The Ultimate History (and Future) of Shaving

Like other modifications to one’s outside appearance, the choice to shave and develop a beard has had an important role in male fashion and self-representation throughout history. Ancient shaving techniques, which relied on dull blades, required painful plucking and exfoliation to get any kind of clean-shaven look, meaning men generally preferred to let their beards grow. But as shaving has become safer and easier thanks to 20th-century razor advances and development, men are much more likely to partake in a daily shave..

However, shaving isn’t just about appearance. It’s been a practice for survival, cultural identity, religious practice, and, nowadays, personal identity and self-branding. This article will take a look at the development of shaving practices and the razor, as well as improvements and shaving trends that we can look forward to in the future.

Shaving in Ancient Times

The art of shaving has long been a part of culture and self-identity. Of course, looks aren’t the only factor. The earliest shaving innovations were rudimentary and developed for survival.

For example, in the stone age, men plucked out their beards using clam shells and other objects used as pincers. This was needed as protection from ice accumulating against the skin and causing frostbite.

But evidence of shaving has been found dating all the way back to 30,000 BC. Specifically, we have found cave paintings that depict beardless men that may have removed their hair using clam shells or flint blades. Either of these tools would grow blunt with repeated use, causing them to be frequently dulled and needing replacement, much like the disposable razors on the market today.

Ancient Egypt

Shaving in ancient Egypt was considered necessary for good hygiene, and, in fact, many of the beards sported around ancient Egypt was were actually wigs. Copper and bronze razors, with circular or hatch-shaped rotary blades, have been found in Egyptian burial chambers as early as 3000 BC.

Ancient Egyptians also used sharpened stone blades that were set into wooden handles. This was a sophisticated tool similar to early versions of what we now call the safety razor, which we’ll see more of later. Pumice stones used to rub away finer hairs have also been found throughout Egypt.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Shaving in ancient times took on particular importance in Greece and Rome, since the ability to grow a beard was celebrated as a rite of manhood and as an indicator of civic duty. 

However, due to the culturally fragmented nature of classical Greece, many different attitudes regarding beards arose. For example, cutting a man’s beard against his will was a shaming action used after battle, but in other parts of Greece, barbers set up shop in the agora (town square) to shave men with sharpened blades. 

Most notably, Alexander the Great made it a common practice for Greek soldiers to shave their beards, since having a beard was a liability during battle; it gave another soldier the opportunity to grab their face.

In ancient Rome, the first shave a man received was considered a rite of passage referred to as the tonsura. It was common for Romans to shave and pluck their hair as well as attend barbers. Similar to the Greeks who groomed in the agora, and even to modern cultures who use, barbers in ancient Rome were a local meeting place. Through much of the history of ancient Rome, particularly as it was under the influence of Julius Caesar and again under Emperor Augustus, who promoted strong family values, it became a point of civic duty to be clean-shaven. It was even important at this point to take care of stubble using pumice stones.

Around 100 AD, the Hellenophile Emperor Hadrian brought beards back into fashion. Beard fashion continued to fluctuate as Christianity came to Europe, making the practice of shaving extremely important among the clergy and for some Christian groups, while others preferred the asceticism of growing beards. Many Protestants rebelled against the clean-shaven Catholics by wearing beards. Beard fashion within Medieval and Renaissance courts depended on the fashion of whoever was in charge at the time.

Enlightened Refinement of the Art of Shaving

Strong shaving trends picked up again in the Enlightenment and Early Modern Era (~15th-18th century)  as Enlightenment philosophy played a part in informing culture, while steel-edged straight razors offered an increased level of safety to daily shaving rituals. For example, cast steel also allowed for longer-lasting blades, and strops became a part of the practice. Furthermore, advertising enabled a market for shaving cosmetics, creams, and powders. 

The 18th c. was a society of courtesy and manners that advocated for clean-shaven profiles, since shaving was considered polite, whereas beards drew attention to an individual’s masculinity through a strong association with the pubic region and physical waste.

The 19th c., on the other hand, saw a widespread beard revival due to an imitation of the Victorian military-style mustache, indicating exploration and virility. Since men were often unable to shave while on adventures, beards became a sign of the adventuring spirit as well. At this point, we also start seeing ads addressed to gentlemen who shave themselves as opposed to visiting a barber. These men most commonly used a straight razor along with the strop, lather, and brush that we associate with traditional wet shaving. We also see other tools emerge at this time, including powders, aftershave, and beard waxes to keep beard styles in place.

The Enlightenment trend of self-fashioning extended to an early fluency in visual signifiers of self-identity. The way one dressed, groomed themselves, and interacted with others was an intentional reflection of who they were. This is a relatable concept to our age, where we find ourselves aware of the effects and influences of personal brand. The Victorians, in particular, were grooming themselves with the idea of self-presentation as well, albeit in their case there were fewer niches and a more limited grounds for influence, due to a more limited class structure and fewer cultural subgroups. 

