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.

Halloween Special: Shaving the Dead in Irish Folklore

Shaving the dead in Irish folklore

The Irish Folklore Collection archive in University College Dublin contains a massive volume of documents, sound-recordings and other material collected under the auspices of the Irish Folklore Commission and other bodies since the 1920s. Two of the main elements of the archive are the Schools Folklore, compiled by schoolchildren in the 1930s, and the Main Collection, the work of folklorists working in communities throughout the state. These volumes are in the process of being digitised and transcribed – all of the examples here are from the Schools Collection at www.duchas.ie.

The archive incorporates a huge volume of material on folk medicine, magical cures, care for the dying, and the laying out, waking and burial of the dead. The work of laying out was rarely done by family members. Neighbours or local specialists, usually women, would wash and shroud the remains, and might also be involved in preparing the house for the wake. Great care was taken with the water used to wash the dead. Many accounts suggested it should be disposed of carefully, usually beneath a bush, in a corner, or somewhere where people didn’t normally walk, as it might cause the ground it touched to grow ‘fear gorta’, hungry grass, that would make passers-by feel faint or shaky, or create a ‘stray sod’ that would cause anyone walking over to become lost (‘go astray’). The things used during this time also needed to be treated carefully. Dying people were often placed on a woven straw mat, which would be burned or otherwise disposed of. The soap and towels used might be burned, buried, or placed in the fork of a tree.

Strictly-observed customs also surrounded the shaving of the dead and the things of shaving. In some areas it seems that all dead men were shaved, while elsewhere only those who had been clean-shaven during life were shaved after death. For example,in Carne, Co. Wexfordin the 1930s‘If a man was wearing a moustache or side whiskers it was shaved off’,[1]and in Sraheen, Co Mayo, it was even said ‘that if a man is not shaved before he is buried he will not go to heaven’.[2]  However, in Kilcommon, Co. Tipperary,‘A man who shaved during life is shaved, while those who wore beards are left there just as in life.’[3]The job of shaving the dead seems usually to have been done by a man, even if women did the washing. Most accounts mentioning shaving the dead agree that the razor used should be given to the man who did the job, though in some places, like Shancurry, Co. Leitrim, it was buried‘no matter how good it is’:[4]some add the detail that no payment should be asked for this work. Shaving a dead person seems to have been considered a tricky matter (cuts and nicks would doubtless displease the relatives). It might be said of a person who was good at sharpening tools that ‘He could put an edge on a scythe that would shave a corpse’.[5]

The association of men with shaving the dead is also evidenced in stories concerning encounters between mortals and the ‘Good People’ – the fairies – whose reputation for malevolence and caprice made them widely feared well into the twentieth century. While women might be detained by the fairies to act as midwives or nurses, men were more likely to be roped in to play games or music or, on occasion, to carry corpses or shave the dead – the latter is perhaps understandable in light of the Good People’s alleged aversion to iron. From Shrule, Co. Galway, comes the story of Pat Doherty:

There was once a man coming home from a wake. He had to cross a hill and on the top of the hill there was a little house. When he was near the house he heard a voice saying “Pat Doherty will shave the dead man”. Out ran the fairies from the house and brought him in. Then he shaved the dead man and the fairies gave him tea. When he was going home the fairies struck a weed and it turned into a horse. He got up on the horse and went home. He was putting in the horse into the stable and he disappeared. Then he went in and went to bed.[6]

One Mayo tale told of a man inveigled into both shaving a corpse for some supernatural women and carrying his coffin. Tom Coffey ‘was put astray’ on his way home one night and, exhausted, sought shelter in a house. An old man there died just after Tom arrived, and the two women attending him told Tom ‘he would have to shave him and he said that he never shaved a man in his life. They said that he would have to shave him.’ The women then obliged Tom to make a coffin. ‘They got a rope then and put it around the coffin. They told Tom that he would have to carry it and he [said he] would not be able. They said that he would. They put it on his back. He carried it all night until cock-crow. They told him to leave down the coffin and he did. The two women and the coffin disappeared.’[7]

Image from J. Jacobs, Celtic Folk and Fairy Tales

Another theme of which there are a few examples in the folklore archive concerns the man who braves a haunted house, only to meet a ghostly or otherworldly barber[8]or to be pressed into service as a barber himself. Seamus de Brun of Croom, Co Limerick told the story of a courageous tramp.

There was this great house, and nobody could stay there, because it was haunted. There was a notice on the gate stating that the person that would stay there three nights would get a thousand pounds.

