Cuts, Rashes & Chatter! The Pain of the 18th-century Shave!

Unless there are particular reasons, for example a skin condition, or a faulty razor, shaving today is usually a pretty mundane – if not a pleasant – experience. Indeed, the rise of traditional barbershops over the past few years, offering shaving as an experience, together with an increasingly elaborate range of rituals, head massages and exotic products, makes it almost a form of beauty treatment for men. But what was shaving like 300 years ago? What did it feel like to be shaved with a Georgian razor? 

Before the end of the 18th century, and indeed for many men for quite a long time afterwards, the mainstay of shaving was the barber. Barbers were readily available across Britain, in shops of various size and quality, or sometimes operating with a couple of chairs in the backrooms of their houses. With shaving paraphernalia expensive to buy and bothersome to maintain, it was often simply easier, and potentially much cheaper, to simply go to the barber. Here men could not only have a shave, a haircut, have their earwax removed, tongues scraped and boils lanced, but could meet with other men to gossip, eat and drink and generally shoot the breeze.

Image Copyright Lewis Walpole Library

But if all this sounds cosy and convenient, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the shave itself could be a far less than comfortable experience.

For a start, much depended on the quality and state of repair of the razor. Early 18th century races common razors were made from a type of steel that could be brittle and, unless regularly maintained, could quickly lose its edge. Inventories of higher-end barber’s shops in the 17th and 18th century sometimes show whole cases of razors, along with sharpening strops and hones, meaning that their use could be rotated. Smaller barber businesses, however, might only have a couple of razors…and if these blunted, and with a queue forming, corners (and faces!) were likely to be cut. Whilst a sharp razor cut cleanly through beard hairs, a blunted one rasped away at the layers of skin, literally scraping the hair rather than cutting it. 

Trade card of John Best, Razor Maker, Copyright Wellcome Images

Some comfort could be derived from the type of shaving soap that the barber used. Like razors, the quality of these varied dramatically. Whilst high end soaps had unctuous, perfumed creamy lather, which helped the razor glide across the face and neck, there were complaints about the lather of cheaper soaps, that reportedly just fell off the face, doing little good to the poor punter in the chair.  

Another important consideration was whether the shave was performed with hot or cold water. There were heated debates amongst razor makers in the 18th century as to which was more suitable. Some thought that hot water causes the razor to expand, increasing its efficiency. Others protested that it was cold water that better suited the minute particles in the razor. Again, for the poor man in the chair, this could be a crucial decision. Whilst being shaved with hot water can be pleasant, a cold water shave is something more to be endured than enjoyed!

Once the shave had been completed, the customers face would be towelled dry, and he would be sent on his way. Depending on the nature of the ordeal, he was by this stage either fresh-faced and clean-shaven or cut to ribbons and sporting a conspicuous and painful shaving rash. In the latter case, unfortunately, there was little remedy. Domestic remedy collections show no evidence of specific preparations for shaving rashes…or even any recognition of the condition. With no commercially available after-shave balm or lotion, the best a man could hope for would be to apply one of the many soothing skin remedies that existed for redness or swelling in the face.

Perhaps the best way to view contemporary attitudes towards being shaved by the barber is through depictions in 18th century satirical cartoons. Whilst these give us extremes, rather than typical experiences, they tell us enough about what could go wrong to be able to understand the potential plight of our ancestors!

For a variety of reasons, barbers were particular targets for the pensions of cartoonists. The incessant chatter of the barber, for example, attracted particular criticism. Cartoons often poked fun at the dangers of being at the hands of a razor-wielding barber, so absorbed by his own conversation that he risked accidentally injuring the customer.

In Rowlandson’s ‘Damn the Barber’, the customer in the chair winces as the barber holds him by the nose, about to shave him. On the left an apprentice holds a mirror to a man, to show the results of his work. The customer has his fingers in his ears, perhaps removing hair and lather…but also perhaps blocking out the barber’s chat.

Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Damn the Barber!’ – Copyright Wellcome Trust


A worse fate is about to befall the poor punter at the hands of a barber in this second Rowlandson cartoon, so absorbed in his diatribe about news from Amsterdam that he fails to notice his razor blade sinking into his customer’s nose. “Halloh! You sir!” cries the man “what are you about? Are you going to cut my nose off?” (Lewis Walpole.

Image Copyright Lewis Walpole Library

Perhaps one of my favourite of all satirical images of shaving, however, and the one perhaps most suggests the discomfort that could be visited upon the 18th-century shavee, is this 1804 etching of a barber shaving a man in his shop. As the barber’s blunted razor rasps across the poor man’s chin he cries out in pain…”Zounds! How you scrape!”.

