The History of Shaving – From Prehistoric Times to Modern Day

For thousands of years, man has been fighting a battle with his facial hair – over 25,000 hairs as hard as copper wire of the same thickness. The hairs grow between 125mm and 150mm per year and man will spend an average of more than 3,000 hours of his life shaving them.

Egyptians shaved their beards and heads which was a custom adopted by the Greeks and Romans about 330BC during the reign of Alexander the Great.

This was encouraged for soldiers as a defensive measure to stop enemies from grabbing their hair in hand-to-hand combat.

As shaving spread through the world, men of unshaven societies became known as “barbarians” meaning the “unbarbered”. The practice of women shaving legs and underarms developed much later.

Men scraped their hair away in early times man with crude items such as stone, flint, clamshells and other sharpened materials. He later experimented with bronze, copper and iron razors. In more recent centuries he used the steel straight razor (aptly called the “cut-throat” for obvious reasons).

For hundreds of years, razors maintained a knife-like design and needed to be sharpened by the owner or a barber with the aid of a honing stone or leather strop. These “weapons” required considerable skill by the user to avoid cutting himself badly.

Why, When and How People Started Shaving

Shaving predates history but it was the men and women of early Egypt who really established shaving and hair removal as a regular part of daily grooming – a custom which continues today for people all over the world. The Egyptians had an almost unhealthy personal obsession with body hygiene – and curious customs to accompany it.

The Greek historian Herodotus (485-425BC) commented that the Egyptians bathed several times a day and “set cleanliness above seemliness”. Being so clean all the time was associated with fanatical behavior by outsiders.

The ancient Romans thought that a lack of major body hair was some kind of terrible deformity. But not in Egypt where priests believed that body hair was shameful and unclean.

Wild animals and barbarians had hair, not the sophisticated and advanced Egyptian civilization. Being hairless was achieved by shaving, using depilatory creams and rubbing one’s hair off with a pumice stone.

Men, women, and even the children of ancient Egypt all shaved their heads bald and wore elaborate specially-made wigs, which were preferred over a natural head of hair for ultimate protection from the sun’s harmful solar rays.

These wigs were made of natural or artificial hair, and were strategically designed to keep the head cool. It was rare to find a man or woman out in public totally bald-headed, not just for sun protection, but for making a fashion statement as well.

Another reason for removing all body hair, including that on the scalp, was that being hairless gave people an excellent way to prevent various body infections and diseases.

Living in the Nile Valley wasn’t at all easy because it was so very hot and body hair and the heat could become an irritating combination. Soap was not easily available to the masses and the Egyptians certainly didn’t have the hair care products available to us today.

Keeping shoulder-length hair clean was very difficult and washing didn’t always clear up the lice problem that most people had. A bald head could be easily washed and dried.

A bald head didn’t feel itchy under a wig or create a place for the lice to live. Everyone started shaving everything eventually, yes – everywhere. Being hairless kept people cooler, as well as bug and odor-free. The less hair one had the easier life was.

Celebrity Barbers and Bogus Beards

Items of Egyptian royalties personal care items found during archeological tomb excavations have thrown up such items as razors, manicure tools and other cosmetic implements made of jewel-encrusted gold.

Excavations have uncovered works of Egyptian art that show in detail that only peasants, slaves, mercenaries, criminals, plunderers, and barbarians were hairy-faced.

Ever wonder why we started shaving our faces and heads?

Egyptian men thought that wearing facial hair was a sign of personal neglect. Egyptians who could afford to normally keep a barber on their household staff. In Mesopotamia barbers were held in the highest regard by society as a doctor or dignitary.

Each town had a street or an area where a number of barbershops could be found. These barbers took great care of the general public by shaving their clients daily with razors and pumice stones then massaging perfumed oils and lotions into their skin.

The evidence we see on ancient wall murals proves that some Egyptians did have hair on their faces. Even with their obsession for personal cleanliness they also thought though that a beard was the sign of a real man, of masculinity and dignity since the beginning of time and that it could give a man status.

On certain occasions, therefore, the heads of Egypt wore artificial beards which they strapped on with string that fastened beneath their chins.

The Original Hairless Elite

Prehistoric Times – shaving history takes us way back to the Stone Age, around 100,000BC, when Neanderthal Man started first pulling hair from his body. Filing down his teeth was also a popular pastime.

Cave paintings show that early man discovered ways to remove hair from his face that are still being used today. In the beginning, he simply plucked the hair out using seashells like tweezers.

Throughout history, tweezers have remained the most popular ever grooming tool invented, used by both “civilized” men and women to painfully removing the body and facial hair. The earliest shaving razors discovered were flint blades from as far back as 30,000BC.

Flint can provide an extremely sharp edge, perfect at the time for shaving. These implements were the first disposable razors as flint dulls rather quickly. Not only did your early man cut or shave off his body hair with flint he also enjoyed cutting unusual designs his skin.

He added dyes and colors to the cuts and ended up tattooed. Other shaving tools made of stone found were made during the Neolithic Period.

4000-3000BC Women are removing body hair with depilatory creams made from such combinations as arsenic, quicklime, and starch. 3000BC marked the first permanent development of razors due to metalworking being invented. In both India and Egypt razors made from copper are found available.

1500-1200BC Some of the most elaborate razors in ancient times in Scandinavia were produced. Razors were found in leather carrying cases with scenes embossed in the bronze blades in excavations carried out in the Danish Mound Graves with the handles carved into horse head shapes.

500BC It became popular for men to crop their hair very short and shave the face in Greece. Alexander the Great is responsible for this as he is obsessed with shaving.

