fashioning and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Refined Bodies (London: Palgrave, 2015). By way of introducing it, I thought I’d write a post to introduce some of its main themes.

The eighteenth century saw dramatic changes in attitudes towards bodily alteration. Once, impaired bodies were viewed as a fait accompli, their owners condemned forever to endure whatever vagaries God or Nature had seen fit to send. In the early part of the century, debates raged about the dangers of pride and vanity, as well as the morality of trying to interfere with God’s work. But by the mid 1750s there were changes in attitudes. Where once managing appearance, including treating deformities and visible impairments, symbolised vanity and pride, new enlightened themes like ‘improvement’, self-control and mastery made conquering the body a noble and justifiable endeavour.

At the same time as these broader social and cultural changes, new technologies in metallurgy opened up a range of possibilities for products aimed at shaping the body. What might be termed ‘technologies of the body’ proliferated. These encompassed everything from large apparatus for altering bodily shape, posture and gait, as well the smallest, quotidian items of personal grooming such as tweezers and nail nippers. In some cases new technologies transformed the design of instruments; in others, it was the instruments themselves that took on important new meanings as vectors through which individuals could aspire to changing ideals of the body.

This was the age of ‘politeness’, where ‘polite’ manners and behaviours were entwined with the ownership of the right goods, wearing of the right clothes and attendance of the right social events. Whilst conversation, education and manners were essential to early conceptions of polite behaviours, appearance and form were also important. In this sense dress, appearance and adornment acted as vectors to project politeness onto the body. Could, however, politeness extend to the bodily fabric itself?


(‘The Art of Dancing, 1724)

Some like the Swiss physician Samuel Tissot thought so, and he dedicated an entire chapter to ‘disorders most frequent in people of fashion’ and drew a distinction between the hardy body of the labourer, through its constant exposure to the harsh elements, versus the somewhat slight, fey body of the gentleman. If this latter was physically slighter, however, it was also delicate and refined.

While contemporaries never directly referred directly to bodies as being polite, they did acknowledge the role and importance of the body in articulating it. An essay on the characteristics of politeness in the Universal Magazine in 1775 argued that it was a holistic concept governing not only ‘temper of mind and tenour of conduct’ but bodily appearance, posture and mien. A polite gentleman (the essay was addressed to men) should embody the posture of a fencer, the gait of a dancer, the ear of a musician and the mind of a philosopher. Such a person ‘walks by rules of art, dictated by nature’.

But as well as being informed by politeness, other characteristics were prized. Neatness, elegance and harmony of appearance, were central in conveying inner character and sensibility. The body’s surfaces should be kept neat, clean, plucked and shaved. For both sexes the removal of facial hair and management of facial features such as eyebrows showed fastidiousness and a desire to create a body that was socially pleasing. As attitudes towards the smile changed, management of the teeth became important. Likewise, as the appearance of hands was held to imply character and breeding, the care of hands, especially fingernails, was vital.

But Nature was also at the heart of debates about bodily form. Some saw it as a body closest to the state of nature, in the bodies of the poor, or inhabitants or far-flung nations whose bodies had been untouched by artificial devices. Indeed, some even saw viewed interference with, or alteration of, the body as inherently unnatural. This was reinforced by the twisted and bent bodies caused through over zealous use of trusses, bandages and stays. On the other hand, much effort was expended in attempting to ‘correct’, conceal or otherwise give the illusion of a ‘natural’ form – a claim made by the makers of many postural devices. Paradoxically, therefore, a ‘natural’ body often required unnatural means to achieve.

Central to the question of technologies is the role of steel. Technological innovations between the 1680s and 1740s made steel an increasingly abundant and important good, but also a component in the fashioning of a new, refined self. While crucible (or cast) steel is understood as an innovative industrial process, its uses are rarely considered. Yet steel was vital for some of the most personal rituals of everyday life. It was the metal with which people had the closest, even the most intimate, physical contact.

