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Shaving and Grooming through the Ages: The History of Hair Removal

Updated on April 1, 2016

Hair removal actually predates recorded history but the Egyptians are often given credit for being the first people to shave or remove body hair. Shaving is advantageous for many reasons we constantly come up with different more efficient ways to remove body hair.

Wanna get back to stone age?
Wanna get back to stone age? | Source

Shaving in the Stone Age

There is evidence that prehistoric men used different objects and methods of removing hair. They may have discovered that having facial and body hair was often detrimental to survival and sought to remove it for practical purposes.

There is evidence that Stone Aged men used crude tools to either pluck or scrape the hair from their bodies. They also used depilatory substances to dissolve or burn off unwanted hair. I am sure that these prehistoric techniques of shaving unwanted facial hair were perfected through trial and error. When shaving facial hair required scraping the face I am sure that much skin would be scraped off along with the hair. Depilatory substances would also burn the skin and could not be allowed to remain in place for long. The probability of damage from too strong of a depilatory formula was another danger.

Shave like an Egyptian

Most times recorded history can be traced back as far as the Egyptian society so many times they are given credit for being the first to do certain things or come up with certain inventions. The Ancient Egyptians were a socially conscious race of people who chose to attempt to set themselves apart from other cultures. Rich Egyptians were very privileged and practiced many things that the poor were not able such as shaving.

Ancient Egypt was the seat of many of the modern practices that we use to this day and shaving certainly was one of them. Shaving was necessary for the health benefits that it offered and the clean shaven head, face, and body were certainly signs of status. Cleanliness was the standard in Ancient Egypt and removing excess body hair helped because body hair can hold dirt, conceal parasites and other vermin, and retain body odor. The sub Saharan climate of Egypt is easier to live and operate in with less body hair.

Bronze hair curling tongs and trimmer, Egypt, 1575-1194 BCE
Bronze hair curling tongs and trimmer, Egypt, 1575-1194 BCE | Source

The Egyptians not only used the tools that stone aged men used but they improved them and the practice of using metals to create razors for shaving. They are even credited with the first use of rotary blades. Their shavers were made out of bronze in addition to some of the same materials that stone aged men used. They made considerable improvements on these materials and even made advancements in the composition and use of depilatory creams and powders.

Shaving technology and practices greatly evolved during ancient Egyptian times because the Egyptians placed such a premium on the practice. Those who had the money would even employ the use of household barbers.

Shaving was Roman aristocracy!
Shaving was Roman aristocracy! | Source

When in Rome Shave as the Romans Do

The Romans are credited to taking the practice of shaving to the next level. Shaving was brought to Rome and quickly became fashionable. Shaving also became a status sign in Rome as evidenced by the fact that most of the Roman emperors were clean shaven.

Alexander the Great can be given credit for the spread of shaving because he was an ancient general whose goal was to conquer the world.

He realized the benefits of requiring his troops to be clean shaven, a requirement which militaries all over the world enforce today. They do so because from a military perspective it just makes good sense. Shaving improves hygiene which is important for troops who are in close proximity with other troops the entire time of their service.

I'm sure Roman commanders saw the military practicalities of shaving because an Army needs to be healthy, especially if it is on the move or at war. A clean shaven head and face insures that your enemy can't use your hair to gain leverage over you while you are engaged in hand to hand combat.

Barbershop in Bucharest around 1842
Barbershop in Bucharest around 1842 | Source

Hairlessness Was Next to Godliness in the Middle Ages

Shaving declined during the middle ages but here it took on religious significance more than it had during the height of the Roman civilization. Moslem men would often shave their heads for the convenience that it offered but they would maintain their beards as a sign of manhood. The long beard was significant to Jewish religious tradition. This cultural phenomenon was not the norm among Western civilizations, so western church leaders maintained a beardless look as a way of distinguishing themselves from other religious cultures. In the year 1096 the Catholic Church made the shaving of the beard mandatory through the establishment of a canonical law.

single edge razor
single edge razor | Source

The First Modern Safety Blades

The first safety razor made it possible for shaving to become more of an everyday practice rather than a luxury. The safety blade is a blade which has an attachment next to it to protect the skin from being nicked or cut by the razor. Since this required much less skill than the barber possessed it caused the practice of shaving to become something that all could do in the comfort of their homes. Jacques Perret is credited with the invention of the modern safety razor which of course evolved and was improved upon over time. The Kampfe brothers patented the first safety razor in 1880.

"Old type" Gillette safety razor set, made between 1921 and 1928
"Old type" Gillette safety razor set, made between 1921 and 1928 | Source

King C. Gillette

Necessity is the mother of invention and in 1885 King C Gillette took the concept of the safety razor one step farther. He introduced the concept of a disposable blade which was a quantum leap in shaving. Up until the time of his invention the blade had to be removed and sharpened with a sharpening stone. The advent of the disposable blade added the convenience of having a small blade which could be used a few times and then discarded after it began to dull. This concept has held on and it has become, and is still the most popular type of razor and shaving system used today. The blade had to be removed from the handle when it became dull and a new sharp blade was inserted.

70s Gillette TRAC II Razor

Mr. Gillette also introduced the Trac II razor in the 1970's. This further revolutionized the act of shaving. He added another blade to the same side of the razor which greatly increased the efficiency of shaving and reduced damage done to the skin because the person shaving did not have to apply as much pressure to the blade to remove the wiry tough facial hair.

Mr. Gillette is also credited with the invention of the stainless steel blade. This blade offered the advantage of remaining sharper for a longer period of time because it is a corrosion resistant metal. This is beneficial because the razor by nature of its use has to come into contact with water which greatly accelerates oxidation.

Jacob Schick
Jacob Schick | Source

Jacob Schick and His Modern Method

Jacob Schick certainly had an innovative idea when he invented the electric razor, however he invented the first electric shaver before its time. The first shaver was heavy, bulky, and clumsy so it was the epitome of inconvenience.

Most people at that time had a hard time grasping the idea of using an electrical device for shaving, so the concept had to be placed back on the shelf. He eventually reintroduced it in the late 1920's after design improvements. Colonel Jacob Schick obtained the patent on this product on 13th May 1930. Its use caught on causing great demand. Sales of electric razors remain high and it has evolved into many different shapes and forms.

Modern Electric Razor
Modern Electric Razor | Source

Today's Grooming

Modern razors and shavers come in a very wide variety of sizes and shapes, and perform a variety of functions. They may be specifically designed to shave the face, head, underarms, legs, or any other part of the body. They are designed with different materials to make them suitable for different uses. Rotary shavers as well as many razors are specifically designed to shave the contours of the face as well other areas of the body which have a lot of different crevices or hard to reach angles.

Foil razors are used mainly for shaving those parts of the body with a large skin surface such as the legs. Women will tend to use these shavers more because their body hair primarily grows on the legs. Different types of shavers and blades are designed to shave the short, brittle, stubbly hair of the face that those used for the longer softer hairs of other areas of the body. There are shavers designed for people who like to travel and there are shavers to be used in your home.

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The act of shaving unwanted body hair has been performed since before recorded history. The first known men used very primitive tools and materials to scrape or remove unwanted hair from the face and body. The practice resulted in a specialized group of tradesmen being formed who we know in present times as barbers.

The devices which we use for shaving have involved into ultra-efficient and specialized razors and shavers. Shaving will be a necessary practice as long as man exists on this planet. Razors and shavers will also continue to evolve over time.


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