V0019687 A barber shaving a man in his shop. Etching, 1804. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://images.wellcome.ac.uk A barber shaving a man in his shop. Etching, 1804. 1804 Published: 25 June 1804 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Barbers and (the lack of!) Polite Advertising

Over the past few years, I have spent much time looking at ‘polite’ advertising in the 18th century. During this period, a whole range of retailers advertised their goods and services to appeal to ladies and gentlemen of taste. Without discussing anything so base as price or money, they instead tried to coax, cajole and compliment their customers to become regular visitors.

One of the most common ways of doing this was the trade card. These were small printed pamphlets or bills, handed out to the customer after purchase as a reminder to them to visit again. Combining the refined language of ‘politeness’ with elegant neoclassical imagery, they reminded the customer of the world of goods available, the opulence of the shop surroundings, and the care and attention lavished on the customer.

Hundreds of eighteenth-century trade cards still exist, and for all manner of trades. Unsurprisingly these were often high-end businesses. But even some small, prosaic trades also adopted the card, and examples can be found for anything from dentists to skeleton sellers!

Trade card of Nathan Colley, Skeleton Seller, Copyright Wellcome Images

One type of business that appears to have steadfastly resisted the trade card, however, was the barbershop. On the face of it (excuse the pun!) barbers might be seen as just the sort to benefit from attracting regular, returning custom.  As shavers of men, they were key practitioners in fashioning polite appearance. The face of the gentleman in the eighteenth century was expected to be smooth and shaved; facial hair at this point signalled a rougher version of masculinity, far away from the delicacy and sensibility of the Beau monde. Evidence from the eighteenth century suggests that gentlemen visited barbers to be shaved up to three times per week. Indeed, dictionaries throughout the eighteenth century often defined barbers as ‘shavers’. In other respects, then, barbers could lay claim to be key practitioners in the construction of the polite, public face, helping men to meet new ideals of appearance. And yet they chose not to bother with trade cards. Why might this have been?

It has been argued that barbering as a profession was in decline in the eighteenth century. It has long been assumed that the split between the barbers and surgeons in 1745 elevated the surgeons, at the same time as relegating the barbers to mere ‘mechanics’. In reality this is far from being the case, and barbers in fact remained extremely busy throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, remaining key figures, and especially for men. What actually happened is that hairdressers attempted to position themselves as polite practitioners, fashioning the wigs and curls of beaus and belles, whilst also consciously distancing themselves from the rough and ready trade of barbers. One thing that hairdressers were particularly keen to avoid was shaving. 

Trade card of Colley, ‘Hair Cutter’ – Image copyright British Museum – https://media.britishmuseum.org/media/Repository/Documents/2014_11/10_14/575bba3a_9a15_4329_9b19_a3df00e9d286/mid_01511033_001.jpg

It could also be argued that, as self-shaving became gradually more widespread in the later eighteenth century, barbers moved more towards men lower down the social scale. In popular culture too, the barber became something of a figure of fun, often portrayed as a rustic tradesman – the stereotypical bumbling, inept fool who did more damage to his customers appearance than good. In fact, barbers were sometimes singled out and mocked for trying to affect airs and graces. 

But did barbers actually even need trade cards in the first place? The business relied, first and foremost, on footfall and passing trade. A given street in an eighteenth-century English town might contain several barbershops of various size and quality to suit the pockets of a variety of customers.  Such accounts and references that do survive suggest strongly that people tended to keep to one particular barber, building a relationship over time…in fact quite similar to today. This being the case, was there in fact any need to remind the customer of where they had their last haircut or shave? 

Secondly, the nature of the barbering trade was arguably different to those of other, even related, trades. Wig (or peruke) makers, for example could trade on their range of the stock, the quality of their hair, and the service element of their business. Some cards survive for perukemakers  which demonstrate their easy assimilation into the world of polite advertising. For barbers, however, aside from selling the odd cake of soap, glass of beer, or keg of butter, they were unlikely to adopt (or need) the fawning, obsequious style of metropolitan shop owners.

Image from R.W. Proctor, The Barber’s Shop (London: 1883) – author’s photograph

If not trade cards or newspaper advertisements, then, did barbers even advertise at all? In fact it could be argued that barbers had the most striking advertisements of all, hidden in plain sight: the pole. Without wishing to be a ‘pole denier’ I do have some reservations about the origins of the red and white striped design, and the idea that it represents the bloodletting process. Whilst it’s a nice idea (the red signifying the blood being taken, the white denoting the bandages, and the pole itself is said to be the ‘fillet’ – the small stick gripped by the patient whilst their vein was being opened) it seems a little bit TOO convenient. Evidence can be found for barbers’ pole outside shops in the sixteenth century; the story of the colours was certainly in circulation by the late eighteenth century, and vigorously and enthusiastically repeated by Victorian antiquarians. Hard evidence, though, is somewhat more difficult to come by. There is some evidence, for example, that the pole sometimes had blue and white stripes, although this might suggest it represented the vein about to be cut.