Cast steel’s physical properties allowed people, for example, to fashion their bodies in new ways, to reflect changing ideals of bodily shape and form. A range of corrective devices was available to correct posture, utilising the tensile strength of steel. Visible deformity and disability were not only uncomfortable to the sufferer, but carried pejorative connotations that left the ‘crooked’ open to ridicule. If there was an ideal human form it was generally straight, erect and symmetrical. Whilst the treatment of hernias had brought about the introduction of a range of elastic and steel trusses, the period also witnessed a burgeoning market for devices to improve posture. These included items worn within or underneath clothing, such as back ‘monitors’, large metal plates inserted into clothing. Steel collars thrust the chin upwards to give the illusion of a straight posture. But there were other more radical treatment, such as ‘neck swings’. These involved locking the patient’s head into a steel apparatus, and suspending them off the ground, where they would remain dangling for hours at a time. These were even available for people to use in their own homes.

Sheldrake illustration
The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine’, 1783

One of the primary audiences for such devices was children whose parents, recognising the social limitations arising from deformity, were keen to mould the bodies of their offspring into an acceptable form. In the name of fashion, children’s bodies were trussed, bandaged, bound, calipered and twisted. Adults were also prepared to take steps to intervene in the shaping of their own bodies. As advertisements from the manufacturers of postural devices attest, a new domestic market was emerging, which targeted individuals who sought to ‘treat’ themselves without recourse to a medical practitioner.

Neatness and elegance of appearance were exemplified in the face and, in particular the vogue for shaving, and the almost total disappearance of facial hair from men’s faces. New types of steel razors were instrumental in this process. Where once the barber had been the sole provider of shaving services, the period saw men beginning to shave themselves. Razor makers took advantage of newspaper advertising space to puff their new products, using both the language and imagery of polite consumption, but also foregrounding their metallurgical expertise in manufacturing. The use of cast steel in razors became a selling point, along with references to the scientific and philosophical credentials of the manufacturer.


(Trade card of Holmes and Laurie, London Truss Makers, author’s image)

Personal grooming was growing in importance in the broader context of the eighteenth century obsession with the body beautiful. As increasing attention was paid to the minutiae of appearance, so different parts and surfaces of the body came to prominence, as did the instruments used to transform them. Regarded by the orthopaedic specialist Nicholas Andry as the ‘Principal organs of touch’, hands and fingernails were seen as important symbols of beauty and virtue. Mangled and bitten nails were hardly aesthetically pleasing. The old fashioned way was to pare nails with a penknife – a process that could be dangerous, and caused several deaths!

New types of nail nippers were safer, and began to carry more ornate designs, belying their quotidian function. On the face, the most public of bodily surfaces, eyebrows were seen as barometers of character, and tweezers to maintain them were important items of toilette. It is interesting to note that 18th-century tweezers often included ear spoons for digging out unsightly wax, combining two grooming routines into one. As changing attitudes towards the smile rendered the teeth more visible, toothpicks and brushes were also essential pieces of kit. All could be purchased in kit form and could be hung on elaborate and delicate chatelaines about the person, making them at once public and private goods.

Spectacles offer a different outlook on the public projection of the polite self. Steel-framed spectacles, for example, began to appear around the mid eighteenth century, makers such as Benjamin Martin and James Ayscough utilised the springy strength of steel to transform the design of spectacles from their traditional armless Pince Nez design, to a new form with side arms that used pressure to stay tightly adhered to the wearer’s temples. Martin’s new ‘Martin’s Margins’ spectacles, introduced around 1760, could be highly polished to give a pleasing appearance, whilst other sorts of ‘wig spectacles’ were designed to help myopic macaronis attend society functions in comfort and safety. As spectacles became more decorous they also became more public. The growth of reading and coffee house culture placed spectacles at the heart of intellectual debate. Vision and sight exemplified the quest for knowledge. Once a symbol of deficiency, whilst never becoming desirable items of fashion, spectacles shook off pejorative connections and became connected with learning, sagacity and the enlightened search for knowledge through reading and ‘seeing’ the world.


(A pair of ‘Martin’s Margins’ spectacles, with spring-loaded temple pieces. c. 1760. Image © College of Optometrists, MusEYEum)

At all points, objects were playing a significant part in the purposeful management of the body. Some important questions must be raised, however. First, if there was some understanding of a polite body ideal, then how widespread was it? Was it an elite, metropolitan phenomenon? The problem with nearly all of the routines discussed here is that individuals seldom discuss them. In the normal run of things there would be little need to write down how well you shaved, plucked your eyebrows or how comfy your brand new Martin’s Margins specs were. The limited evidence available suggests that devices were available across Britain – and not just in major towns. Second, though, to what social depth did it apply? Again, evidence is lacking, but if we consider debates about emulation, there is little to suggest that bodily refinement was merely the preserve of elites. What may be different are the social and public contexts of the body across different levels of society.