There was a tramp walking the road and he saw the notice on the gate and read it. He went and told the owner that he would stay there. The first night the owner of the house gave him a bottle of whiskey. When he went in, he put down a big fire and sat down on a chair. At twelve o’clock a man dressed in black stood above on the stairs. The tramp said, what are you doing there, but he got no reply. He held on saying that until he fell asleep.

Next morning the owner unlocked the door and left out the tramp. Next night the owner gave him another bottle of whiskey. At about twelve o’clock, four men [came in] and a coffin on their shoulders. They set down the coffin and departed, and a corpse stood up from the coffin and asked him if he would shave him. He said he would, but he had no razor. The man in the coffin said that [it] was all right, as he himself had one. The tramp set to work and shaved him. Thanking him the corpse said that he had been coming here a long time, but had met no man with courage enough to shave him. The corpse told him where there were three crocks of gold and told him keep two for himself, and give one to the owner of the house. Next morning he done as he was told and got the thousand pounds. He was a rich man afterwards.[9]

Clearly prohibitions against payments for shaving the dead did not apply in the case of walking corpses.

Dr Clodagh Tait, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick

[1]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5009243/5001110/5122935

[2]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428066/4374474/4462894?ChapterID=4428066

[3]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922168/4857879/5018873

[4]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4605955/4605645/4644054

[5]The Irish Press, 2 June 1979, p.7.

[6]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5260385/5244869/5261376

[7]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427950/4360421

[8]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5105151/4996451

[9]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922034/4920807

The Singular Case of the Tiverton Barber

We all know the feeling of paying for something that doesn’t match up with our expectations, or not receiving the service or product we expect for our money. Many of us wouldn’t think twice of complaining, and getting a refund. But would we necessarily be prepared to go to court over something so apparently mundane as shaving soap?

In 1887 an unusual case came before the county court at Tiverton in Devon. The case of Stuckey versus Mitchell centred upon whether a barber had used a different brand of shaving soap to his usual one on a regular customer, in the process causing him a serious skin damage and illness. “The question before His Honour was whether Thomas Mitchell (the barber and hairdresser) was liable in damages” from any potential negligence or want of skill. More particularly, if he had not taken particular care to ensure that the materials he used were fit for purpose, could he be held responsible?

The customer, Stuckey, had visited Mitchell’s barbershop together with his friend, a Mr Rabjohn, for their customary shave. Not long afterwards both reported that their faces felt unusually hot and, as the day went on, Stuckey, in particular, was struck by a severe skin condition, likened to eczema, and also reportedly also fell ill. Not only seeking compensation for his suppurating face, Mr Stuckey also attempted to claim for loss of earnings. The case centred upon the soap used by the barber. Had the barber, in an attempt to cut corners, substituted his usual brand for a new type? Mitchell had, years previously, indeed fallen on straitened times before, appearing the London Gazette as an insolvent debtor, where he was described as a ‘hair dresser, perfumer, stationer, stamp distributor and post office keeper’.

Image copyright Wellcome Images)

When he came to the stand, the barber claimed to be a man of habit, and swore that he had used the same particular brand of soap – Millbay – for more than 30 years. Not only this, he had even purchased it every week from the same shop. Millbay was a common enough brand made in Nequay, cheap and often used by penny barbershops and even the poor law unions, who used it in Devon workhouses. His counsel even went so far as to have a sample of Millbay tested, and reported to the court that the results proved that it contained ‘nothing injurious to human skin’.

(1884 Advert for Mill Bay soap – Image from Pinterest)

But the customer and his friend were adamant that they had been duped. In their testimony they claimed to have raised suspicions when they both noticed that the soap in the barber’s bowl looked suspiciously dark, and unlike the usual lather. It appeared, they suggested, to be plain ‘scrubbing soap’, a rough caustic type used for cleaning clothes and other general duties. According to Mr Stuckey, the two men even remarked this to the barber, who allegedly shouted at his son “I told you not to buy that!”. This, the barber vehemently denied.

Things began to unravel when, under cross examination it emerged not only that Stuckey was prone to eczema and had long received treatment for it, but that Mr Rabjohn’s testimony – the only other witness – was, to be blunt, full of holes! When asked if he had mentioned the heat in his face to the barber, he reported that it was “only in a joking way”. When further pressed he admitted that he had never in fact suffered any ill effects from it on the day in question, but was referring to another occasion…which he had never informed the barber of.

The judge remained unconvinced as to either the liability of the barber or the injurious effects of the soap. Whilst he sympathised with Mr Stuckey’s condition, and apparently ‘substantial pecuniary loss’ he felt it could be conclusively proved either that the soap was deficient, or that the barber had neglected his duty of care. The court found in favour of the barber, and Messrs Stuckey and Rabjohn were clearly left to lick their wounds!