Boy, That Was a Close Shave!
While I was shaving the other day, and musing on the true meaning of life, it suddenly occurred to me that I was performing a task I had performed approximately 25,000 times before. So struck was I by this, that I decided that my faithful readers would have to wait a bit longer to find out what their existence really meant.
There is evidence, although a bit sketchy if you ask me, that men began shaving about 100,000 years ago. Well, shaving might not be an exact description. It seems the cave men would remove unwanted facial hair by plucking it out with used calm shells. In more recent times, women have been known to pluck out unruly hair from their eyebrows in a similar manner. Indeed, in the 1930s they often plucked all the hair from their eyebrows, then painted on a more acceptable version with something called (still) an eyebrow pencil. Some very bizarre effects were obtained, but that’s fashion for you.
It wasn’t until about 3,000 B.C. that something resembling a razor appeared, in Egypt of course. Thin pieces of sharpened copper apparently did the job. Surviving images often show men with spade-like chin whiskers, but otherwise smooth of face. By the time the Greeks came along, as shown in surviving sculptures and urns, the fashion seems to have gone back and forth between the smooth-shaven and the full bearded. When the Romans entered the stage, beards seem to have gone completely out of fashion.
One of the reasons seems to have been that they had mastered steel-making. In addition to sword and knife blades for hacking away at those pesky barbarians and dispatching unwanted emperors, they could now sharpen and hone a blade that made shaving bearable. This technology also made scissors more useful for cutting one’s hair, which made short hair fashionable for the first time.
For hundreds of years thereafter, whether one had a beard or not, or long or short hair, was – for the rich, at least – a matter of taste and fashion. Long hair, no beard? No hair, but luxuriant beard? Bald, but bewigged? The Rasputin look? All were available. Eventually, the foldable straight razor became the implement of choice, whether wielded by the gentleman himself of his barber.
(As an aside, it was once common for men to go regularly to their barber for a shave. No doubt you’re familiar with the ditty: “shave and a haircut, two bits.” Now rare, the ritual involved wrapping the customer’s face in hot towels, then lathering his face with soap, often using the customer’s personal shaving mug. Using a very sharp straight razor, the barber would sweep the customer’s face clean of the offending beard, then finish the ritual off with a fine and fragrant after-shave lotion. At an upscale shop, a shave and haircut might now cost $100 or more.)
When I first started shaving some 70 years ago, I used an electric machine. As my beard became a bit tougher, I switched to a blade razor. It was a Gillette, which then and now dominates the business. It was started by King Gillette, not to be confused with King Canute. To him, we owe the invention of the safety razor. The blade of choice by the time I started was the double-edged Gillette Blue Blade. In keeping with the time-honored American practice of making its products obsolete on a regular basis, they eventually introduced the Super Blue Blade, followed by the Platinum Blade (actually stainless steel).
Having exhausted the possibilities of the double-edged blade, they then began selling cartridge razors and blades. Their latest iteration, the Gillette Labs Exfoliating Razor, not only slices away your beard with five blades, but gets rid of your foliates! The cheapest cost per blade is about $3.50. Since I’m not afflicted with foliates, I get similar 5-blade cartridges from Harry’s for less than $2.00 each. They do a good job, and I kind of like the name.
Historically, women have used similar razors to shave their legs, underarms, and what has come to be known as the “bikini line.” It seems to me that shaving one’s private parts is fraught with danger, but I’m told that even some men do it. I find this hard to believe, but then I’ve never understood tattoos or body-piercing either. Apparently neither God nor Mother Nature (or simple biology) can be trusted to get things right.
Finally, I tried to grow a beard once. I discovered that my beard was heavier on the left side of my face than the right, resulting in a strange lopsided effect. I do admire a fine beard, and have friends who sport them. If you wish to see beards a plenty, as well as tattoos and interesting body piercings, you would do well to walk the streets of Wicker Park, Bucktown and Logan Square in Chicago. That is the domain of the hipster. The women will look much the same, except (mostly) for the beards.
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon