The art of shaving (if you will permit a loose interpretation of the word ‘art’) goes all the way back to the stone age, when our hunter-gatherer forebears began to make sharp edges from flint and to use other found items, including shark’s teeth and clamshells, to depilate themselves. I have read that this was done less for aesthetic purposes and more to control vermin (they had a now-defunct species of body lice that must have made for long nights), but, human nature being what it is, it seems likely that more than one Paleolithic gentleman wanted to stand out from his fully-bearded contemporaries. Using sharp flint to saw down or scrape away facial hair, as brutal as that sounds, had to feel better than yanking tufts out with crude pincers, which was also practiced. Please note that showing off one’s chin was almost certainly a Cro-Magnon monopoly, as Neanderthals didn’t have them.
The Egyptians made great improvements in the razor (some of which were fashioned from copper, or even solid gold!), used hot towels (Ahhh!), and developed an early form of waxing (Eek!), which may account for all the smooth faces and bodies pictured in hieroglyphs.
Noticing that beards made great handles by which to throw around your opponents, Alexander the Great forbade his Macedonian soldiers to wear them.
The shaving implement of the day was a novacila, an iron device that looked a bit like brass knuckles, but did marginally less damage.
Iron Novacila razor
The Romans, too, were avid shavers as early as 296 BC, and used pumice stones, the novacila, and depilatory creams.
Beards, for all of these civilizations, were for slaves and barbarians. Jews and, by the seventh century AD, Muslims, saw it the other way around. Leviticus forbids a man to even mar the corners of his beard, while Islamic teaching, observing that “The Jews and Christians do not dye their grey hairs,” advised “So you shall do the opposite.” Usually with henna.
In the middle ages and renaissance, beards came into and went out of fashion throughout Western Europe; The fourteen hundreds, for example, largely preferred bare chins (Henry the Seventh of England, Charles the Seventh of France); the next century, however, saw an enthusiastic resurgence of facial hair (Henry the Eighth of England, Francis the First of France). By the way, you can always tell what’s in vogue by looking at pictures of monarchs; do you think Elizabeth the first of England was the only lady to have done away with her eyebrows and plucked her hairline back to give her a prominent forehead? If you want favor from the sovereign (and who doesn’t?), you flatter him or her with imitation. By the mid-seventeenth century, thanks to Louis the Fourteenth (France’s ‘Sun King’) shaving was once again de rigeur. By the end of that century, Peter the Great so wanted Russia to emulate the civilized countries of the Age of Enlightenment that he instituted a tax on beards.
By the nineteenth century, European and American men of station wore beards again, as well as other configurations of facial hair, including Van Dycks, muttonchops, handlebar moustaches and sideburns; still, sculpting a beard demands a razor and, luckily, some innovation had occurred.
The nineteenth-century folding straight blade razor was a stylish and reliable tool that, in the hands of a skilled barber, left a gentleman’s face unharmed and very smooth.
Jean-Jacques Perret's 1762 first "safety" razor
What about the modern razor? In 1762, Jean-Jacques Perret developed the first ‘safety razor,’ which consisted of a wooden sleeve to limit the amount of blade that could be used. This didn’t seem to catch on. The hoe-shaped version of the razor, with which we are now familiar, had its first run in the middle of the century, and, by the dawn of the twentieth century, King Camp Gillette had figured out how to make razor blades disposable with razor cartridges. Why? Convenience and affordability. He became very wealthy, men and women saved some time in their morning routines, and the whole business got cheaper (at least on the front end). Modern militaries demand shaving less for melee purposes, and more because, starting with WWI, gas masks and other safety equipment make beards impractical (unless, of course, you’re a green beret trying to blend in with a bearded indigenous population).
By the end of the twentieth century, the whole razor had become disposable, and landfills everywhere hold millions of them.
So why, today, are so many men taking a step ‘backward,’ away from the industrial twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and into the world of straight razors, badger bristle brushes, lather and hot towels?
In a word, class.
The modern straight razor is a thing of beauty and distinction, and the ritual of shaving is, for gentlemen who value quality over quantity, a lovely way to spend one’s morning.
What will you need to get started?
- A razor. Nothing can reproduce the feel of a good straight razor moving artfully across your skin. As the Egyptians discovered, hot towels will steep and soften the bristles and open the pores, reducing the chances of nicking.
- A strop. You’ve seen them in period movies; it’s what the barber moves the razor hypnotically up and down across before and after the shave. It doesn’t sharpen, but it does maintain the edge. A properly wielded strop was also an early alternative to the ‘time out’ for unruly children.
- Strop paste. For maintenance of the strop.
- Pre-shave oil. Prepares the skin for what’s to come.
- Shaving cream or shaving soap. This is what lathers the face for a smooth, pleasant glide. Available in many fragrances-find one that puts you in a good mood.
- Shaving brush. Applies the cream. Badger bristles are pricy, but when you feel them, you’ll know why.
- A shaving mug.
- Styptic pencil. For inevitable nicks.
- Moisturizer. Yes, moisturizer. If you want her face to be soft, don’t drag your crocodile hide across it.