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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”.
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.
(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”.
(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.
(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!
(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?!
“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?
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.”
(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!
(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.
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’,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’. 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.’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’: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’.
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.
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.’
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 barberor 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.
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
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!
I’m showing my age now, but watch the 1981 Adam and the Ants promo video for ‘Stand and Deliver’ and, during a few scenes showing the ‘Dandy Highwaymen’ amongst a group of outlandishly-dressed Georgians, look closely and you may notice a strange figure in the background…a man wearing a powdered period wig…and a beard. A wig and a beard. Together. On one man. It’s a look that should never be seen on any man. And, indeed, it was likely not a combination worn by any self-respecting polite Georgian gentleman. As the wig grew in popularity, the beard dramatically declined.
Initially there had been objections to the wig on religious grounds. In the seventeenth century, Puritan objections to the beard centred upon meddling with the divine form that God had created. The puritan polemicist William Prynne argued that replacing an individual’s own hair with the ‘hairie excrements of some other person’ was akin to denying the perfection of God’s work. Here he was referring to the fact that hair was, in medical terms, regarded as a type of excrement – a waste product of the body caused by inner heat rising up and breaking out on the surface of the skin, much like soot up a chimney. But clean-shaven puritans clearly saw no irony in the fact that they had removed their own ‘hairie excrements’ in the form of the beard which God had presumably provided for them.
There were also tensions in religious tracts between notions of the wig as, on the one hand, a covering and, on the other, a form of display. The wig-wearer could simultaneously be accused of hiding their true features, and drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. Contemporary opponents to the wig also claimed that it altered gender perceptions of the body, confusing the appearance of the whole. Even despite these objections, wigs continued to go from strength to strength.
Hair, whether on the head or the face, was in fact a central component in the articulation of masculinity. The way that head hair was worn and styled was important. At some points, long hair was desirable but, at others, it was kept short and close cropped. Here again, Puritans were advocates of the short cut. The wig added an extra layer of complexity, in requiring the removal of the wearer’s own hair, and substituting it for the ‘dead’ hair of someone else.
Like head hair, fashions in beards waxed and waned throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The beard was considered a central component of manliness, one that demonstrated virility and manly vigour. The bigger the beard the better. By the last decades of the seventeenth century, though, facial hair had diminished in size to the short ‘Stiletto’ style of the Stuarts. By 1700 most men were going clean shaven.
On the surface, the virtually simultaneous decline of facial hair and rising popularity of wigs in the second half of the seventeenth century appears coincidental. Contemporary sources are frustratingly quiet on the nature of the relationship between beards and wigs. There were, for example, no fashion guides advising men to lose the beard and don the wig. One obvious conclusion is simply that there was no connection, and that fashions had simply shifted.
There were certainly similarities in terms of the prosthetic nature of both wigs and beards. Both could easily be adopted, put on and taken off at need. Both were manageable according to fashion, and both bore connections with masculinity, albeit in different ways. Why, then, did beards and wigs seem to be so incompatible?
One issue was simply the jarring aesthetic that the wig/beard combination created. Wigs and moustaches? Possibly. But wigs and beards, no. The wig was intended to contribute to a neat, elegant and harmonious whole – the goal of the polite gentleman. It was a fashion statement; one that shouted ‘status’ and rank. Later in the century there were complaints that wigs had sunk so far down the social scale that they were in danger of losing their potency as social markers. Facial hair, by contrast, had become seriouslyunpopular. In part this was because it came to symbolise roughness and earthiness, a component of the poor, country labourer, rather than the metropolitan gent. The two did not belong together.
Mixing beards and wigs also risked an odd clash between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ hair. Wigs were artificial contrivances. An individual removed their own ‘natural’ hair and replaced it with something fashioned from the frowzy hair of the poor. Conversely, as many authors had spent the previous two centuries arguing, beards were ‘natural’ – a God-given component of the male body. But men were increasingly having their beards scraped off, leaving the face clear. Perhaps part of the issue, then, lay in covering. Head hair was removed but the head re-covered by the wig. Beard hair, by contrast, was shaved, but not replaced. In this sense, the ‘site’ of masculinity shifted from the face to the upper head, with the head covered, and the countenance open.