Whatever the origins, the lack of trade cards might be taken as evidence that barbering itself was not a ‘polite’ trade; but equally it might just reflect that fact that barbers were so busy that no such expense or trouble was needed.

The ‘Celebrated Inventions’ of Alexander Ross.

One thing that has continually fascinated me throughout all of my research on medical practitioners, barbers and retailers in the long eighteenth century, is the extent of what historians call ‘occupational diversity’. Rather than having one occupation, people might have several…and often at the same time. This was particularly common amongst certain types of shop owner, who routinely diversified into other trades. Sometimes these could be related trades, but often they seemed to bear no relation to each other. So, you might find an apothecary doubling up as a mercer, or cloth trader, or a barber-surgeon also selling candles. It’s also possible to find wonderful hybrids: Mr Dade of Norwich who, in the late 18th century, was a perfumer, tobacconist, haberdasher and umbrella maker!

copyright Wellcome Images

Mr Dade’s example raises one group that I’ve become particularly interested in recently, which is perfumers. It’s easy to think about perfumers as people who ‘just’ sold perfumes, but actually they often diversified. Many perfumers were also hairdressers. Some were chemists or druggists. But many also specialised in what were then called ‘toys’. Rather than the modern sense of children’s playthings, the 18th-century meaning of ‘toy’ referred to small items, trinkets, and daily objects for the body and personal grooming.

In the 18th century some perfumers became particularly prominent, with connections to Royalty or the literati and glitterati of the day. As William Tullet’s recent book has shown, Charles Lillie of London was famed for his snuff, as well as his many perfumed products, but was also celebrated in publications such as the Spectator. Others, such as William Bayley, Richard Warren, Charles Emon and William Yardley established their own businesses, and frequently advertised their products.

Trade tokens for bear’s grease – copyright Wellcome Images

Another big name in perfumery in the 18th century was Alexander Ross. Ross was a specialist in ‘Bear’s Grease’ – a product for hair growth made from the fat of bears. Some London barbers and perfumers even apparently kept live bears in their own shops to promote their products…something that occasionally caused public order problems. But it was Ross’s son, also Alexander, who arguably rose to even greater prominence than his father, and grew the business to include a whole range of other products.

Alexander Ross the Younger, for example, established his ‘Ornamental Hair Warehouse’ in Bishopsgate in 1814, from where he sold products such as his Grecian Volute Head Dress. Ross was also a prolific writer, authoring tracts about hairdressing, looking after the skin and managing fingernails. He had his own magazine – the alluringly-titled ‘Ross’s Toilet Magazine’ which, according to its ad, was ‘full of toilet secrets’.

But it also seemed that he diversified into a range of machines for the body. The advertisements for these contrivances, and the testimonials from people who had used them, shed fascinating light onto both the side-interests of a perfumers, and the lengths that people would apparently go to in order to try and look good.

Image from Google Books

One of what Ross himself termed his ‘celebrated inventions’ was the ‘nose machine’ apparently a device for straightening the nose. This was available for ten shillings and sixpence, but promised to improve the features. The advertisement included supposed letters from satisfied customers. “I obtained the nose machine and am very much pleased with it” wrote one. “thanks to your machine” said another “my nose has achieved a tolerably symmetrical shape”.

It wasn’t just the nose that Ross’s products offered to reshape. His ‘ear machine’ was said to ‘have the characteristic that it gives the exact amount of pressure required to make the ears properly positioned’. Fingers could be beautified and pressed into good form by Ross’s ‘Finger shapers’. Feet could be ‘improved in form, the toes straightened and the ankles strengthened’ by ‘appliances worn during the night or any leisure time’. If all this wasn’t enough, he even sold ‘chin and cheek improvers’ to force jowly jaws back into a socially-pleasing form.

Bad posture and form were also bodily defects that various of Ross’s products tried to remedy. One was a ‘simple contrivance for improving the figure and drawing back the shoulders’, a snip at 7s and 6d. A slightly more mysterious process was offered for what Ross termed ‘over-stoutness’. Here he promised that excess weight would be dispersed by ‘carrying out regulations as given by Mr Ross’ and ‘weighing from certain time to time’. ‘Hip bands’ promised to transform hips that were ‘squatty and inelegant into good shape’.

The skin was certainly not forgotten, with various of Ross’s skin tonics, ‘bloom of roses’ and ‘pimple removers’ (using his ‘vegetable skin pill’ to give a ‘transcendent complexion’). Directions for getting rid of red noses, bruises and scars and even removing tattoos, were all available from Mr Ross’s emporium in Lamb’s Conduit Street in London.

