A Little Bit of Shaving History
Down the generations and through the centuries we have developed a rich culture of shaving and rituals surrounding shaving but where did it begin, and what is the history of shaving? There has been many superstitions surrounding shaving, it has been believed that people can be bewitched by their hair clippings, to this day in countries such as Benin and Togo these beliefs still exist with people still taking cuttings of their enemy’s hair to have them cursed.
In previous generations and in different cultures the privilege of hair cutting was designated to a priest or medicine man. Irish peasantry used to believe that hair cuttings needed to be burned or buried so no evil spirits would haunt the individual. American Indians thought hair had a vital connection to the body and if anybody possessed it they could work their will on the owner. Roman judges ordered the hair of Christian martyrs cut before putting them to death because of the belief unshaven long haired people possessed magic.
Through the generations shaving has come in and out of fashion, it has also been affected by religions. The beard has often been seen as a sign of manhood, among Jewish people it has been considered an outrage to cut off another mans beard. Many Muslims see it as an outward sign of faith. Sikhs are not supposed to cut their beards or hair hence the turbans. With Christians the clergy were encouraged to shave their beards. There are of course, countless other reasons and pressures religions have placed on the length of beards and hair.
When did shaving begin?
Shaving was popular with the majority of the ancient Macedonian population before being spread to Egypt, all eastern countries including China and to the Mediterranean Romans where Julius Caesar compelled his solders to cut off their beards as had Alexander the great. Later Peter the Great actually imposed a tax on beards and in so doing practically made shaving compulsory.
The Egyptians adopted shaving due to their obsession with hygiene and it helped that the priests of the time believed body hair to be associated with barbarians and animals, it was deemed unclean and even shameful. It wasn’t just the preserve of men and women, even children of Egypt removed hair using pumice stones. Being totally bald was also a great way to keep clean, odour free and cool. No hair also kept Egyptians cooler and led to less lice, fleas and infections as bugs had nowhere to live.
During the 4th Century BC, Alexander the Great also encouraged shaving as he liked to have tidy subjects and it also stopped his enemies grabbing his soldiers beards during battle. In Rome Julius Caesar was said to have had his beard plucked with a pair of tweezers, which kind of makes you glad the razor was invented.
The rise and fall of Barber-Surgeons during the middle ages
The barbers in the middle ages not only practiced shaving, haircutting and hair dressing, but also dressed wounds and performed surgical operations, this is why they were called barber-surgeons. Much of the barbers experience was acquired from the monks, whom they assisted in the practise of surgery and medicine. The barber-surgeons became quite numerous when Pope Alexander III forbade the clergy to shed blood in surgical operations.
To protect themselves, the Barbers’ Company of London was organised in the thirteenth century. The object of the trade guild was to regulate the profession for the benefit of its members. Among the regulations passed was that no barber was to keep more than four apprentices in his establishment.
The company of barbers was ruled by a Master, and consisted of two classes of barbers, those who practised barbering and those who specialised in surgery. Under Edward III, the barbers made a complaint against unskilled practitioners in surgery. As a result, the court chose two Masters to inspect and rule the guild and give examinations to test the skill of applicants.
The sign of the barber-surgeon consisted of a striped pole from which was suspended a basin: the fillet around the pole indicated the bandage twisted around the arms previous to blood-letting and the basin the vessel for receiving the blood, blue the veins, and white the bandage. This sign, without the basin, has generally been retained by barbers to this day.
Beside the Barbers’ Guild, there was also a Surgeons’ Guild in England. There is reason to believe that competition and antagonism existed between these two organisations. In 1450, both groups were united by law for the purpose of fostering the science of surgery. A law was enacted that no one doing surgery should practise barbering and that no barber should practise any surgery except the pulling of teeth.
The long slumbering jealousy between the guilds soon reached a climax. The surgeons harboured a dislike for a system under which the diplomas were signed by governors, two of whom were always barbers. Finally in 1745 a bill was passed separating the barbers from the surgeons.
The barber- surgeons also flourished in France and Germany. In 1371, a corporation was organised for the French barber surgeons under the rule of the king’s barber. Wigs became so elaborate in the nineteenth century that a separate corporation of barbers was formed in France. These corporations were dissolved after the French revolution.
The Dutch and Swedish settlers in America took with them barber surgeons from their native countries to look after the well being of colonists, they both shaved and performed everyday medical and surgical procedures. There was also a barber surgeons corporation in Prussia, formed in 1779 and disbanded in 1809 when new unions were started.
The cut-throat or straight razor
The cut throat razor or straight razor was used from around the 13th century and isnotable because the blade folds into its handle. This straight razor needed a steady and well practised hand to weild and was usually the preserve of a skilled barber. The blade was kept in pristine and very sharp condition by the barbers who would sharpen or ‘hone’ it on a leather strap.
Traditional barber shops at the time were immensely popular and often had long queues build up by consumers looking for a close shave and a bit of pampering. The experience of sitting back in a leather chair having a hot towel sit on your face and being lathered up with a badger hair shaving brush is one not to be missed. And the trend seems to be returning as many towns and cities are seeing the re-emergence of modern barber shops offering a luxurious shave.
The safety razor
Things didnt get safe in the razor department until the late 19th century when in 1875 three German brothers, Frederick, Otto, and Richard Kampfe applied for a patent in New York City in the US for a single razor safety sold under the Star Safety Razor brand. Their shaver consisted of a razorblade placed in a box on the end of a handle which protruded slighly so the edge could be glided across the users face. The blade was removable so the blade could be sharpened or replaced.
That was followed with a patent submitted in 1901 by a man called King Camp Gillette for a double edge razor that is still used now. The battle between Gillette and the Kampfe brothers continued until Gillette managed to secure a 3.5 million safety razors contract with the United States army in World War I to keep the soldiers faces clean ready for gas mask wearing. After the War safety razors took off with the population and made Gillette a very rich man.