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.

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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…”!

Barbers and Shaving in the Eighteenth Century

“It is the business of the barber to cut and dress hair, to make wigs and false curls, and to shave the beards of other men. In ancient times he used, also, to trim the nails; and even in the present day, in Turkey, this is a part of his employment”. So wrote the author of an 1841 survey of professions and trades.

One of the main subjects of my forthcoming book is the history of barbers, and their place as providers of shaving, and also as practitioners of the male face and head. I’ve been looking at some of the important questions that have sometimes been overlooked: how well equipped were barbers’ shops?; how did barbers learn to shave, and who taught them?; what happened to the barbers when men began to shave themselves around the mid eighteenth century, and also when beards came hugely back into fashion in the mid nineteenth century? But I’ve also been interested in a much more basic question: what was it like to be shaved in an early modern barbershop?

V0019646 A barber's shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua
V0019646 A barber’s shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A barber’s shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aquatint. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Barbers have (very unfairly, in my opinion!) long been the whipping boys of the haircutting trades. In the eighteenth century the chattering barber was a comic staple. Many satirical cartoons lampooned the clumsy barber, engrossed in his own conversation and paying no attention to the safety of the customer in the chair. Country barbers, affecting airs and graces, were another favourite target of cartoonists. Worse still, the rise of hairdressing as a distinct occupation in the eighteenth century caused further tensions, as hairdressers sought to establish themselves as polite practitioners to the elites, and experts in tonsorial practice! In the process, they took every opportunity to barbers were relegated to the status of ‘mere’ shavers.

For an occupation like barbering/barber-surgery, with its long and proud tradition, not to mention considerable status in early modern towns, this must have been hard to take. Complaints from barbers about their diminished status were still rumbling on in trade journals late into the nineteenth century.

The problem was that a shave in an early modern barbershop varied considerably in quality. First was the question of how well equipped the barbershop was. Some high-end establishments had cases of razors, strops and hones for sharpening, bowls, basins, towels and some sweet-smelling creams or pomatums to apply afterwards. Other shops were much more basic, though, with only the minimum of equipment, and no fripperies. Perhaps the most important factor was the quality of the razor. Before the mid 18th century, the type of steel used in razor manufacture made them sometimes brittle, and difficult to sharpen. Once cast steel was introduced around 1750, things did begin to improve, although cast steel razors were expensive and beyond the reach of poorer barbers.

Being shaved with a blunted or poorly maintained razor was an ordeal for the customer. Rather than slicing off the beard hairs cleanly, a blunt razor rasped and bit, taking off layers of skin as well as stubble. Some barbers were more diligent than others in ensuring that their razors were up to the task. One account, from J. Torbuck’s Collection of Welsh travels, and memoirs of Wales (1749) gives us an interesting (if slightly tongue-in-cheek), insight into what could happen when things went wrong!

“I next sent out for a barber (resolving to see the best face upon matters I could) and, in about half an hour’s time, in comes a greasy fellow, swift to shed innocent blood, who, in a trice, from a protable cup-board call’d his cod-piece, pulls out a woollen night-cap that smelt very much of human sweat and candle-grease, and about two ells of towelling, of so coarse a thread, that they might well have serv’d a zealous catholick instead of a penitential hair-cloth.

After some fumbling, he pulls out a thing he call’d a razor, but both by the looks of effects, on would easily have mistaken it for a chopping-knife; and with pure strength of hand, in a short time, he shav’d me so clean, that not only the hairs of my face, but my very skin become invisible; and he left me not sufficient to make a patch for an Aethiopian lady of pleasure:

I gave him a small piece, bearing Caesar’s image and superscription; at which, he doffed me so low a bow, that the very clay floor was indented with his knuckles, and so he reverendly took his leave.”

V0019680 A barber shaving a disgruntled man. Coloured etching after H

(Image Copyright Wellcome Trust)

Images such as ‘Damn the Barber’ drew on what must have been a fairly common trope, of the painful shave, highlighting the lack of care and attention by some ‘Professors of the Tonsorial Arts’, or the damage done to customers. ‘Zounds! How you scrape’ cries the unfortunate victim of one blunt razor!

V0019687 A barber shaving a man in his shop. Etching, 1804.

(Image copyright Wellcome Trust)

But for all this, barbers remained hugely important in the lives of men throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The barbershop, as Margaret Pelling, Sandra Cavallo, Jess Clark and others have shown, was an important social space for men, as well as being a site for shaving, and also the purchase of cosmetic goods. Even when men did begin to shave themselves in greater numbers, they often did this in conjunction with visiting the barber. For many (perhaps even most) men too, it was simply cheaper and easier to go to the barber’s shop than to purchase and maintain shaving goods.

Beard Sculpting in the 19th Century.