He shaves even during war and will not be seen going to battle with a five o clock shadow. Like the Middle East culture Greeks back then considered it an aesthetic approach to personal hygiene.

Around this time, Roman women remove their hair with razors and pumice stones. They also make their own depilatory creams from medicinal drugs such as Bryonia. They also pluck their eyebrows using tweezers.

Roman men have a skilled live-in servant to shave them; otherwise, they start their day with a trip to the tonsor, or barber, who will shave a face with an iron novacila, or Roman razor. This type of shaver corrodes quickly and becomes blunt; so most customers usually, or eventually, get cut.

But don’t worry – the tonsor can fix this by applying to the face a soothing plaster made from special perfumed ointment and spider webs soaked in oil and vinegar. Despite the dangers of going to the barbershop, Roman men continue to flock in daily because they are also great centers for news and gossip.

400BC The typical man of India is found sporting a neatly trimmed, well-groomed beard, yet he shaves off all hair on his chest and pubic area. The average woman is removing hair from her legs with razors and tweezers.

Greek women are removing hair from their legs by singeing it with a lamp. Most Greek men are shaving their faces on a regular basis.

300BC and one-day Publicus Ticinius Maenas, a rich Greek businessman brings professional barbers from Sicily to Rome which introduces a new craze for shaving. The barbers use thin bladed iron razors which are sharpened with water and a whetstone. They don’t always use soap or oil making it a long process of shaving a face.

300 BC During this time in Rome young men of about the age of 21 are required to have their first shave. They kick this off by celebrating their official entry into manhood with an elaborate party.

Other friends are invited to watch and give the novice a bunch of gifts. Only soldiers and those training to become philosophers are excused from participating in this cultural ordeal.

50BC In Rome men are following the example of Julius Caesar, who has his facial hairs plucked out individually by tweezing every day.

Depilatories are used as an alternative to the bloody mess that results from shaving with a blade. The latest available creams include some pretty wild ingredients such as resin, pitch, white vine or ivy gum extract, asses fat, she-goats gall, bats blood, and powdered viper.

100AD In Rome shaving the male face starts to become old hat thanks to Emperor Hadrian, 76-138AD, who is now reviving the growth of beards. The truth though is that Hadrian grows a beard to hide the lousy complexion he has on his face.

Middle Ages – The Crusades

476-1270AD European women carry out the bizarre beauty secret of removing all the hair from their eyebrows, eyelashes, temples, and necks. The look to die for becoming trés chic.

This is carried out masochistically by plucking and shaving every day, but a real lady who wants to represent herself in the ideal image of modern female beauty knows this is a necessity.

840AD In Spain, a famous musician and singer from Baghdad, Blackbird, opens the world’s first beauty institute. Here students learnt the secrets of hair removal as well as how to apply cosmetics, manufacture deodorants, use toothpowder and the basics of hairdressing.

1066AD Shaving and haircuts help William of Normandy invade England to overcome Harold the Saxon of Hastings. Harold’s spies ventured out before the attack and came back reporting a large group of priests seen nearby but no enemy.

The priests were William’s army who they mistook for Holy Men owing to their clean shaven appearance. They also carried exaggerated pageboy haircuts. They shaved the hair on the back of their heads but kept a short back and sides which made them look like monks.

1770 French barber Jean-Jacques Perret writes The Art of Learning to Shave Oneself – La Pogonotomie – which gives advice for the use of different shaving products and equipment. The book is the first to propose the idea of a safety razor.

French women shave their heads completely so they can wear the huge powdered wigs of the latest hairstyles.

The Perret Razor is manufactured as an L-shaped wooden guard that holds a razor blade in place. It prevents the user from cutting themselves too deeply. It still does not have any real safety and is not considered to be the first true safety razor but this is the beginning of the safety razor.

The 1800s and shaving and grooming for men is now a self-indulgent pastime thanks to George Bryan (Beau) Brummell who is a dandy known for his impeccable manners and style of dress.

Brummell is said to have shaved his face several times a day and pluck out any remaining hairs with tweezers. After inheriting a sizeable fortune Brummell dedicated himself to be known as a gentleman of fashion.

European women are still knocking up their own depilatory creams in their kitchens. The ingredients now contain such items as oak and French white wine to be taken in a hot bath for 24 hours.

In Sheffield production begins of straight steel razors and they are in constant demand until the middle of the 1800s. These razors dull very quickly however so they have to be honed and stropped frequently in order to use over and over again.

1840 After fleeing England in 1814 to escape from paying off tremendous gambling debts possessed shaver Beau Brummell died in a French lunatic asylum.

1847 William Henson created the first hoe razor which placed the blade perpendicular to its handle, just like a garden tool. This changes forever the way that man will grip his shaver and provides more control. It is an overnight success.

By the late 1800s, Victorian man is now extremely particular over his personal grooming and is starting to use shaving soaps and after shaving lotions which are usually homemade in the kitchen using cherry laurel water.

In the United States, the Kampfe Brothers file a patent for the first Safety Razor featuring a wire skin guard along one side of the blade’s edge. Only one side of the blade is used which has to be removed often for sharpening.

This is the best available shaving method on the market that won’t cut a user, unlike straight steel razors. Blades are manufactured by forging which requires frequent sharpening.

1895 – In the United States King Camp Gillette, a salesman for the Baltimore Seal Company comes up with the idea for a new type of disposable razor blade. Over the next six years, he promotes and sells his idea to backers and toolmakers in order to make his dream shaver a reality.

Further Reading