The eighteenth century was an age when bodily technologies proliferated. But cultural and religious shifts also meant that intervening to alter the shape of the bodily characteristics that God had bestowed on a person was no longer taboo. As new corporeal ideals were defined, people had both the motivation and the means to transform their own bodies, through the introduction of cast steel. If this was the age of the body beautiful, however, it was also a time when the body was a site of transformation.






Edging the Competition: Surgical Instruments in the 18th-Century

As I’ve written about in other posts about razors and posture devices, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the introduction of cast steel transformed products for the body. Steel had many physical properties that rendered it very useful across a range of instruments. Unlike its predecessor, blister or shear steel, which was of uneven quality and could be brittle, cast steel was durable and capable of carrying a very sharp edge. It could also be polished to a mirror-like shine, making it very attractive to wear as ‘brilliant’s – imitation diamonds.

Many of the instruments I’ve written about, from razors to spectacles, were things that people bought to use upon their own bodies. But there was another group of instruments that was transformed, but one which people generally did their best to avoid – surgical instruments.

The surgeon’s knife held something of an ambiguous position within medicine. For patients the briefest glimpse of a scalpel or, worse, an amputation knife, was enough to send them into a swoon. Some surgeons argued that people would much rather subject themselves to the dubious ministrations of the quack than to the slice of the blade. Surgeon’s instruments also suffered from the taint of the manual craft. It was argued that almost anyone could wield a knife or a saw, without any need for theoretical knowledge of the body. As such, surgical instruments were little more than tradesmen’s tools.

Nevertheless there was an increasing demand for instruments in Britain in the later eighteenth century. Across Europe numbers of medical students were swelling. In France the numbers of surgeons nearly tripled between 1700 and 1789. By the early years of the nineteenth century, around 300 students per year were enrolling in London hospitals, as well as Edinburgh and Glasgow. As well as the increasing numbers, medical education was changing, especially in the matter of dissection. Before the 1750s, anatomisation was generally a theatrical event where the dissection was carried out by a surgeon, watched over by a crowd of enthralled and doubtless, sometimes, nauseated crowd.

But changes in medical education meant that trainee surgeons were increasingly given access and encouraged to get their hands dirty. Reading books about anatomy was fine as far as it went, but could never replace empirical observation and experience. This was also an age where views of the body were changing, and the human form was likened to a machine. As Thomson’s The Art of Dissecting the Human Body, in a plain, easy and compendious method dissection manual put it, there were only two possible ways to discover the workings of a machine. One was to be taught by its creator…difficult in this case! The other was simply to take it to bits and put it back together again.

Surgical manuals began to set out the requisite kit for the gentleman surgeon. One was to purchase a set of pocket instruments containing the most commonly-used items. The German anatomist Lorenz Heister advocated a pocket set including lancets for opening veins and abcesses, straight and crooked scissors, forceps, probes, a razor and needles. A similar kit was popular in London, containing knives ‘made of best steel’, lancets and scissors, as well as a salvatory and plaster box. Clearly some surgeons were apt to keep buying until they had amassed a huge number of instruments. The surgeon and author Benjamin Bell cautioned against such acquisitiveness, arguing that too many instruments confounded the surgeon under the pressure of the operation.

Image from
Image from

The increasing demand for instruments opened up a range of new opportunities for the makers of instruments. Traditionally cutlers had been the mainstay of surgical instrument manufacture. With their experience in making edged tools and of tempering metals to exact requirements, they were the best qualified. But by 1763 the Universal Director, a directory of London trades, was describing surgical instrument manufacture as ‘a distinct branch from the common cutler’. By 1800 the first dedicated surgeon’s instrument catalogues were being produced by prominent makers such as J.H. Savigny of the Strand in London. Savigny’s catalogue contained a wide variety of different instruments from knives and saws to catheters, tourniquets and even apparatus for the recovery of the apparently dead!