Over the course of the past four or five years or so, one of the biggest growth areas in the personal grooming industry has been in products for cleaning, styling, or beautifying the beard. A whole host of options are now available, including beard oils, moisturisers and styling waxes, specially dedicated beard trimmers, and even templates, offering a myriad of different options for sculpting the preferred look.

As I’ve been studying the history of men’s personal grooming in the past, I was interested to see if beard grooming was just a modern thing, or if there was a historical precedent. The obvious place to start was in the Victorian period, when large numbers of men were sporting prodigious facial hair. Surely, with all these huge beards on show, keeping them pristine must have been important?

As I’ve mentioned many times in other posts, the Victorian beard was a statement of manliness. It spoke of supposed natural male authority, strength and even virility.  It was, as H.W. said in 1855, in his article ‘Beards and their Bearers’, a “cherished ornament”. And this was a case where bigger was regarded as better. Men were extolled to let their beards grow long, full and ‘natural’, an outward symbol of the power that lay within.

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(Unidentified man from a Victorian carte d’visit – author’s own collection)

But therein also lay an important point. The emphasis upon ‘natural’ suggested that, rather than being clipped, shaped, oiled or waxed, beards should be left to do their own thing, as prolix and rampant as possible. In the early 1850s, there were sustained attacks on shaving, which was set up as a potentially dangerous act – one that robbed the body of a key source of protection against dust or germs but, even more importantly, sapped the strength from a man’s body. With shades of the Biblical character Sampson, the American Presbyterian minister and dietary reformer Sylvester Graham argued in 1849 that the “habitual shaving of the beard diminish[ed] the physiological powers of man”.

At the same time as attacks on shaving, came stern warnings to men about the dangers of artifice in appearance. Whilst they should by no means be slovenly, neither should men be too absorbed or finical in their appearance ‘from whence commences vulgarity’. There were also sexual connotations. Victorian men who spent too much time in front of a mirror, or were too keen on cosmetics, risked suspicions of effeminacy.

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(Advertisement for Hovenden and Sons in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle – author’s own image)

But this is not to say that beard care was entirely absent from discussion. Men’s etiquette and conduct manuals did contain some advice about how to manage and care for a beard. Above all things, most authors agreed that beards should be kept clean.

Brushing was important, not only in keeping the beard luxuriant and shiny, but also in rescuing small bits of food that had become trapped in the undergrowth. As the authors of ‘Good Manners’ suggested in 1870, “The beard should be carefully and frequently washed, well-trimmed and well combed, and the hair and whiskers kept scrupulously clean, by the help of clean, stiff hair brushes, and soap and warm water”.

Special ‘whisker brushes’ were available to do the job properly, advertised in newspapers. In one advertisement in the Greenock Advertiser, ‘whisker brushes’ could be bought for the knock-down price of five and a half pence. In Bell’s Weekly Messenger in December 1850, ‘whisker brushes’ were included in a broader advertisement for ‘Christmas Presents this Month’. Clearly the ideal present for the whiskerando who has everything!

A little trimming or clipping was permissible, to keep everything neat and tidy since having a scruffy, unkempt beard suggested slovenliness, and it was considered ‘quite the usual business of a man’s person to trim the beard’. For those who could afford it, a valet or manservant might also do the job. As Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Managementpointed out, a good valet should “brush the hair, beard and moustache, where that appendage is encouraged, arranging the whole simply and gracefully according to the age and style of countenance”.

Buckingham's dye

(Image Copyright of Wellcome Collection)

Applying any cosmetics to the beard, though, was actively frowned upon, and there were even some suggestions that the products themselves were unpleasant. An article in the Hairdresser’s Journal in July 1868 noted the use of iron dye, containing hydrosulphate of ammonia and hartshorn for colouring beards and moustaches but noted that the ‘abominable odour’ and ‘putrid smell’ of the ingredients meant that ‘any fellow who would apply this hateful thing to his facial hair must be strong of stomach, and not over delicate as to the sense of smelling’.

Indeed, although there were many (often delicately scented) products for shaving available across the nineteenth century, there are only fleeting references to cosmetic products specifically for beards.

Nineteenth-century men, then, didn’t really go in for beard sculpting, in the belief that the beard was best left to grow ‘natural. And whilst today the idea that beards might be dirty still resurfaces from time to time, the Victorians had that covered. As ‘Xerxes’ wrote in the Folly and Evil of Shaving in 1854, “the beard keeps away nearly the whole of the dirt from the face, [and] does not prevent soap and water from penetrating beneath it to remove what dirt may accumulate there”. As such, they reasoned, “it follows that that portion of the face covered by the beard must be cleaner than the part not so covered, as well as cleaner than the head”. So, there you have it. Bearded men are the cleanest around!