The Invention of the Razor

Large-scale razor manufacturing began in 1680 with the steel-edged ‘cut-throat’ straight razor, which was manufactured in Sheffield, England. Steel straight razors were the most common throughout the 19th century. This was a step up from the medieval razors which resembled small axes. Nonetheless, other innovations were just beginning, particularly the safety razor.

The Safety Razor

In 1770, Jean-Jacques Perret wrote The Art of Learning to Shave Oneself (La Pogontomie). Around the same time, the Perret razor was invented. This razor had a wood guard that both held the blade and prevented deep cuts. The Perret blade is seen as a step towards the invention of the safety razor.

However, the development of the safety razor that we now have has gone through a few stages since the 19th c. While not yet called a ‘safety razor’, its first form was developed by William S. Henson in 1847. It was a double-edged safety blade with a “hoe”-type shape, resembling a garden tool with a blade perpendicular to its handle. This blade reduced the need for skill in order to get a close shave. Thirty-three years later, in 1880, the Kampfe brothers patented a “Safety Razor” that coined the term and offered additional safety clips.

The real innovation to the safety razor came close to the turn of the century when King Gillette, at the time a traveling salesman, invented disposable razor blades in 1895. Then, in 1904, with the help of MIT professor William Nickerson, he was able to develop a safety razor compatible with replaceable blades. This invention allowed the safety razor to become a much more desirable option, since it was easy to discard and replace the blade once it dulled or began to rust. It also made for a simpler process than the straight razor, which requires stropping and honing. 

Unfortunately, the average disposable blade for a safety razor would often rust after a single use or two, making them prohibitively expensive for many. But in 1960, manufacturing began making blades using stainless steel which allowed the razor blades to be useful for multiple shaves before needing to be discarded. This innovation greatly increased the sales of safety razors, and stainless steel became the primary metal for producing razor blades from then on.

The Electric Razor

The next major innovation in the history of shaving was the electric razor, which was first developed by Jacob Schick in 1928. This first electric razor was called the ‘Magazine Repeating Razor,’ since it was based on the design of repeating firearms. The blades were sold in clips and loaded into the razor. This early electric razor was essentially a cutting head attached to a handheld motor. The motor and razor were connected by a flexible rotating shaft.

Unfortunately, this invention hit markets at the same time as the stock market crash of 1929, which prevented the Schick electric razor from going mainstream.But in the meantime, Schick opened a factory and refined his electric razor model, creating the ‘Injector Razor,’ which was a sleeker, smaller, device that’s responsible for creating the dry shave market.

The electric razor gained notable success in the 1940s due to its ability to make shaving fast and easy for those requiring a daily shave. Norelco took over the Schick operations in 1981 and continues to make razors today.

Cartridge and Disposable Razors

In 1971, Gillette continued to lead the pack in razor innovation by inventing cartridge razors. The first model was called the Trac II, a two-blade cartridge clip that hooked onto a more permanent razor handle. Cartridge razors are the most common kind of razor in use today. The benefit is the ability to get a close and safe shave at the same time with razor heads that can be replaced at relatively low expense. As innovations continued to make life easier for consumers, the next major innovation came in 1975 when BIC made the inexpensive disposable razor for quick travel and tight budgets.

Each of these razor innovations have been fine-tuned, refined, and improved in our modern age, allowing for even greater luxury when it comes to safety and close shaves, no matter which shaving method you choose.

Modern Shaving and the Modern Razor

 

The current market offers diverse options for shaving implements and tools from past to present, including straight, safety, electric, and cartridge. The dry shaving market, using electric shavers for quick, daily routines, is also still going strong, and the wet shaving market has also been on the rise, since many find it offers a more comfortable and closer shaving experience at a lower cost.

Contemporary Cartridge Razors

Among the top-selling razors in modern shaving are multiple blade cartridge razors. While Gillette’s original Trac II razor was a two-blade razor, premium contemporary cartridges generally offer 5-6 blades per cartridge. More blades will often mean a closer shave with about 30 shaves per cartridge.

More blades do lead to a closer shave. However, the efficacy of shaving is more reliant on technique than the number of blades. Nonetheless, multiple blade technology allows a closer shave because the razors are able to cut just below the skin’s surface without breaking it.

The first blade is blunt, allowing it to hook the hair above the surface for the sharper second blade to slice. Any additional blades repeat the process, performing cleanup duty for the hairs left behind. Once the blade passes, the hair returns below the skin. Modern cartridge razors also have features and innovations such as lubricating strips, indicators of how worn a cartridge is, swiveling heads to adjust for curves, and comfort edges to give additional safety.