A further possibility, although perhaps less plausible, was the so-called ‘cult of youth’ which, amongst other things, encouraged smoothness and softness of skin as aesthetic ideals. Beards, and even stubble, could be scythed off with a newly-fashionable steel razor, giving a man soft and smooth skin. He might even slather on some of the many pastes, lotions and oils that were coming on to the market in the eighteenth century. The wig, though, could contribute to the illusion of youth, by giving an apparently luxuriant head of hair.
Whatever the true reasons, the wig and beard were uncomfortable bedfellows. There are very few formal portraits of bearded men in the eighteenth century. Those that do exist are usually paintings of older men, for whom the beard was a sign of wisdom and experience, and sometimes Biblical figures. But, we would struggle to find a painting of a bearded and bewigged gentleman! Some things, it seems, simply do not belong together.
As my project on the health and medical history of facial hair rolls ever forward, I’ve recently turned my attention to barbers and their role in shaping and managing facial hair through time. Amongst the many questions I’m looking at are how they were trained, what their shops were like, and how much they charged. Further posts will follow on those matters!
As I’ve said many times before on this blog, one of the joys of being an historian are the stories that you come across accidentally while you’re looking for something else. So it has proved to be with barbers, who seem to crop up in a dizzying array of sources and contexts. Recently I’ve been looking through the records of the Old Bailey, to check for unwitting testimony about shop practices or activities. There is actually a lot that can be gleaned from witness testimonies and the details they can provide. But, along the way, I’ve seen lots of evidence to suggest that barbers were often the targets for thieves.
Whilst a barbershop might not immediately spring to mind as a tempting target, lots of barbering goods were actually desirable, and easy to put out through the fence.
In some cases basic things like shop linen and cloths could be targeted. In 1732, Catherine Sanders of St Dunstan’s parish, was indicted for stealing a haul of shop linen, including ‘shaving cloths’ to the value of 7s and 6d. These were the cloths put around the customer’s neck, both to catch the soap, and sometimes for the barber to wipe his razor on. Given that the average London labourer’s wage was around 20-30 pence per day, the value of these goods was virtually a week’s wages. It’s easy to see why some were tempted into crime by the promise of a fast buck. Being caught risked a high price though. In January 1735, Mary Collings was arrested after stealing three shaving cloths from the London barber William Day. She was sentenced to transportation.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Razors, and especially high end, silver tipped, models, were another favourite. At the beginning of the eighteenth century razors were relatively hard to come by. They did not appear in advertising much before the mid eighteenth century, and tended to be bought by barbers from specialist artisan makers, and cutlers. They could be relatively expensive items too, meaning that purloined examples could be easily sold. July 1682 saw John Scroby lift a ‘case of silver tipt razors’ from the barber shop of William Thomson…valued at the substantial sum of eight pounds! When he was caught he denied having any razors on his person. On being searched, and the items found, he claimed to have been given them…but, conveniently, he couldn’t remember who by. The following year saw eleven silver tipped razors stolen from Richard Plat’s Barbican shop, and quickly pawned by the thief. In fact, razors feature commonly amongst lists of stolen goods in Old Bailey cases.
Looking glasses – mirrors – were an expensive, luxury item. As historian Margaret Ezell has pointed out, modern mirrors, understood as a reflective coating over a glass surface, did not come into being until the end of the seventh century. Before then a ‘looking glass’ was likely to be a polished metal surface, and also not necessarily flat, giving a potentially distorted or unclear reflection. Even small glass mirrors were prohibitively expensive; Pepys’ gift of a small looking glass for his wife cost the equivalent value of over one hundred pounds in modern currency. It’s not surprising to find looking glasses on early modern thieves’ wish lists therefore. David Cooke and his accomplice Jonathan Robinson, knew what they were looking for when they broke into Edward Burrows’ barber shop in 1716, making off with razors, a parcel of hair (valued at £5) and a ‘lookeing glass’ worth 30 shillings.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Even the most basic items could prove tempting for opportunists. In Bridewell Hospital in June 1716, Margaret Morgan decided it would be a good idea to try and steal ‘a shaveing bason, two razors and a towel’. On catching her in possession due to her not ‘giving any good account of herself otherwise’ her victim, the barber Thomas Ward of Little Britain, had her charged. Even the most basic items of barbering equipment, such as the hone used to maintain the razor’s edge, could prove too tempting for some thieves.
Occasionally things took an almost comic turn. In April 1729, Sam Salmon took to his heels with his pockets stuffed with 43 washballs, the property of the barber William Barnard. Washballs were small, compacted balls of soap powder and other ingredients, used to create the lather to shave. Caught in the act by Barnard’s neighbours, he was pursued up the street, the washballs doubtless spilling out of his pockets as he ran. His failure to get ‘clean’ away cost him a voyage on a transportation ship.
(Notorious 18th-century criminal Jack Sheppard…not sure if he ever stole from barbers, but just in case! – Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps the most lucrative item of all for thieves, however, were wigs, and the parcels of hair used to make them. Edward Kent stole four wigs, two razors and five ounces of human hair, after convincing the barber and peruke maker Moses Freeman that he wished to learn the trade of wigmaker. Among the haul of Cornelius Barret in 1686 were a ten-shilling periwig and a ‘bever hat’. One Robert Milksop pinched a periwig valued at 30 shillings from the box being carried by Thomas Parks, as the two men passed each other in Cheapside. In 1692, a criminal known only as “B.J.” broke into the house of Bryant Brandon, and made off with three razors, but also ‘twenty two pounds in weight’ – valued at an eyewatering 100 pounds. The case against “B.J.” was difficult to prove, so he escaped with a branding for his trouble.
Perhaps my favourite case of all, however, concerns the theft of a range of goods including books, a hammer and a flower tub, as well as twelve razors by a Fulham schoolmaster, Ephraim Mansell. The case actually revolved around the razors, and whether Mansell had borrowed them (as he claimed), or stolen them. The name of the victim? Mr Blunt.
 Margaret Ezell, ‘Looking Glass Histories’, Journal of British Studies, 43:3 (2004), 323.
It’s summer 2016, and beards are still pulling headlines in the news. A report on last week’s Financial Times website suggested that men are spending 20% more year on year, on niche products. One observer notes that the market for men’s grooming products is likely to top £1bn by 2018. The Guardian claim to be able to read personality through different beard styles, while other sites range from calling the end of the Hipster beard, to a report that one man wants to see the return of the beard tax.
There have been some signs of slowdown in recent months; a friend (and owner of a traditional barber shop) tells me that the numbers of men coming in for beard grooming has begun to fall, but also that the style has began to change towards shorter beards. Men who have beards are not removing them altogether, but seemingly cutting them back.
(Image – Wikimedia Commons)
All of this has me thinking back to periods of beard ‘trend’ in history, and questions about actually how many men participate. Over the past few years we have seen an apparently huge rise in the popularity of beards. When a new trend starts it becomes literally remarkable. This certainly happened (and to some extent is still happening) with beards. Media, advertising, imagery all serves to build up a sense of momentum, beards became more noticeable on the high street and they begin to become associated with identity and lifestyle. But at some stage a tipping point is reached. This is essentially the idea behind so-called ‘peak beard’ – the point at which they become so popular that they lose their status as an alternative to what has gone before, and become…well…normal.
But even at their height this time around (probably 2014/5), how many men actually had beards? It’s impossible to quantify, but I’d be surprised if it went much about 25/30%. A study of 6500 European men in 2015 suggested that 52% had some form of facial hair, but such a small sample can hardly be considered bulletproof. (It was in the Daily Mail too by the way!)
I was talking recently to Christopher Oldstone-Moore (author of the recent book ‘Of Beards and Men’) and he argues that, even in times when beards are extremely popular, many (most?) men actually still don’t have them. I’ve been looking recently at Victorian photographic portraits of men across different levels of society, and different regions of the country. The period between 1850 and 1890 was the height of the ‘beard movement’ in Britain; a wide range of contemporary literature goes into great detail about the social, cultural and economic reasons why men should grow beards. As I’ve explored in other posts, these range from arguments that the beard filters out germs, protects the throat, chest and teeth, stops sunburn and even saves the economy millions by restoring the working hours lost in shaving!
But I’ve actually been struck by the amount of clean-shaven portraits that I’ve seen. For all the whiskers, moustaches, chin beards, Dundreary whiskers and all the rest, many men clearly did still prefer to shave. We can’t rule out the possibility that some were shaved specifically for their portrait, but this can’t account for all cases. So were these men freakish? Did their clean-shaven faces make them prominent when all other men were apparently sporting large patriarch beards?
There is certainly evidence to suggest that not all men viewed beards positively. In 1851, for example, just as the beard fashion was beginning to gather pace, a correspondent to the CS Leader and Saturday Analyst, complained at the ill treatment meted out to him by passers by, who took his beard as a sign of ‘foreignness’. As he walked through the streets he was hissed and laughed at, and particularly objected to someone shouting ‘French Dog!’ when, as he pointed out, he was not French and had served his country in the British army for many years. Neither were the jibes from children; his assailants included ‘well dressed and grown-up people, especially by ladies, and shopkeepers’ clerks’.
Those who still preferred the razor were well served by products available for them; in a previous post I mentioned shaving creams like the popular Rowland’s Kalydor, which were marketed throughout the nineteenth century. So were various kinds of razors. In fact, it could be argued that some of the biggest advances in razor technology occurred when beards were at their most popular. Of course some shaving was still necessary for certain styles, especially chin beards and whiskers, but it also suggests a ready market for the clean shave.
The Georgian period is renowned as a beardless age – lasting from the slow decline of beards and moustaches around the 1680s, to the start of the ‘beard movement’ in 1850. But was this actually the case? In Georgian Britain the majority of portraits we have are of the upper classes and elites; can we be sure that rural labourers did not hold on to their beards? In fact, part of the reaction against beards was that they made polite gentlemen resemble rustics. This suggests that the rustic look could be bearded. This point is made, for example, in a 1771 portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘A Bearded Man’. The purpose of the painting is unclear, but it is unusual in depicting a beard at a time when being clean-shaven was the norm. According to the Tate Gallery, the sitter was a beggar named George White, perhaps explaining his unkempt appearance.
Another eighteenth-century portrait, by Balthasar Denner, also depicts a bearded man in the eighteenth century. This time the stubbly face represents the ageing man – a common artistic allusion but, again, suggests that clean-shaven may not have been the ubiquitous state it might at first appear from the sources.
(Balthasar Denner, ‘Head of an Old Man’: Image from Wikimedia Commons)
As I delve deeper into the history of facial hair it becomes ever more clear that things are rarely as clear cut (sorry!) as they appear. Periods in history that we associate with certain facial hair styles do not necessarily speak for all men. Just as today, when by no means all men are sporting luxuriant Hipster beards, so not all Tudor men had ‘Stilletto’ beards, not all Victorians had ‘Cathedral’ beards, and not all Georgians were clean shaven. Instead, decisions to wear (or not wear) facial hair are bound up in a complex web of meanings and influences. I’m looking forward to the next stage in the development of beards!
In a recent article in the UK’s Independent newspaper, the cosmetics industry for men in Britain was estimated to be worth over £30 million a year, after growing over 300% in 2014/15. Even so, this is a drop in the ocean, in a global market for male pampering which accounts for an eye-watering 14.8 BILLION pounds per year. The sheer numbers of male aftershaves, scents and colognes are bewildering, and carry the heft of major league celebrity endorsements, from the likes of David Beckham and Johnny Depp.
I’m a child of the 70s, a time when aftershave choices were, shall we say, limited. At Christmas and birthdays my poor father was the regular recipient of a) Brut b) Blue Stratos or C) Old Spice, with a runner’s up prize of ‘Denim’ if Boots had run out of any of them. This was despite the fact that he had (and still has) a beard!
As for celebrity endorsements, these were also fairly limited. In the Brut corner was Former British Heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper, who invited you to ‘splash it all over’, alongside mulleted football star Kevin Keegan and the accident-prone superbike champion, Barry Sheen. None perhaps matched the kitsch glamour of Tabac’s advert with the sartorially elegant, and magnificently coiffured, Peter Wyngarde – star of the ‘Jason King’ series.
How long, though, has aftershave been with us? Have men always slapped on the scent or slathered on the lotion after shaving? In fact, shaving preparations have a surprisingly long history and, more than this, can actually tell us some important things about attitudes to men’s personal grooming.
Before the eighteenth century, the concept of applying ‘product’ as a means to beautify the skin after shaving simply didn’t exist. Shaving was a basic, quotidian activity, done for necessity. It was also probably a painful experience. Rather than shaving themselves, men visited the barber, whose services were available everywhere from large towns and cities to small villages. The quality of the shave available differed dramatically, leading to satires about the clumsy barber whose razors were as blunt as oyster knives. It is possible that some provision might be made to soothe the skin after the shave, or maybe apply a little lavender water, but evidence for individual shaving routines is fairly sparse.
(Image copyright Lewis Walpole Library)
Nevertheless, there were options within domestic medicine, which might allow men to soothe their suppurating skin once the barber had done with it. Even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, remedy collections included recipes for beauty washes and pastes, and ‘washballs’ for the skin. There are some great examples on ‘Madam Gilflurt’s’ blog: http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2016/05/bathing-in-age-of-extravagance-make.html Although usually meant for women, there was nothing in principal preventing men from slathering on some home-made preparation to calm their skin.
The later eighteenth century, however, saw things begin to change. The disappearance of beards meant that shaving was not only more common, but was beginning to be done by individuals, as well as the barber. The appearance of new, sharper types of steel razor made this a more comfortable experience. But it also gave rise to a new market. Whilst razor makers saw opportunities in targeting men who shaved themselves, perfumers and hairdressers jumped on the bandwagon and started to puff their own products for young shavers.
In 1752 Richard Barnard of Temple Bar claimed to be the inventor of the ‘True original shaving powder’. A rival powder, advertised the same year by J. Emon, claimed to ‘make razors cut easy and [was] very good for tender faces’. The perfumer Charles Lillie’s 1744 advertisements for ‘Persian (or Naples) soap’ claimed to be extremely useful in soothing smarting skin after shaving, while others like ‘Paris Pearl Water’ was claimed to freshen men’s skin and brighten their complexion. Perhaps the most exotic sounding was “Elenora’s Lavo Cream” advertised in 1801, which was ‘particularly agreeable to Gentlemen after shaving, as it cools and heals the remaining heats’.
There was, however, a delicate balancing act to male toilet. On the one hand was the need to conform to expectations of polite manliness. Neatness of appearance, elegance, a smooth, open countenance and a grasp of etiquette and manners were all expected of the polite gentleman. On the other, there were fears that British men were slipping into effeminacy, too affected by Frenchified fashions and adopted airs. Overuse of cosmetics was satirised in cartoons of the extreme form of eighteenth-century manhood – the Macaroni, or Fop. Interestingly though, shaving was strongly connected with masculinity and manly self-control. It was part of the expected conduct of a gentleman; a little bit of cream to soothe delicate features was perfectly acceptable.
Fast forward to the 1850s, though, and beards were back with a vengeance. Given that Victorian men were sporting huge crops of beard en masse, the concept of aftershave might seem to have been redundant. It is worth remembering though (thinking of the current beard trend) that for all the beard wearers there were probably still many who preferred to shave. In fact, even at the height of the beard movement a number of aftershave lotions and scents were available.
(Glasgow Herald, 7th June 1852)
From the 1820s right through the rest of the century, a popular product was Rowland’s Kalydor, advertised widely in various newspapers and publications. A variety of testimonials accompanied the advertisement. “One of our first physicians, sixty years of age, whose face was in a continual state of inflammation, so as to render shaving impossible, has been entirely cured and is much gratified’. Other types of product were available; an advert in the Literary Digest heralded a particular brand of talcum powder which ‘positively won’t show white on the face’, making you ‘feel cool fresh and clean’.
Some played upon the popularity of science to claim the efficacy of their products. ‘Carter’s Botanic Shaving Soap’ was supposedly the ‘result of many years study and practical experiment’ by its creator, and advertisements played on its neutralisation of alkalis (which ‘made shaving a torture to all who have a delicate and tender skin’).
(More associated with mouthwash today, Listerine was originally used as shaving lotion. Image from WWW.Kilmerhouse.com)
The ingredients in some preparations contained tried and tested ingredients like glycerine to soothe the face. ‘Cherry Laurel lotion’ containing distilled cherry laurel water, rectified spirit, glycerine and distilled water, ‘used to allay irritation of the skin, particularly after shaving’. Others included ‘Lotion Prussic Acid’ and the equally unattractive-sounding ‘essence of bitter almonds’. The problem with these particular substances was the ingredients. Both, according to an 1873 study of cosmetics by Arnold Cooley, contained the deadly potassium cyanide – and made worse by the fact that the liquids apparently tasted very pleasant. Cooley suggested that both products should correctly be labelled ‘Poison’!
By way of conclusion it’s worth mentioning that aftershaves have been blamed for all manner of ills. In 1963, a GP (Dr B.E. Finch from London) wrote to the British Medical Journal, noting that several patients (mostly young men) had reported symptoms of dizziness after shaving, similar to “slight intoxication, similar to that which occurs after imbibing an alcoholic drink”. On further investigation Finch found this to be a common occurrence, and theorized that alcohol-based aftershaves were being absorbed through the shaven skin, causing mild intoxication. A reply in the following month’s edition suggested that, due to the highly volatile nature of those liquids, it was more likely the fumes than the absorption that were causing the problem!
Last month saw the publication of my new book, Technology, Self-Fashioning and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Refined Bodies (London: Palgrave, 2015). By way of introducing it, I thought I’d write a post to introduce some of its main themes.
The eighteenth century saw dramatic changes in attitudes towards bodily alteration. Once, impaired bodies were viewed as a fait accompli, their owners condemned forever to endure whatever vagaries God or Nature had seen fit to send. In the early part of the century, debates raged about the dangers of pride and vanity, as well as the morality of trying to interfere with God’s work. But by the mid 1750s there were changes in attitudes. Where once managing appearance, including treating deformities and visible impairments, symbolised vanity and pride, new enlightened themes like ‘improvement’, self-control and mastery made conquering the body a noble and justifiable endeavour.
At the same time as these broader social and cultural changes, new technologies in metallurgy opened up a range of possibilities for products aimed at shaping the body. What might be termed ‘technologies of the body’ proliferated. These encompassed everything from large apparatus for altering bodily shape, posture and gait, as well the smallest, quotidian items of personal grooming such as tweezers and nail nippers. In some cases new technologies transformed the design of instruments; in others, it was the instruments themselves that took on important new meanings as vectors through which individuals could aspire to changing ideals of the body.
This was the age of ‘politeness’, where ‘polite’ manners and behaviours were entwined with the ownership of the right goods, wearing of the right clothes and attendance of the right social events. Whilst conversation, education and manners were essential to early conceptions of polite behaviours, appearance and form were also important. In this sense dress, appearance and adornment acted as vectors to project politeness onto the body. Could, however, politeness extend to the bodily fabric itself?
(‘The Art of Dancing, 1724)
Some like the Swiss physician Samuel Tissot thought so, and he dedicated an entire chapter to ‘disorders most frequent in people of fashion’ and drew a distinction between the hardy body of the labourer, through its constant exposure to the harsh elements, versus the somewhat slight, fey body of the gentleman. If this latter was physically slighter, however, it was also delicate and refined.
While contemporaries never directly referred directly to bodies as being polite, they did acknowledge the role and importance of the body in articulating it. An essay on the characteristics of politeness in the Universal Magazine in 1775 argued that it was a holistic concept governing not only ‘temper of mind and tenour of conduct’ but bodily appearance, posture and mien. A polite gentleman (the essay was addressed to men) should embody the posture of a fencer, the gait of a dancer, the ear of a musician and the mind of a philosopher. Such a person ‘walks by rules of art, dictated by nature’.
But as well as being informed by politeness, other characteristics were prized. Neatness, elegance and harmony of appearance, were central in conveying inner character and sensibility. The body’s surfaces should be kept neat, clean, plucked and shaved. For both sexes the removal of facial hair and management of facial features such as eyebrows showed fastidiousness and a desire to create a body that was socially pleasing. As attitudes towards the smile changed, management of the teeth became important. Likewise, as the appearance of hands was held to imply character and breeding, the care of hands, especially fingernails, was vital.
But Nature was also at the heart of debates about bodily form. Some saw it as a body closest to the state of nature, in the bodies of the poor, or inhabitants or far-flung nations whose bodies had been untouched by artificial devices. Indeed, some even saw viewed interference with, or alteration of, the body as inherently unnatural. This was reinforced by the twisted and bent bodies caused through over zealous use of trusses, bandages and stays. On the other hand, much effort was expended in attempting to ‘correct’, conceal or otherwise give the illusion of a ‘natural’ form – a claim made by the makers of many postural devices. Paradoxically, therefore, a ‘natural’ body often required unnatural means to achieve.
Central to the question of technologies is the role of steel. Technological innovations between the 1680s and 1740s made steel an increasingly abundant and important good, but also a component in the fashioning of a new, refined self. While crucible (or cast) steel is understood as an innovative industrial process, its uses are rarely considered. Yet steel was vital for some of the most personal rituals of everyday life. It was the metal with which people had the closest, even the most intimate, physical contact.
Cast steel’s physical properties allowed people, for example, to fashion their bodies in new ways, to reflect changing ideals of bodily shape and form. A range of corrective devices was available to correct posture, utilising the tensile strength of steel. Visible deformity and disability were not only uncomfortable to the sufferer, but carried pejorative connotations that left the ‘crooked’ open to ridicule. If there was an ideal human form it was generally straight, erect and symmetrical. Whilst the treatment of hernias had brought about the introduction of a range of elastic and steel trusses, the period also witnessed a burgeoning market for devices to improve posture. These included items worn within or underneath clothing, such as back ‘monitors’, large metal plates inserted into clothing. Steel collars thrust the chin upwards to give the illusion of a straight posture. But there were other more radical treatment, such as ‘neck swings’. These involved locking the patient’s head into a steel apparatus, and suspending them off the ground, where they would remain dangling for hours at a time. These were even available for people to use in their own homes.
One of the primary audiences for such devices was children whose parents, recognising the social limitations arising from deformity, were keen to mould the bodies of their offspring into an acceptable form. In the name of fashion, children’s bodies were trussed, bandaged, bound, calipered and twisted. Adults were also prepared to take steps to intervene in the shaping of their own bodies. As advertisements from the manufacturers of postural devices attest, a new domestic market was emerging, which targeted individuals who sought to ‘treat’ themselves without recourse to a medical practitioner.
Neatness and elegance of appearance were exemplified in the face and, in particular the vogue for shaving, and the almost total disappearance of facial hair from men’s faces. New types of steel razors were instrumental in this process. Where once the barber had been the sole provider of shaving services, the period saw men beginning to shave themselves. Razor makers took advantage of newspaper advertising space to puff their new products, using both the language and imagery of polite consumption, but also foregrounding their metallurgical expertise in manufacturing. The use of cast steel in razors became a selling point, along with references to the scientific and philosophical credentials of the manufacturer.
(Trade card of Holmes and Laurie, London Truss Makers, author’s image)
Personal grooming was growing in importance in the broader context of the eighteenth century obsession with the body beautiful. As increasing attention was paid to the minutiae of appearance, so different parts and surfaces of the body came to prominence, as did the instruments used to transform them. Regarded by the orthopaedic specialist Nicholas Andry as the ‘Principal organs of touch’, hands and fingernails were seen as important symbols of beauty and virtue. Mangled and bitten nails were hardly aesthetically pleasing. The old fashioned way was to pare nails with a penknife – a process that could be dangerous, and caused several deaths!
New types of nail nippers were safer, and began to carry more ornate designs, belying their quotidian function. On the face, the most public of bodily surfaces, eyebrows were seen as barometers of character, and tweezers to maintain them were important items of toilette. It is interesting to note that 18th-century tweezers often included ear spoons for digging out unsightly wax, combining two grooming routines into one. As changing attitudes towards the smile rendered the teeth more visible, toothpicks and brushes were also essential pieces of kit. All could be purchased in kit form and could be hung on elaborate and delicate chatelaines about the person, making them at once public and private goods.
Spectacles offer a different outlook on the public projection of the polite self. Steel-framed spectacles, for example, began to appear around the mid eighteenth century, makers such as Benjamin Martin and James Ayscough utilised the springy strength of steel to transform the design of spectacles from their traditional armless Pince Nez design, to a new form with side arms that used pressure to stay tightly adhered to the wearer’s temples. Martin’s new ‘Martin’s Margins’ spectacles, introduced around 1760, could be highly polished to give a pleasing appearance, whilst other sorts of ‘wig spectacles’ were designed to help myopic macaronis attend society functions in comfort and safety. As spectacles became more decorous they also became more public. The growth of reading and coffee house culture placed spectacles at the heart of intellectual debate. Vision and sight exemplified the quest for knowledge. Once a symbol of deficiency, whilst never becoming desirable items of fashion, spectacles shook off pejorative connections and became connected with learning, sagacity and the enlightened search for knowledge through reading and ‘seeing’ the world.
At all points, objects were playing a significant part in the purposeful management of the body. Some important questions must be raised, however. First, if there was some understanding of a polite body ideal, then how widespread was it? Was it an elite, metropolitan phenomenon? The problem with nearly all of the routines discussed here is that individuals seldom discuss them. In the normal run of things there would be little need to write down how well you shaved, plucked your eyebrows or how comfy your brand new Martin’s Margins specs were. The limited evidence available suggests that devices were available across Britain – and not just in major towns. Second, though, to what social depth did it apply? Again, evidence is lacking, but if we consider debates about emulation, there is little to suggest that bodily refinement was merely the preserve of elites. What may be different are the social and public contexts of the body across different levels of society.
The eighteenth century was an age when bodily technologies proliferated. But cultural and religious shifts also meant that intervening to alter the shape of the bodily characteristics that God had bestowed on a person was no longer taboo. As new corporeal ideals were defined, people had both the motivation and the means to transform their own bodies, through the introduction of cast steel. If this was the age of the body beautiful, however, it was also a time when the body was a site of transformation.