Image from Savigny's instrument catalogue, 1800
Image from Savigny’s instrument catalogue, 1800

Surgical instrument makers were also keen to puff their products in newspapers. The market for these products was fairly narrow and specialised; these were not items marketed for the public. Nevertheless it is noticeable that makers did their best to clothe their advertisements in the language of polite commerce, and include popular and elegant designs in their trade cards. The language of advertisements was all polite puffery. The tone of advertisements for ‘Thurgood’s Surgeon’s-Instrument Manufactory’ in Fenchurch Street was deferential, seeking to reassure ‘any professional gentlemen’ that ‘nothing shall be wanting on his (Thurgood’s) part to render full satisfaction’. Many other adverts were targeting ‘gentlemen of the faculty’ and seeking to encourage their business.

Advertising also offered opportunities for illustration. The trade card of John Chasson of London depicts a variety of amputation knives, saws and other instruments set against an elegant rococo surround. The razor and surgical instrument maker Henry Patten’s card shows a range of instruments, including lancets, hanging from branches of its elaborate frame. Given their associations with manual trades, it is noticeable that advertisements began to pay attention to the form as well as the function of instruments. John Chasson’s instrument cases, for example, could be bought in elegant boxes covered in fashionable shagreen (sharkskin). The handles of knives and saws began to change from traditional wood and bone to more exotic and expensive products like ebony, ivory and tortoiseshell.

M0015899 Surgical instrument maker's trade card, 18th century.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

Perhaps the most surprising claim made by some makers, however, was that their products lessened pain and improved the experience of patients. In 1778, J. Savigny advertised his newly-invented lancets to the faculty. Stressing his metallurgical skills, Savigny argued that they were ‘wrought to such a degree of accuracy, as will greatly lessen the pain of the patient, and totally remove all apprehension of disappointment in the operator’. In another, he argued that the ‘extraordinary degree of accuracy’ in their edge would lead to the ‘approbation of the patient and reputation of the phlebotomist’. It’s interesting to note that the patient comes first. Many surgeons agreed that speed was of the essence in any surgical technique, and that this could only be achieved by keeping instruments maintained since, as Benjamin Bell noted, they were ‘injured with every use.


The late eighteenth century, then, was something of a golden age in the manufacture of surgical instruments. As the medical faculty sought desperately to separate itself from accusations of quackery and establish itself as an learned profession, the need for new instruments, based on the latest scientific and philosophical principles, was key. Likewise, with an expanding market and greater opportunities to promote their products, surgical instrument makers were continually engaged in developing and refining their products. Whether it would be of any comfort to a poor patient to know that the knife about to saw their leg off was made of the latest cast steel, however, is a moot point!

Crooked or Straight: Creating the ideal posture in 18th-century Britain

“There are few diseases which afflict the Human Body, attended with greater disadvantages, than those produced by Distortion. It gives not only an unpleasing appearance, but innumerable complaints generally follow”. So ran an advertisement titled ‘Distortion’ in the True Briton newspaper of January 1800.

In the eighteenth century, good posture was becoming an important issue. Sloppy posture which, in John Weaver’s Anatomical and Mechanical Lectures Upon Dancing (!), included ‘holding down the head’, putting out the chin, stooping in the shoulders, bending too much forwards and thrusting out the belly’, were not good signs. The vagaries of early modern life left their mark on the human form in various ways. Various medical conditions could leave bodies in a far worse state than they found them. Diseases in childhood, such as rickets, affected gait, while accidents could lead to poorly formed limbs. Well-meaning but botched medical interventions could leave highly visible traces. Poor diet and harsh living conditions affected health and appearance. In all respects the eighteenth-century body was a product of its time.

Bath Stays or the Lady's Steel Shapes

A ‘crooked’ body left its owner open to a cruel raillery of insults. David Turner’s excellent book on disability in the eighteenth century details some of the terms of ridicule that could be levelled at those whose bodies did not conform to erect ideals.James Caulfield’s 1793 dictionary of slang included terms such as ‘lord and lady’ to denote a ‘crooked or hump back’d person’. A ‘lame or limping man’ might be referred to as ‘Mr Hopkins or Hopping Giles’. In literature, ‘deformed’ people were treated to highly pejorative terminology from ‘a creeping creature’ to various other plays upon ‘crookedness’, lameness or distortion. Having a ‘crooked’ body could also be a potential social barrier. For a woman marital prospects could be hampered. For men, the emphasis upon hardy male traits such as elegance of form and posture – as well as a general mien – made standing up straight a key consideration.