Perfume bottle – copyright Wellcome Images

Various other products offered to colour or beautify the hair, remove it or make it grow on bald places. These included his ‘golden hair wash’, ‘Spanish fly ointment’ and ‘Cantharides oil’. For the truly brave, Ross offered his ‘Magneto Electric Machine’ for 21s, the regular use of which he claimed would stop hair falling out and promote its growth. How many hopeful customers ended up with hair standing to attention on their heads by over-winding the machine?!

There are many more product in his list, but I’ve left my favourite until last. Those feeling a bit down in the dumps were pointed towards Ross’s own ‘tonic medicine’. For a mere 5s and 6d…or 70 stamps, customers were promised ‘hilarity of spirits and a permanent animated tone for the features’. After a year of lockdown, couldn’t we all do with a bottle of this?

I think that perfumers are a fascinating occupational group, and there is much more to be said about them. I also think that the extent to which retailers diversified in the past is interesting, and reminds us that job titles by themselves can’t always tell us everything about what people actually did.

**And if you’d like to hear this as a podcast, click below**

The Celebrated Inventions of Alexander Ross, perfumer. Dr Alun Withey

This podcast is all about a 19th-century perfumer, Alexander Ross, who not only sold loads of perfumes (as you might expect!) but also created his own range of strange machines, to push, pull and force the body into a socially acceptable shape!
  1. The Celebrated Inventions of Alexander Ross, perfumer.
  2. Finding Your Beard Style in the 19th Century

Finding Your Beard Style in the 19th Century

In the previous post I noted the variety of facial hair styles that were worn by men in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, depending on factors including status, location and age. Rather than each age having one particular style of facial hair that was ubiquitous, the decision about what style to go for was, then as now, a matter for the individual man. 

Whatever he chose to do, though, a series of decisions were involved. First was the decision as to whether to shave or whether to let the beard grow full and natural. If the former, then how much of the face was to be shaved, and how often? Would the man shave himself, or visit the barber? If the latter, what was the desired ‘look’, and how could it be achieved.  Fashion was obviously another consideration: if, for example, the prevailing trend was for small, pointy beards, then a choice needed to be made as to whether to follow the fashion or buck the trend. Some men like the idea of using their beard as a statement, and a symbol of individual identity.

But another thing that needs to be considered is what sort of facial hair might suit a man’s face. Just like hairstyles, the suitability – and the effect – of different types of beards and moustaches can vary dramatically according to the size and shape of the face. 

Funny Folks, 28 June 1879, p. 206

An article titled ‘The Hair and Beard’ in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle in 1868 attempted to set out the ground rules for facial hair fashions. On one level, it argued, fashions were essentially arbitrary, and things like which side of the head the hair was parted, or what style of cut, were ‘prompted by no discoverable reason’.

But when a beard was worn it was important that it added to the overall harmony of the face, and emphasised its features, rather than hiding them. The ‘proper way of wearing a beard’ it argued ‘is ascertainable by a simple test. The idea is not that of a great beard attached to the face, but of a face which is ornamented by a beard.’ Proportion was everything. If the beard was too long it risked masking everything underneath. Too short, however, and the beard simply became ‘a covering, such as feathers are to a bird’.

Once a man had decided on what style suited him, the next question was whether he had the wherewithal to grow it. Many factors were argued to affect the quality of beard hair, not least of which was food. Another note in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle in December 1875 suggested that ‘The nature of nourishment causes a great variety in the beard. Wholesome, nutritious and digestible food makes the beard soft”. Rather cheekily it then added that ‘a good wife who provides excellent dinners will soon see the effect on the beard’. By contrast though, ‘poor, dry and indigestible food renders the beard hard and bristly’. 

Title page of ‘The Hair’ by J. Pincus – copyright Wellcome Images

A study of diseases of the hair and beard by Dr J. Pincus in 1882 argued that beards should be left alone during their ‘period of germination’ and that the ‘natural growth of the beard should not be interfered with.’ Rather than shaving off their beard hair, young men would do well to let it grow natural since ‘the irritation of shaving is too powerful and the beard becomes prematurely coarse and brittle.’ By not letting their beards develop unhindered in their formative years, Pincus argued, youths risked a wealth of problems including losing the colour in their facial hair, which would ‘fade into yellowish and reddish brown’ in later years. Only once a man had reached full maturity should he consider shaving.

But there were also a large percentage of men for whom growing a full beard was difficult, if not impossible. Through history, suspicions had been aroused and insults levelled, at men whom nature had not endowed with a fulsome crop of beard hair. Terms such as ‘smock-faced’, ‘spanopogones’ and ‘beardless boy’ were brickbats that stung poor men who wanted to join the ‘beard movement’ but couldn’t. Happily though, there were some options. As well as supplying to the theatrical and party trades, manufacturers of false hairpieces were also beginning to offer facial hair wigs, to allow beardless men to give the lie of a full and healthy beard. Better still, these were increasingly available to suit the latest fashionable styles. 

