A Close Shave
The advertisement to the right appeared in the General Advertiser in May 1752. Daniel Cudworth was one of the many London business owners to take advantage of increased advertising opportunities to push his ‘flat razor strap,’ or ‘strop.’ On the surface, there seems little unusual here; a product, some notes about its quality and durability and a list of suppliers. However, Cudworth’s advertisement actually pinpoints a turning point in male personal grooming, it being the first for a product targeted at men who ‘shave themselves’.
Up to this point, the barber was the main source of shaving for the majority of men. Razors were made of ‘shear steel,’ an older process involving heating iron with layers of charcoal so that it absorbed the carbon. While tough, this type of steel was prone to be brittle and did not hold an extremely sharp edge for long. Constant re-sharpening with a strop was required, but unfortunately the quality of barbering was, like the razors, not always uniform. Unlike today, barbers had a bad reputation, in part due to having just in 1745 split from the Barber-Surgeons, and also due to the serious risk to one’s health. Razors were rinsed in water, and not necessarily clean water, so debris such as blood and skin left on the surface could easily be transferred to the next customer, perhaps even into a cut, leaving them susceptible to infection.
Another part of the problem was the routine use of blunted razors. Anyone who has ever tried to use a razor with modern disposable blades one too many times will probably sympathize with the uncomfortable rasping feeling as the blade scrapes, rather than cuts through the beard. So it was with a blunted cutthroat. Unlike today, there were no ‘lubricating strips’ in razors to help it glide. Shaving soaps and powders were used, but the blade did not glide smooth, instead scraping roughly, especially if not sharp, so the poor customer was in for severe discomfort.
It is unknown precisely how often men visited barbers, but it seems likely that many did so every few days. Surviving barber’s accounts point towards a frequency of every few days, often with an account settled monthly or annually. Yet even if visiting a barber regularly, a Georgian shave often wasn’t a close one, meaning that a gentleman sporting a “5 o’clock shadow” was the norm.
Somewhere in the mid eighteenth-century, shaving – and male toilette in general – was beginning to attract a range of new products. The availability of cast steel meant sharper, more durable razors compared to the older brittle steel razors. Cast steel also had the added benefit of carrying a high polish, thus razors could look as good as they worked.
Cudworth, and other specialty retailers like him, sold razor-straps (long pieces of leather used to keep razors in pristine, sharp condition), as well as the razors, shaving powders (to soothe a smarting face), and sets of shaving paraphernalia (razors, mirror, bowl, scissors) in portable shaving cases for traveling.
On one level these are clearly functional items. But they also represent something of a change in attitudes towards male grooming. Rough masculinity was beginning to be displaced by a predilection for pampering.