Image from Wellcome Images
Image from Wellcome Images

But, as with many other areas of daily life in the eighteenth century, where there was a problem, there lurked a ‘specialist’ to sell you something for it. Georgian newspapers contained a raft of devices designed to help people shape their own bodies. Key to this process were conceptions of ‘correction’ and ‘concealment’. One of the biggest areas of the market was for devices to ‘cure’ hernias. In many ways the eighteenth century was a golden age for the ‘rupture’. New types of industrial processes, the harsh, physical nature of manual labour and even the demands of new environments such as the navy led to a virtual plague of ruptures. The problem with inguinal hernias was the fact that they could lead to large, painful and highly visible swellings in the groin. No surprise then that truss makers often sought to emphasise the strength of their products in concealing the problem.

Guy Nutt

In 1790, Mr Dowling “Improved Patent Elastic Truss Maker’ of St Martin’s Lane, London, begged leave to acquaint the public that he had brought his trusses to ‘so great a degree of perfection that the most troublesome rupture can be kept up with ease and safety’. Unlike tight waistbands which worked by ‘forcing the contents of the abdomen downwards’, making them uncomfortable to the wearer, Dowling’s ‘Improved Elastic Breeches Straps’ were just the ticket to keep everything held up and in place. Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Double Springed Elastic Truss’ was claimed to ‘keep the largest rupture up with less inconvenience than a small one can be kept up with any other Truss’.

An important consideration for wearers was that of discretion. To be seen wearing an unwieldy truss would merely draw attention to the afflicted parts. As ever, makers were ready. J. Meares of Ludgate Hill reassured customers that his devices were so discrete that ‘even the most intimate companion cannot discover it’. Others designed their products to be ‘indistinguishable from nature’.

Apart from trusses, a range of products was available to encourage the body into a straight, erect form. It was seen as important to catch children early and teach them (by means of forcing them!) to stand properly. Leg irons, to be found amongst the stock of J. Eddy of Soho, were one means of forcing bandy legs into a socially-pleasing form. ‘Elastic bandages’ and stays worn under the garments used their properties to force an errant body into submission. As children got older and went to school, the process accelerated. Parents of girls were especially obsessed with achieving the graceful swanlike neck so desired by artists such as Joshua Reynolds and his ‘serpentine line’. Amongst the products for achieving this were steel collars, that literally forced the chin up into the air. Steel ‘backs’ and ‘monitors’ were strapped to the back and made it next to impossible for a young person to slouch. Exercising with ‘gymnastick’ equipment including dumb bells was advocated to open up the chest. In 1779, one Abraham Buzaglo patented his ‘machines &c for gymnastick exercises’.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

Many of these devices were extremely uncomfortable to the wearer. The Reverend Joseph Greene complained that his truss chafed the sensitive skin of his inner thighs and ‘bruis’d ye contiguous parts’. Writing in 1780, Henry Manning commented on the popularity of such devices, which, he argued, were of little practical help. Indeed, according to Manning, the patient frequently became unhealthy and died in an exhausted state, or was forced to live out a miserable existence confined to chair or bed! Makers were forced to respond by stressing how light, durable and comfortable were their products. J. Sleath was at pains to reassure ladies that his steel backs and collars ‘of entire steel’ were ‘peculiarly light, neat and durable’!

The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake's 'Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine', 1783
The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine’, 1783

By far one of the most painful devices ever marketed was the ‘neck swing’. Swinging was recommended by surgeons as a means of stretching the spine. The ‘neck swing’ operated by encasing the sufferer’s head in a steel cap and frame, by which they were suspended off the ground for hours at a time. A surviving account by a young English girl highlights how uncomfortable this could be.

“I remained suspended in a neck swing, which is merely a tackle and pulley fixed to the ceiling of the room; the pulley is hooked to the head-piece of the collar, and the whole person raised so that the toes only touch the ground” In this position, she spent much of the day. After two decades of treatment, it was reported that her spine had actually decreased by six inches!

