Throughout the history of shaving, beard styles, grooming and shaving have had major cultural significance. Beards have acted as a way to show personal and cultural identity, to mark belonging to a group, or to set oneself apart from the crowd. The English Shaving Company have compiled a guide to the history of shaving. If you think the hipsters of today value their facial hair, wait to you see how seriously some of our ancestors took shaving...
Ancient History of Shaving
Shaving has been an important ritual for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found evidence of tools dating as far back as 30,000 BC that were likely to have been used for shaving. Not your modern safety razors of course, but clam shells and sharpened flint stones were found and thought to have been used in shaving. They would have functioned somewhat like disposable razors as the tools would blunt quickly and have to be replaced.
Beards in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt’s culture was complex and a world away from what we can understand today. Beards and facial hair were used as a way to show power. Pharaohs particularly had extremely long and thin beards that were sculpted into a thick and dense shape. The Egyptians would’ve had the same beeswax that goes into making our modern beard wax which they could have used to style natural beards. However, here’s the secret - their beards were fake.
Even the female pharaohs sported these beards, so it wasn’t so much of a secret at the time. They wore long beards that looked like a thick braid. It was a sign of authority and power, but also connected them to the Gods. Beards had huge religious significance and were associated with being divine. A Pharaoh wearing his or her beard showed their status as a god on Earth.
Most ancient Egyptian men were actually clean shaven. It was particularly expected that the Pharaohs had a close shave as this was a mark of sophistication. It took time to achieve a perfectly clean shave - time that the busy working class didn’t necessarily have - and was a sign of luxury. After this, they would then put on their false beard.
Much like the modern man, Egyptian royalty wanted the best products for a clean shave. But in these days, before the invention of Gillette razors and modern badger hair shaving brushes, they used sharpened stone blades set into a wooden handle. This desire for a clean shave lead to history’s first professional barbers.
The Ancient Egyptian period stretched over a massive number of years, so the beard culture developed and changed, but facial hair was hugely significant to the Pharaohs and common people alike throughout this time.
Shaving and the Ancient Greeks
For the Ancient Greeks, a full beard was the height of fashion. You’re likely to have seen painting of bearded scholars and philosophers. It was believed that a full beard was a sign of wisdom and masculinity. You wouldn’t see a woman wearing a false beard in this culture.
Beards were so important to the Ancient Greeks, that boys weren’t even allowed to cut their hair until they’d begun to grow a beard. When the first whiskers appeared, these were cut and offered to the Gods for a blessing upon the young man.
The Greeks also used beards to express emotion. It was only when they were in mourning or extreme anguish that a Greek man would cut his beard or shave. Unless, that is, he was being punished. Having one’s beard cut by someone else was extremely shameful. It was used by Spartan warriors to indicate cowardice on the battlefield.
Like Ancient Egypt, the Ancient Greek period was a long one, so over time the fashion did change. When one of the most famous Ancient Greeks, Alexander the Great, came onto the throne beards lost their status and shaving became more prominent. It became a concern that enemies could grab a warrior’s beard so they lost their popularity.
Modern History of Shaving
Beards in the Middle Ages
As we move through the history of shaving into the AD calendar, we find that beards and shaving are just as significant. As Christianity spread through the globe, some early Christians used beards to signify their dedication to Christ.
There is a non-canonical story (a report not found in the Bible) about Peter’s death. Peter was one of the first Christians and was martyred for his faith. According to the story, his persecutors cut off Peter’s beard and shaved his head as a sign of shame - much like the punishments in Ancient Greece.
Some monasteries built this into their initiation rituals. A young man would have to shave his beard when he first became a monk in a special ceremony. This was a way to symbolically share both in Peter’s faith and in his suffering. After this ceremony, they would follow a strict shaving routine.
Razors weren’t as easy to use as they are today. Towards the end of the middle ages, they looked a little like small axes - a far cry from what we’ve come to expect!
For the most part, however, the popularity of beards in the middle ages was on-and-off according to the style of the monarch in charge. As different kings came onto the throne, whether they shaved or sported a beard influenced the fashion of the population, particularly the gentry.
18th Century Shaving
1770 was a significant year in the history of shaving. A man called Jean-Jacques Perret published a book that taught men how to shave for themselves and the Perret razor was invented. This was a revolution in shaving as it was the first step towards the modern safety razor. It featured a blade fixed into a wooden handle to make it easier to use - not quite the high standard that we expect today, but it was a breakthrough that made shaving more accessible to the everyday man.
Shaving in the 19th Century
As we enter the very beginning of the 19th century straight razors were the most popular choice. Many men these days still opt for the straight razor as, once perfected, it provides a beautifully close shave. It was in these days when the straight razor received the popular name of ‘cut throat razor’. Due to the popularity of this razor, it was an easy weapon to get hold of.
Victorians carefully maintained their beards, with a wide range of different styles all being equally popular. The full beard was a strong choice in this era, but Victorians were always keen on maintaining the highest standards of personal grooming. Having a full beard didn’t mean leaving it to grow however it pleased; trimming and styling with wax was vital if you wanted to be a true gentleman.
If you're interested in this period, we've got a whole blog post on the Victorian history of beards
The double edge safety razor first made an appearance in this century. It reduced the skill needed to produce a close shave, allowing men to take control over their own shaving rather than relying on barbers.
William S. Henson in 1847 produced a razor with blades set at right angles in the handle. This was a precursor to the ‘proper’ DE razor. The term ‘safety razor’ was patented for the first time in 1880 for a razor that had additional safety clips and attachments to make the blade glide more smoothly over the skin. We think that safety razors are still one of the best ways to achieve a superior shave.
In 1885, Gillette released the world’s first disposable razor blade (that’s if you discount the clams and flint stones found 30000 years ago!). Stropping and honing your straight razor was no longer needed, making shaving easier than ever. Gillette has been one of the leading providers of razors ever since.
20th Century Shaving
In 1928, Jacob Schick from America invented the first electric razor. It took a while before these were widespread, but he made shaving fast for men that needed a quick solution to the daily routine of shaving. While electric razors don’t always provide the same close shave or comfort, they’ve changed shaving for millions of men.
You also might find it interesting to know that, despite a study from psychologists Ann Reed and Elizabeth Blunk who claimed bearded men were seen as more trustworthy to the general public, every American president since 1913 has been clean shaven!
Shaving in the 21st Century
Perhaps the history of shaving has inspiried you. These days, we have a huge amount of choice when it comes to shaving and growing beards. Recent years has seen the return in popularity of the full beard, but we’re more free than ever to choose for ourselves the look we prefer - and the widest selection of tools to achieve it with!
With a massive number of different razors, shaving brushes, soaps and aftershaves available, now is the best time in the history of shaving to be a shaving connoisseur! Read more on our blog, including our guide to how to shave your legs with a safety razor and other fantastic tips.