Advertisements like this one for a theatrical wig suppler in November 1874 offered all manner of different styles to suit all tastes. Here, for example, were ‘Dundreary whiskers’, ‘mutton shop’ sideburns, magisterial-looking full beards and even, rather unusually, a false ‘chin beard’, complete without the moustache! And indeed, for moustache lovers, options ranged from natty small examples to bushier and trendier styles, such as the ‘Imperial’.

Author’s Photograph of detail from Hairdresser’s Chronicle, 1874. Original document copyright British Library

There were even options for attaching them to the face – a serious consideration since few social faux pas could surely equal having your beard fly off in a gust of wind whilst trying to converse with the ladies. At the lower end of the scale these included sticking the contrivance to the face with tape or glue. Next up in efficiency were those that used wire to mould to the shape of the wearer’s face, and looped around the ears, giving a more natural look. But for really high-end models, a system of springs were used to make the beard wig cling to the face even in the most inclement of weathers. 

A whole range of hair-growth products were also available, promising that only a few applications of their miracle preparations would be enough to endow men with effulgent beards, moustaches and whiskers.

Author’s photograph of detail from Hairdresser’s Chronicle, 7 November 1874

Whatever the style, length, colour or amount of beard, therefore, facial hair required choices to be made. Happily, help was at hand in terms of the advice available in popular publications, and perhaps also from barbers and hairdressers, but also the innovative contrivances made by wig makers. With one of these, almost any man could instantly achieve the style he wanted, without risking the thousand shocks that daily lifestyle and diet could apparently visit upon his facial hair.  

And a new feature. This post is also available as a podcast: https://anchor.fm/alun-withey/episodes/Finding-Your-Beard-Style-in-the-19th-Century-esf31g/a-a4u8nbu

Beard Fashions and Class

Over the past few centuries, fashions in facial hair have changed substantially. In the mid seventeenth century many men wore the ‘Van Dyke’ style of a small, pointy beard and moustaches. By the end of the 1600s, beards were in decline, leaving many men with just moustaches. The eighteenth century has been viewed as an entirely ‘beardless age’, and one in which men across Europe abandoned their facial hair amidst new ideas about neat, elegant manly appearance, and smooth faces. 

So this remained until around 1800 when a fashion for side-whiskers emerged amongst young elite men in Britain. But beards truly came back with a bang around 1850, amidst the great Victorian ‘beard movement’, when it might appear that men all across Britain suddenly adopted effulgent, luxuriant and magisterial facial hair!

As this chapter in Concerning Beards explores though, there are reasons to believe that these fashions weren’t necessarily as all-encompassing as we might think. Joanne Begiato’s recent book on manliness makes the important point that we sometimes overemphasise stereotypes in the history of masculinity – e.g. the Georgian man of feeling, or the muscularly Christian Victorian man. Whilst these are useful as broad ideals or ideas about manliness, there could be much variation according to thing like class, location and occupation.

In my book, one of the questions that I wanted to explore was how widespread were facial hair fashions at different times and in different places. Did the 18th-century ‘polite’ preference for the clean-shaven face, for example, mean that poorer men had no facial hair either? Equally, whilst proponents of the ‘beard movement’ were expending pints of ink attempting to convince men of the many and various supposed benefits of beards, how far did these ideas sink in? 

The problem lies in how to actually get to the faces of men lower down the social scale. Georgian portraits generally reflect elite men, whilst the advent of photography also, at least initially, attracted gentlemen for a sitting. As I found, though, there are ways to tease the faces of lower-class men out of the shadows. 

Sir David Lindsay by Joshua Reynolds – Image from Wikimedia Commons

18th-century ‘wanted’ advertisements offered one useful window onto facial appearance. Increasingly, newspapers were used to seek the capture or return of individuals, such as runaway servants, apprentices and criminals. Because those placing advertisements naturally wanted these people caught, their descriptions highlight any distinguishing features. Facial hair was just the sort of thing to be noted. Although a runaway might obviously shave off their facial hair as a means of disguise, the advertisements at least reveal what they were wearing when they took to their heels.

The fragmentary nature of these sources made a large-scale quantitative study impossible, but they suggest that a proportion of men of the eighteenth century did wear some variety of facial hair. In 1763 The burglar Henry Tandy was described as having a large black beard, a dark complexion and ‘pock-fretten’ face. When he deserted from the ninth Regiment of Foot in Bristol in 1756, William Williams had a ‘brown beard and a jolly face’, while the distinctive features of the Edinburgh thief William Brodie included sandy-coloured whiskers ‘frizzed at the sides’.

Caledonian Mercury, 27 November 1771 – screen capture from British Library Newspaper Database

For the Victorian period, the advent of photography makes it easier to see the actual faces of nineteenth-century men. In particular though, the introduction of photography as a means of recording the faces of criminals offered the perfect opportunity for a bigger study. For the book I surveyed hundreds of photographs of prisoners from three gaols around the country – Bedford, Wandsworth and Carmarthen. Since these photographs were often taken soon after arrest (and before they were likely shaved on admission to prison), they offer a potential glimpse of the facial hair fashions of poorer men.

Bearded gentleman from 19thc Carte de Visite – author’s own collection

When we think of Victorian bearded men, we tend to associate them with a particular style – the ‘cathedral’ beard, or ‘patriarch’ beard. But in fact, the findings of my study suggest that a rethink may be needed for the faces of lower-class men…and perhaps even across society. First, across the sample of my study, 58% of prisoners showed some variety of facial hair…which obviously means that more than 40% were completely clean-shaven. Even this raises questions about how widespread across society actually was the beard trend.

Perhaps more surprising was the type of beard that was most common in the sample. Of those men displaying facial hair, across the three gaols, nearly three quarters (72%) had a variation of the ‘chinstrap’ or ‘chin curtain’ beard. This was a line of beard coming down from the sideburns, underneath the chin, and back up the other side, with no moustache. This style could be thin, or bushy, and long or short. 

Only 15% of those men with beards wore what we might think of as the archetypal full Victorian beard. Some wore goatee beards, others had light beards or stubble. Only around 3% of prisoners with facial hair wore a moustache on its own. There were also strong variations according to age. Prisoners below the age of 25, for example, often had little or no facial hair. Older men, in their 50s and above, seemed to prefer bushy side whiskers. 

Overall, the vast majority of styles in my sample would still require at least part of the face to be regularly shaved. If these findings are in any way representative of the population more generally, the idea of the heavily bearded Victorian gentlemen throwing away his razor and tackle and letting his facial hair run riot seemingly needs revision! Perhaps we shouldn’t even be too surprised to find that individual men made their own decisions about what styles suited them best. Men always have, and still do, retain control over their own facial appearance. 

By way of conclusion, it’s worth noting that even contemporaries recognised the wide variety of styles worn by men. In the 1870s, the Hairdresser’s Chronicle noted the ‘countless varieties of forms’ that had arisen in ‘British Whiskers’. It asked the reader to imagine the next few men walking down a busy street. 

‘The first has his whiskers tucked into the corner of his mouth , as though he were holding them up with his teeth. The second whisker that we descry has wandered into the middle of the cheek, and there stopped as if it did not know where to go’. The whiskers of number three ‘twist the contrary way, under the owner’s ears’ whereas a fourth citizen, ‘with a vast pacific of a face, has little whiskers, which seemed to have stopped short after two inches of voyage”. 

Beards, it seems, just like their wearers, came in all shapes and sizes.

The ‘Toilet Arts’: Men’s Personal Grooming and Advice Literature in the 19th Century.

One of the big themes of my research project, and of a large section of the forthcoming book, is the rise, over time, of shaving as part of men’s self-fashioning and personal grooming. One question that has interested me from the start is that of how men learnt to shave? Who told them what equipment to purchase, how to sharpen razors, make lather and avoid injuring themselves? Fraternal networks – dads and brothers, as well as male friends – were all strong potential sources of information about personal grooming in the past, much as they still are today.

Screenshot 2020-04-15 at 08.25.05
Image from British Library Flickr, available under creative commons

But I’ve also been interested in advice literature for men. The eighteenth century saw the rise of polite conduct literature, instructing young ladies and gentlemen in how to look and behave properly in public. This often included general instructions on dress and appearance, manners, speech and deportment, and even posture and how to stand properly. But before the nineteenth century there was generally more conduct literature available for women than men.

The early decades of the nineteenth century, however, saw conduct literature gradually replaced by a more general kind of advice literature, along the lines of ‘How to be a Lady/Gentleman’. I’ve been scouring as many as I could find to see if they offered anything more on what were sometimes referred to as the ‘toilet arts’! In particular, I wondered if there might be any evidence for how to look after beards, particularly at the height of the Victorian ‘beard movement’. What were the expectations surrounding cleaning, fashioning or cutting facial hair, and general expectations of appearance?

In general, over-attention to appearance was regarded with suspicion, and some advice literature cautioned men not to fuss too much in front of the mirror. As The English Gentleman, His Feelings, His Manners, His Pursuits of 1849 cautioned men that ‘directly you begin to be over-careful and elaborate in your dress, and give yourself a finical and effeminate appearance, from that hour do you commence vulgarity”. Although he should never be slovenly, a man should think no more about his appearance once he had left the dressing room and, once in public, should ‘avoid looking in the mirror’ or a window to check appearance!

Sometimes advice on personal cleanliness could appear in gentlemanly advice literature, although the amount and form varied greatly with each publication. The Gentleman’s Manual of Modern Etiquette (1844) for example, instructed men that the “flesh, teeth and nails should be cleansed at regular intervals”, and the nails in particular should “never be permitted to grow to an offensive length”.  Arthur Blenkinsopp’s A Shiling’s Worth of Advice on Manners, Behaviour and Dress (1850) noted also that faces, hair and teeth should be kept scrupulously clean.

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(Author’s own image – original document copyright British Library)

One of my favourites is the ominously-titled ‘Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes and Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech’ which, as the name suggests, was all about how NOT to do it. Personal grooming was singled out for a barricade of ‘DON’Ts’! These included not using hair dye, since ‘the colour is not like nature, and deceives no one.’ The use of hair oil by men was ‘considered vulgar, and it is certainly not cleanly’. But, perhaps more importantly:

“DON’T neglect personal cleanliness – which is more neglected than careless       observers suppose.

DON’T neglect the details of the toilet. Many persons, neat in other particulars, carry blackened fingernails. This is disgusting. DON’T neglect the small hairs that project from the nostrils and grow around the apertures of the ears…”

If men had beards or whiskers they should be careful to wash them after smoking, and should not get into the habit of “pulling your whiskers, adjusting your hair, or otherwise fingering yourself’!

Others contained useful titbits about shaving kit. L.P. Lamont’s Mirror of Beauty (1830) contained a useful recipe for the ‘Genuine Windsor Shaving Soap’, along with instructions as to how to put the melted soap into a shaving box, to use while travelling, or for convenience, whilst Charles Gilman Currier’s The Art of Preserving Health reminded men that the beard ought to be washed very often and should be kept clean.

Specific advice about shaving beards and whiskers was more likely to be found in specific publications dedicated to the task. These came in many forms: in the eighteenth century the first shaving manuals were published by cutlers and razor makers such as Jean-Jacques Perret and Benjamin Kingsbury. Over time these began to proliferate, and included everything from instructions given out with shaving products to manuals dedicated to shaving and personal grooming more generally. There are too many to include here in detail, but a few examples will illustrate the themes.

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(Author’s own image – original document copyright British Library)

The alluringly titled Gentleman’s Companion to the Toilet of 1844, for example, by the anonymous ‘London Hair Dresser’, contained a raft of useful information for shavers, from how to choose, strop and sharpen a razor, and the proper way to use it. Debates raged around whether shaving with hot or cold water was better: the author of the Gentleman’s Companion was in no doubt that hot water was the only way to ‘soften the beard or improve the edge of the razor’. Another useful section dealt with which shaving soap to pick. The best strategy, argued the author, was to ignored the advertising puffs (“There are many soaps which are ‘puffed off’ as “the best article manufactured for shaving”…but some of them are utterly worthless”). He also advised sticking to the widely available Naples soap, and avoiding alkali soaps, with their light and frothy lather, which would “much annoy you by [causing] those irritating pains which are frequently felt after shaving with a bad razor”.

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(Author’s own image – original document copyright British Library)

Edwin Creer’s Popular Treatise on the Hair argued that men risked their health if they neglected cleanliness of their beards, since facial hair “collects dirt, smoke and dust from the atmosphere…and were it not that the beard intercepts those particles, they might otherwise find their way to some internal organ”. Creer also argued that occasional shaving could be useful in strengthening the beard, but preferred to let nature run its course.

Nevertheless, styling, brushing and trimming the beard and whiskers was also recommended. As Creer noted, the ‘cut’ of the beard was everything: it should neither be ‘short and scrubby’ nor long and unkempt. Equally important in preserving the lustre and appearance of a full beard was that it should be well kept. Dedicated ‘whisker brushes’ were available to comb out the tangles and remove errant particles of food. It was, after all, hard to look like a gentleman with bits of dinner lodged in the prolix fronds!

Throughout the nineteenth century, then, gentlemanly grooming was seen as important, and facial hair, whether shaving it off or beautifying the beard, was an important part of this. Perhaps the final word belongs to The Hairdresser’s Chronicle in October 1871, which contained the following, under the title ‘How to Begin the Day:

“Be very careful to attire yourself neatly; ourselves, like our salads, are always the better for a good dressing. Shave unmistakeably before you descend from your room; chins, like oysters, should have their beards taken off before being permitted to go down…”!

A Hidden History of Beard Terms!

