The Quirky World of Victorian Shaving Patents!

A major theme of my forthcoming book Concerning Beards, about the history of beards, shaving and barbers between 1650-1900, is that of the gradual commercialization of shaving. As I’ve explored in other posts, the period after 1750 saw the increasing availability of a whole new range of creams, pastes and lotions for men to use during and after shaving. It also saw the advertising of razors for use by individual men at home, rather than necessarily having to visit the barber. As the book will show, these products proliferated through the eighteenth century and all through the nineteenth, increasing in number and type, and their advertisements appealing to prevailing ideas about manliness in various ways.

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(copyright Wellcome Images)

As well as just products for sale, however, my project drew me to the question of how far shaving products were part of broader technological innovation in the past. What sorts of shaving products were being dreamed up, created and patented by artisan makers and inventors? What shaving problems were they seeking to solve? As a period of innovation and technology, the nineteenth century offers a perfect opportunity to explore the world of shaving patents.

Having a razor look the part was clearly important. Whilst the blade should be shiny and (razor!) sharp, there was clearly a demand for fancy handles. A variety of patents were sought for new types or designs of razor handle, including ‘japanning’ to give an ornamental finish, a ‘vulcanised’ rubber razor handle, ‘a preparation for instrument handles, made from a vegetable compound, rather than horn or bone’, and others promising to make wood resemble ivory. These reinforce the importance of razors as manly accoutrements: as well as cutting efficiently, they should also look elegant and upmarket.

Even so, the majority of patent applications related either new devices, or ‘improvements’ to existing razors or sharpeners, to make the act of shaving easier…and often less painful. The discomfort and after-effects of a shave with a bad razor were well know, and often provided fodder for the satirist’s pen. But shaving with an open razor was potentially risky, especially for a man shaving himself. If the handle became slippery with lather, for example, the razor could slip, slice and slash! In 1804, Samuel Bennet’s patent application related to a razor with a steel thumb ring in the handle, enabling a razor to be held firmly and safely in the hand.

The 1830s saw the invention of ‘guard razors’, with various ‘combs’ and other contraptions fitted over blades to lessen the risk of cutting. William Samuel Henson’s 1836 patent razor had a combination tooth guard (which he called the ‘protector’), to prevent the user cutting themselves whilst shaving. By the 1880s the threat was obviously still real. One variation involved a system of rollers to allow the razor to glide over the face: Johnson and Fontaine’s ‘Shaving apparatus and razor guards’ were specially contrived “to allow unskilled persons to shave without cutting themselves”.

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(French steel and Vulcanite razor, c. 1850, image copyright Science Museum)

Even handling open razors could be dangerous.  Some, such as H. Hilliard in 1856, proposed a new type of razor with a frame and detachable blade, but also with a spring mechanism to keep them closed when not in use. With this he sought to protect men from the painful and messy experience of accidentally grasping a razor by its blade, rather than the handle.

If razors were to cut efficiently, they naturally had to be sharp. The second largest group of applications related, unsurprisingly, dealt with innovations in razor sharpeners – strops and hones. Between 1827 and 1888 there were at least 38 different patent applications for various machines, leather straps, some with springs, others using elastic, and using promising-sounding product names such as the ‘Revolving self-cleaning razor strop & shaving companion’. Another suggested paper ‘impregnated’ with glass dust to facilitate sharpening, possibly leading to sharp razors but bleeding fingers.

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(Wooden razor strop, in three parts with folding compartments and stropping block, English, 1790-1890, image copyright Science Museum)

Finding a convenient receptacle for shaving soap was a common theme and, judging from the efforts and applications of some budding inventors, the job of creating and applying lather for shaving was apparently regarded as something of a nuisance. To relieve men from the seemingly onerous task of lathering soap in a bowl, both Samuel Shipley’s 1853 ‘cases or receptacles containing shaving soap’ and Charles Manby’s ‘Patent Travellers’ Shaving Brush’ offered an ingenious solution. Both proposed ‘hiding’ shaving soap or paste in the handle of the brush. A quick couple of pumps on a piston squirted it straight into the bristles, meaning that it could be applied straight to the face. No bowl required!

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(Detail from W. Atkins’ patent specification, 1887, BL Patent Specification Books,  author’s photograph)

Another constant theme in patent applications was that of the need for hot water for shaving. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw debates about whether hot or cold water was preferable; some argued that hot water allowed the blade the move quicker and more easily through tough beard hairs, as well as making the process more comfortable. Others could find no justification for this, arguing that cold water was invigorating and no more harmful to the skin. In 1867, William Atkins was amongst several who proposed contrivances for heating water. Atkins’ ‘shaving appliance’ comprised a large wooden frame, housing a spirit lamp, a large bowl for water, which could be raised and lowered, and a soap and lather box in the base.

But some, however, went way beyond function, and one invention, above all, stands out as my favourite. In 1860, Benjamin Matthewman, a York cutler and surgeon’s instrument maker, applied for a patent for his new method of inserting a photograph into the handle of a razor, thereby enabling a man to gaze lovingly at the sepia-toned features of his inamorata, as he swiped a lethally sharp blade across his throat. Was this to comfort, or to add an extra frisson of danger?!

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 early modern Britain.

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

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

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(Image courtesy of – Wellcome Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Image taken by author)

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

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

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

By way of conclusion though, one entry in Thomas Tyldesley’s diary, though, gives us a wonderful example of a man clearly in the wrong job. On 10 January 1713, Tyldesley wrote that he had blood taken from his arm, as he was suffering from a ‘could and a stitch’. Sadly this proved too much for the unfortunate barber, since ‘Tom Tomlinson, barber, who shaved mee, was frighton with the sight of ye blood’!