Razors with many blades can reduce the likelihood of razor burn, since razor burn tends to be a side effect of a rough or dull blade. However, some dermatologists attest to the opposite, saying that more blades mean more chances for nicks and razor burn. The best thing to do in this case is to discard your razor’s blades or cartridges once they are past their prime.

Contemporary Electric Razors

Modern electric shavers may have a high starting cost, but they last on average twenty years. These come in two main categories, foil razors and rotary razors. Electric razors are most often recommended to men with curly beards or those prone to ingrown hairs. This is because they don’t give a close enough shave for ingrown hairs to take place, which is a benefit when the main cause of ingrown hairs is hair that’s sliced at an angle below the skin.

Modern foil razors follow a similar design as Jaco Schick’s 1923 original. It has oscillating blades that move back and forth. While not suited to the face’s curves and contours, foil shavers excel in offering a closer shave than their rotary rivals. Technological advancement in this case is measured in micro vibrations per minute. The higher the micro vibrations, the quicker the shave.

Rotary head trimmers were introduced by Phillips in the 1960s. Each of the three discs on the razor head has a spinning razor within it. Rotary heads have a bit of flex and pivot allowing them to fit the form of your face as your shave.

Innovation for electric shavers include making them compatible with wet shaving, allowing users to apply shaving cream in conjunction with the electric razor. The major innovation in electric shavers has to do with battery life. Modern electric shavers have a very quick charge time, emphasizing just how optimized they are for convenience.

The Wet Shaving Comeback

In 2005, Corey Greenberg appeared on The Today Show to extol the virtues of the double-edged safety razor, sparking a strong exposure for the wet shaving revival. Additionally, the Badger & Blade website, named for the badger brush and razor wet shaving implements, began offering an online community for wet shaving tools and discussions. 

For many, the wet shaving revival began as a response to the steep price of cartridge razor systems with the Gillette Fusion razor. Other reasons include tradition, effectiveness, ability to avoid ingrown hairs, enjoyability of the experience, and sustainability and environmental concerns. This trend brought back the prevalence of the double-edged safety razor, and, for an enthusiastic and brave niche, straight razors as well.

Of course, some budget-minded individuals are returning to the double-edged safety razor due to its lower cost when compared with the contemporary cartridge razor. Each razor may last only a week, but replacement blades can be purchased for pennies.

Straight razors are making a comeback as well, fulfilling a niche consumer desire for skillful, artisanal and analog goods that allows individuals to interact with the history of their tools and practices. 

One appealing aspect of using straight razors in the modern world are their  long-lasting nature. Indeed, most are designed to last a lifetime, and many heirloom straight razors function as if still in their prime. They don’t need replacement parts and will keep a sharp edge as long as they are honed and maintained. Furthermore, the straight razor requires a full wet-shaving ritual.

The Future of Shaving

Shaving innovations for the future are trending toward increasing environmental sustainability with all natural shaving soaps, beard oils, and razors that reduce packaging or throwaway waste. One example of hi-tech innovations include razor blade dryers. Razor dryers make sure that the razor is dry of any residual water after each shave. Doing this preserves the blades from oxidizing and rusting before they become dull. This allows the blade to last longer.

Beards have become popular in the last few years, and in some cases, they’re here to stay. One expectation surrounding contemporary beards is the need to maintain them with a groomed and put-together appearance. This means that even the scruffy lumberjack look is redeveloping into a carefully maintained styled or shaped beard. In this case, trimming and careful edge maintenance using specialised beard trimmers are important to the shaving process.

However, clean shaving remains popular. Due to the increased convenience and safety brought on by the shaving innovations of the past few decades, daily shaving is seen as lower maintenance in some cases than cultivating a beard.

Nonetheless, shaving trends continue to be linked to social groups, cultural significance and identification, and religious contexts. Increasingly, shaving choices are strongly linked to an individual’s image, including one’s sense of personal style, personal brand, and expression.

Bibliography

“History of Shaving.” Modern Gent, www.moderngent.com/history_of_shaving/history_of_shaving.php.

“The History of Shaving and Beards.” Old Farmer’s Almanac, Yankee Publishing Inc.: www.almanac.com/content/history-shaving-and-beards.

“The History of Shaving: Rituals, Razors and Revolution.” The English Shaving Company, 18 June 2018: www.theenglishshavingcompany.com/blog/history-of-shaving/.

Tarantola, Andrew. “A Nick in Time: How Shaving Evolved Over 100,000 Years of History.” Gizmodo, Gizmodo.com, 18 Mar. 2014: https://gizmodo.com/a-nick-in-time-how-shaving-evolved-over-100-000-years-1545574268

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