People were prepared to go to great lengths to achieve a straight body, even if it meant enduring excruciating pain to do it. The eighteenth century was indeed a period when people were increasing turning to new technologies in order to shape their own bodies, from razors and personal grooming instruments to postural devices and even new types of surgical instrument. Today we still have a strong sense of ‘straightness’ as a bodily ideal and a large market exists for products to help us sit straight, particularly in the workplace. Whilst the ‘neck swing’ may have long gone, we’re still obsessed with body shape and the need to conform to what any given society deems to be ideal.

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!

“MOVEMBER” Special: J.H. Savigny and innovation in eighteenth-century shaving

It’s ‘Movember’. Like many others I’m currently sporting a handlebar moustache for charity. Unlike many others, mine is ginger, and white at the tips. I can’t decide if it makes me look distinguished or like a third-rate drug peddler. Here’s the link to my ‘Mospace’ – you decide (and please feel free to make a donation – it’s for a very worthy cause).

If I was to be sporting this particular piece of facial topiary in eighteenth-century polite society, it is highly likely that I would be frowned upon. As I’ve detailed in a previous post, facial hair of any sort fell dramatically from favour sometime around the mid eighteenth century. The reasons for this are complex, and by no means mutually exclusive. One strong possibility is a shift in concepts of masculinity. As ‘polite’ society became refined, so fashions for men became increasingly feminised. This was the era of the bag wig, silk hose and face powder – at least for those in the upper levels of society. Facial hair connoted rough, earthy types and was not a feature of the polite gentleman’s visage.

Medicine, too, might have played a part. In the early modern period, facial hair was viewed as a form of excreta resulting from too much heat in the liver. Like any other form of bodily waste, it was being expelled and so to remove it was to rid the body of a potentially harmful substance. But another interesting point is that this period also witnessed an astonishing shift in the technologies available for shaving, mostly made possible by the potential of new types of steel – most notably cast steel, often referred to as crucible steel because of its manufacturing process. Unlike its predecessor shear steel, which could be brittle and of uneven quality, cast steel had perfect properties for the manufacture of razors. It was capable of being sharpened to an extremely keen edge and, more than this, could be polished to a mirror-like shine, meaning that cast steel razors could look beautiful, as well as being functional. But the availability of new materials was not, on their own, enough; what was needed was a new breed of technologically-savvy makers to develop new products. In fact, this was exactly what happened.

London, in the mid-eighteenth century, was a hub of technological and manufacturing expertise. But, we should not think of this in modern terms of factories or large-scale production lines. Instead, there were hundreds of individual small artisanal workshops involved in a multiplicity of trades, many of which required metallurgical expertise. Watch and clock makers, for example, required steel for their tiny components, but also in the tools needed to manufacture them. Makers of scientific instruments likewise needed precision tools to make their highly specialised products, as did surgical instrument manufacturers. It is important to note that many carried out their own experiments with metals tailored to their own individual needs, and this made London a centre for metallurgical innovation. Many trades became concentrated into certain parts of London making mini clusters of expertise.  Into this milieu we can place razor makers and some notable names in particular.

Typical of this new breed of metallurgical innovators was John Horatio Savigny of Pall Mall in London. Savigny was likely of Huguenot descent, his family coming to London in the seventeenth century. The ancestral trade of the Savignys was surgical instrument manufacture, and several others of the family were engaged in similar manufacturing trades. But John Henry, or JH, Savigny as he was often referred to was perhaps the most prominent and widely esteemed.

From his base at number 129 Pall Mall, Savigny was continually involved in the manufacture of a range of metallic goods. In 1778, for example, he advertised his new type of lancet which, he informed “Gentlemen of the Faculty” were made using “a method […] lately contrived whereby these instruments are brought to such a degree of accuracy as will greatly lessen the pain of the patient and totally remove all apprehension of disappointment in the operator”.  Notice the emphasis upon his “new method”, referring to his experimentation with steel.

In 1776, Savigny referred directly to his new methods of manufacture in another advertisement for lancets. Again addressed to “Gentlemen of the Faculty” – i.e. London Physicians, he laid special emphasis upon the fact that “he has invented a new Vertical Machine, particularly calculated for the perfection of Lancets”.  His “Cast Steel Convex Penknives”, according to a 1775 advertisement, had “received the Approbation of the most eminent Writing Masters”, and could be bought in person from Savigny at his shop near the Haymarket.