2020 will be a milestone for me, as it sees the completion of my research, and the submission of my book Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England, 1650-1900, in many ways bringing an end to my project on the history of facial hair – a huge, and in many ways life-changing undertaking, which has occupied me for the past 7 years. It’s been quite a journey, covering a huge range of source material, archives all over the country, conferences, public lectures and media appearances. It’s been fantastic, both academically, and personally.

One of the absolute joys of researching this topic has been discovering the wealth of gems hidden away in archives, with fantastic stories, anecdotes or even just little insights into the lives of people in the past. As you might have noticed, blog entries have sadly suffered a bit over the past year or two, as I’ve been preoccupied with full-time teaching, research and book writing. It’s time to kick start things again and to use the blog to highlight some of this material that I haven’t been able to use in the book, but which definitely deserves to see the light of day.

So, I thought I’d use today’s post as a little teaser, by revealing some of the most unusual terms I’ve come across for beards, barbers and shaving. This a whistle-stop tour through the lexical history of facial hair.

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

‘Imperbicke’ – In Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionary or An Interpreter of Hard English Words of 1623, ‘Imperbicke’ was defined as being ‘without a beard’ or ‘beardless’. In the early modern period, as in fact at many other points throughout history, being unable to grow a beard was often viewed negatively. In the seventeenth century, the lack of a beard suggested that a man lacked inner heat. In the humoural system of the body, beard hair was actually a waste product – a sort of exhaust gas left over from the production of sperm deep in a man’s body. Heat caused it to rise upwards, solidifying as it did, to become beard hair. So, a beard was an outward demonstration of a man’s generative power, or even virility. So, if a man could not grow a beard, it was assumed that he was lacking in sexual potency, and potentially effeminate, or at least carried more female than male characteristics. The fact that there was a specific term designated to this, shows its importance in beliefs about the body.

‘Lanuge’ – One of the most important stages in a young man’s life, and one that heralded the transition from boyhood to manhood, was the first appearance of beard hair during puberty. In Cockeram’s dictionary, again, was the word ‘lanuge’, which he defined as ‘downe, or the beard when it appears to grow’. There were other words for the first appearance of beard hair. One was ‘probarbium’, in John Barrow’s 1749, Dictionarium medicum universal. The stage of initial beard growth was also given a name: in Nathaniel Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, the fluffy-faced youngster was ‘impubescent’.

‘Barbigerous’ – various appellations have been attached to the actual wearing of beards, moustaches and whiskers. My favourite of all, again from Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum was ‘barbigerous’, making beard-wearing sound a bit violent. Beard hair itself could sometimes be referred to as ‘barb’, as in Thomas Browne’s Union Dictionary in 1800, and a bearded man could be described as ‘barbed’. These all derive from the Latin term ‘barba’, from which we also supposedly (although there is some debate) get ‘barber’. On the matter of barbers, this is how William Toone described the term in his Glossary and Etymological Dictionary of Obsolete and Uncommon Words (London: Thomas Bennett, 1832), 81-2

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

Barber to shave or trim the beard. This ornament (for it was so considered when worn) was an object of great attention about three centuries ago, and was fashioned to a variety of shapes. Taylor, called the Water Poet, mentions them as cut to resemble a quickset hedge, a spade, a fork, a stiletto, a hammer &c. Much time was spent “in starching and landering” them, and such care was taken to preserve them in proper shape, that cases were put on to enclose them, which were put on at night, that they might not be disarranged by sleeping. The fashion of wearing beards declined in the reign of Charles II and was gradually discontinued. Barbers were employed to trim and adorn the beard, and so called from barba, a beard, and to barber was to shave or put the beard in order, and not to powder, as Dr Johnson suggests.

All this sounded better than John Wilkins’ rather curt dismissal of barbers in his Alphabetical Dictionary of 1668, describing them as ‘hair cutting mechanics’.

Smock-Faced – Returning to the issue of being beardless, ‘smock faced’ was a common insult term levelled at smooth-chinned men and beardless boys alike. Even after beliefs in the humours had started to decline, a lack of beard hair could raise suspicions about a man’s…manliness. In defining the term ‘beardless’, Thomas Dyche used it for “one that has no hair visible on the chin, as children, women and effeminate men”.

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

Spanopogones – In the spirit of saving the best till last, this one is perhaps the most unusual term that I’ve come across. It appeared in John Barrow’s 1749 medical dictionary, and was defined as ‘persons whose beards are thin, or whose hairs fall off from their chins’. It again points to the importance of being able to grow a beard, even if you ultimately chose to shave it off. As to how it is pronounced, I am still none the wiser!

So, with the research files bulging, and lots of stuff to share, I will endeavour to be a better boy at updating the blog. Thanks to you all for not deserting me and, as ever, for so many of your kind comments about the blog, and my work.