The History Of Shaving

The History Of Shaving

Eradicating unwanted body hair is no new phenomenon; in fact, it has been part and parcel of human hygiene since the dawn of history


The History Of Shaving

Eradicating unwanted body hair is no new phenomenon; in fact, it has been part and parcel of human hygiene since the dawn of history. It is believed that as far back as 4,000 B.C., women were using dangerous substances like quicklime and arsenic to get rid of the fuzz.

Shaving in the Stone Age

Early man is depicted as a vagabond, with excess body hair. During the winter of our last Ice Age, facial hair was considered a liability because once wet, it would hold water against the skin until frozen and expedite the onset of frostbite. To remove the stubble, early man is believed to have started pulling out the hair approximately 100,000 years ago, using mainly seashells and tweezers (basis cave painting depictions). As far back as 30,000 B.C., flint blades are believed to have been the first razors used because of their sharp edges. 60,000 years hence, man advanced from pulling and plucking to actually shaving using clam shell shards and flakes of obsidian.

As mentioned earlier, the first depilatory creams – used mainly by women – were made from substances like arsenic, quicklime, and starch, and made their appearance around 3000 B.C. Once the agricultural revolution set in, metal blades slowly appeared on the scene.

Shaving in Egypt

In the fourth century B.C., Greek historian Herodotus (485 – 425 B.C.) noted that Egyptians ‘set cleanliness above seemliness’ by bathing multiple times in a day and maintaining a strict regimen of shaving their entire bodies clean, from head to toe.

The reason for this comes as no surprise – Egypt is an extremely hot, and living along the Nile River, covered in body hair, is not anywhere close to tolerable. Further, long body hair can nest pests and diseases; and given the general lack of medicine during that time, going bald was a safer, more hygienic alternative. Over time, hair removal was associated with the ‘superior’ Egyptian civilization while the lower rungs of society like barbarians (one theory posits that the term barbarian actually comes from ‘barba,’ meaning ‘beard;’ hence, those who didn’t shave or were ‘unbarbered’ were labelled ‘barbarians’), slaves, peasants, mercenaries, and criminals sported body hair.

To eliminate the fuzz, Egyptians applied depilatory creams and repeatedly rubbed with a pumice stone to remove all traces of hair. Archaeologists have discovered circular bronze razors and hatch-shaped ‘rotary’ blades in many burial sites, for use in the afterlife.

Given the unforgiving Egyptian desert heat, the Egyptians sported wigs designed to maximise airflow over the scalp while simultaneously protecting their skin from the harsh rays of the sun. Going bald in public and growing facial hair were still frowned upon, though. A full-bearded man was considered more masculine than a clean shaven one. But as with the hair on their heads, many Egyptians preferred false beards – a telling reason of why every Pharaoh, including the female ones, are depicted wearing false beards in the hieroglyphic record.

Shaving in Rome

By the fourth century B.C., the practice of hair removal had made its way north to Greece and Rome. A small reason for the move can be attributed to Alexander the Great’s order that his troops shave off their locks, so that the enemy never had anything to grab on to during combat.
Alexander’s indirect endorsement of shaving promptly made the practice socially acceptable – and not only that, shaving had now become a fashion statement! In the years that followed, the original circular razor design pioneered by the Egyptians transformed into a form almost identical to the razors in the market today. Not only the shape, but the construction of the razor also advanced from dull bronze to copper and iron. After swiping the razor blade – known as novacila – the Romans would rub the stubble off with pumice stones and massage perfumes and oils into the skin.
Although shaving became a trend after Alexander’s endorsement, it quickly integrated itself into Roman society – barbershops or ‘tonsors’ sprung up and were not only places where one could get a shave, but also a local meeting place, where gossip and news could be exchanged. If you were rich enough, you could even get yourself a household barber.

Shaving in the Middle Ages

Come the Middle Ages, shaving saw a slight dip although it remained popular for reasons entirely different from those of the Romans. After the Catholic church split from the Eastern Orthodox in 1054, Western church leaders encouraged shaving among its clergy in order to distinguish its members from their Jewish and Muslim counterparts. This was later put into canonical law in 1096, when the Archbishop of Rouen banned beards altogether, save for the Crusaders in the Holy Land.

Shaving, however, continued to remain popular amongst women in the Middle Ages, who followed the example of Queen Elizabeth I. The Queen had started the trend of tweezing the eyebrows to elongate the forehead, but left everything below the neck untouched.

The first modern safety blades

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It wasn’t until much later, in the late 18th century, that razors saw a change in form, becoming more sharp, exposed slabs of metal. Before the 18th century, razors were considered specialised professional tools that everybody visited barbershops for.

It was French inventor Jean-Jacques Perret who finally invented the world’s first safety razor by installing a wooden guard onto a standard straight razor, thus bringing shaving to the bathroom. The design underwent many alterations, and in the early 19th century, the razor morphed into a modern Sheffield straight razor that featured a rotating guard doubled as a handle. In 1880, the Kampfe brothers patented and marketed the world’s very first safety razor that incorporated a wire guard along the edge of the blade along with a lather-catching head.

King C. Gillette and his replaceable cartridges

The problem with the Kampfe brothers’ invention was that the razor head needed to be routinely removed from the handle and sharpened on a wet stone. But instead of this, why not just get a new razor head altogether? This was the idea taken forward by a travelling salesman, King C. Gillette, in 1895. After 8 long years, and with the help of MIT professor William Nickerson, the first modern, double-edged safety razor took shape. By 1906, Gillette was selling over 300,000 razors a year and a US Army contract that supplied every WWI American soldier with a Gillette safety razor in his DOP kit only served to cement the Gillette brand name.

A decade later, Gillette was a household name and Gillette razors were ubiquitous, with Gillette becoming a generic term for razors. But this was still restricted to gents thus far.

Rapidly changing social norms of the time soon saw women exposing more skin above the ankle and wrist. In May of 1915, a leading magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, ran an advertisement featuring a young model in a sleeveless, slip-like dress with her arms raised and armpits bare.This ad, although seemingly benign, came with a strong message – the time had come for women to remove ‘objectionable’ hair.Up until this point, depilatory creams were the defacto method of hair removal for ladies. This changed in 1915, when Gillette designed its first razor specifically designed for women – the Milady Decolletée.

Although the underarms had been tackled, the leg shaving phenomenon took a while to catch on. In the 1920s, flappers brought with them a decade of much shorter hemlines. This meant that a lot more of a woman’s legs were exposed, with many fashion and beauty writers putting unshaven leg hair on par with leprosy and calling it a ‘curse.’ Because legs were considered ‘private’ body parts back then, many women were apprehensive about shaving them because of the kind of social shame it would bring upon their characters.

Upon the onset of WWII, the iconic pin-up picture of Betty Grable was advertised, and soon enough, the leg shaving wave caught on, with hordes of American women shaving their legs to emulate Grable’s look.

Being, for the most part, a manual razor manufacturer, Gillette wasn’t involved with the emergence of the electric razor in the 1920s and only saw a technological breakthrough in 1960, when its engineers perfected the production of stainless steel blades. Unlike most other blades thus far, which would rust almost instantly, these blades remained sharp and oxide-free for multiple uses. This, in turn, led to the invention of the first proper disposable razor – a tool which could be thrown away as soon as the blades got dull.

In 1971, Gillette introduced its first two-blade razor, the Trac II. This multi-blade approach was revolutionary as it reduced the number of strokes needed to eradicate the hair, which in turn led to lesser skin irritation.

Jacob Schick and the electric razor

While Gillette was producing its age-defining razors, Jacob Schick, a retired Army colonel, was busy patenting his own design – an electric razor that consisted of a cutting head that was driven by a handled motor, connected by a flexible rotating shaft.

His first invention flopped in the market because of its unwieldy design, but for his second attempt, he dropped the flexible shaft and replaced it with a smaller motor inline behind the cutting head, thus consolidating the mechanism into a single sleek device. This model did fabulously well, and by 1937, Schick had sold 1.5 million of them and pried open the new $20 million ‘dry shave’ market.

The long and short of it

Since the 1940s, hair removal technology has continued its evolution, with waxing strips and laser hair removal both debuting in the mid-1960s (although laser technology was swapped in favour of electrolysis, a process wherein a very fine heat probe is used to destroy the hair follicle, after which the hair is tweezed out).

Despite all the body hair removal methods available in the market today, shaving still retains its position as the quickest, safest, easiest, and cheapest option available.

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