But it was razor manufacture that really made Savigny’s name and, once again, his experimentation with steel lay at the heart of his advertising pitch. By 1764, his “Razors tempered by means of a new discovered process” could also be bought from his shop. Tempering suggests the remelting and refinement of steel, a difficult and intricate process requiring specialist equipment and knowledge. These new razors were functional and attractive. More than this, they appealed to a new market of male toilette, one in which polite gentlemen were increasingly beginning to shave themselves, rather than visit a barber. A range of new products was becoming available to them, from shaving powders to soothe the face, to travelling kits and even beautifully carved and constructed shaving tables.

Shaving table from 18th-century furniture catalogue

A raft of advertisements followed, with razors often prominent among the products listed. By 1800, Savigny could boast an entire printed catalogue of products, aimed at enticing customers to browse, and hopefully to buy.

Image from Savigny’s instrument catalogue, 1800

But Savigny was keen to diversify beyond instruments, and evidence from patent records shows that he introduced a range of other products. In 1800, Savigny proposed a steel tourniquet to stop bleeding “more effectually than has hitherto been done”. In 1784, he proposed “  A METHOD OF MAKING OF SKAITS, AND PARTICULARLY FOR FIXING THEM ON WITH MORE EASE, SAFETY AND EXPEDITION THAN HATH HITHERTO BEEN DISCOVERED.

Savigny was rapidly becoming an authority on steel, so much so that his expertise was sought by the Birmingham manufacturer and luminary Matthew Boulton, of the Boulton and Watt company. Boulton sought Savigny’s advice on the quality of some new types of steel that he was purchasing from India. Indeed, it was not only in metallurgy that Savigny was seemingly making a name for himself. These adverts suggest that he was an amateur actor, perhaps of less talent than his main business!

John Horation Savigny as Selim

All this adds up to a picture of a man who was typical of the new enlightened breed of manufacturers, interested not only in their own businesses, but in the possibilities and opportunities of their age.

In 1789 he attempted to patent his own steel razor. This is an extract from the patent (BL Patent 1716):


…In the manner following:- Of the purest steel that can be procured, which is to be forged (with very moderate and often repeated immersions in the fire, so that its substance may receive no injury from a separation of its particles by excess of heat, but on the contrary be rendered as dense as possible), into the form of a razor, differing in form from all other razors heretofore made in the cutting part of the blade”.

The problem with innovation is that it can be copied. Whether Savigny ‘invented’ the cast steel razor is unclear, but he certainly had competitors.  Amongst these was John Stodart another London razor maker. In 1788, Stodart himself was forced into some measure of quality control:

“STODART begs gentlemen who send for the above articles, will be so obliging as to observe that his name is stamped on the Blade. This caution is made necessary, by his having had Repeatedly razors sent to be exchanged which never were purchased at his shop. It is with infinite satisfaction, he is able to add, that since the above method of tempering, he finds no difficulty in supplying Gentlemen with Razors, which with the assistance of a good strap, perform at all times agreeable to their wishes. “

The razor market was becoming highly competitive by the late eighteenth century, and many other makers rose to prominence, such as James Stodart, Benjamin Kingsbury and Daniel Riccard, all of whom used the ubiquitous newspaper advertisement columns to push their products. Others, like Edward Greaves of Sheffield in 1804, continued to develop the razor, this time suggesting springs to create three lockable positions, making the razor more functional and adaptable.

But the salient point here is how far facial hair, and specifically its removal, carried significance in the eighteenth century. Much time, energy, money and advertising space was expended by manufacturers keen to make their products most prominent. The process of shaving was loaded with social significance; to be facially hirsuite, as I have said, was undesirable. It could therefore be argued that the humble moustache or beard played a central role in spurring metallurgical innovation in Georgian Britain. Far from being a mundane everyday experience, the history of shaving can actually reveal much more about past societies than we might usually think.

If you enjoyed this post, a pre-publication draft of my new academic article on the history of shaving and masculinity during the Enlightenment can be viewed in the papers section of my page here: