‘Copperfield, you are a true friend; but when the worst comes to the worst, no man is without a friend who is possessed of shaving materials.’
[Note from Mantic59: a few months ago I happened upon The Victorianist, an interesting blog dedicated to the Victorian age. That got me wondering, how did gentlemen groom (and especially shave) during those times? I asked Daniel, the blog's author, if he wouldn't mind discussing Victorian grooming for Sharpologist.]
I can’t speak for other countries, but here in England the fashion and styles of the 1980’s are – well, in fashion and style once again. Big hair, shoulder pads and men in make-up stalk the streets wearing clothes that, had they not cost so much, could be mistaken for having been handed down to the country’s youth from their elder, and now wiser, siblings.
Forgotten things are often prone to making a comeback. I seem to remember flared trousers – popularised by peace-loving ‘dudes’ in the sixties – became popular again in the nineties. In England, a contraption known as the ‘Teasmade’ has been hauled back into fashion from the decades of ‘free love’ and punk music, and is once again waking the nation with a chirpy alarm and a fresh cup of tea in the morning.
Some things never go away, but simply lose their voice in the swell of cheap mass-market products and a lack of advertising.
Fourteen months or so ago, I enjoyed my first shave with a double edge razor and shaving soap. It was an unpleasant experience which left me wondering why I had spent so much money on a razor that left me in such pain. But, being a traditionalist and a Victorianist, I stuck with it, eager to experience as best I was able the kind of shaving our nineteenth century ancestors would have endured enjoyed.
I also made trips to Truefitt and Hill, in London, as well as Trumpers, Taylor of Old Bond Street and D.R. Harris, which, if you happen to be a fan of the Victorian era and traditional shaving, is an unparalleled day out.
These establishments, most of which are Victorian (Truefitt being the odd one out, established in 1805) would have been frequented by the upper classes of Victorian London for their shaves at the barbers. These days, a shave at one of these establishments is viewed as an expensive luxury unless you happen to be a member of the gentry or a stockbroker, but in the nineteenth century it was as ordinary as going to the barbers for a haircut. Even the work of Charles Dickens is littered with shaving references as everyday occurrences in life, here are just a couple:
“He happened to have been sharpening his razors, which were lying open in a row, while a huge strop dangled from the wall. Glancing at these preparations, Mr Bailey stroked his chin, and a thought appeared to occur to him.
‘Poll,’ he said, ‘I ain’t as neat as I could wish about the gills. Being here, I may as well have a shave, and get trimmed close.’
The barber stood aghast; but Mr Bailey divested himself of his neck- cloth, and sat down in the easy shaving chair with all the dignity and confidence in life. There was no resisting his manner. The evidence of sight and touch became as nothing. His chin was as smooth as a new-laid egg or a scraped Dutch cheese; but Poll Sweedlepipe wouldn’t have ventured to deny, on affidavit, that he had the beard of a Jewish rabbi.
‘Go WITH the grain, Poll, all round, please,’ said Mr Bailey, screwing up his face for the reception of the lather. ‘You may do wot you like with the bits of whisker. I don’t care for ‘em.’”
– Martin Chuzzlewit, 1843-1844
Sound advice, too, going with the grain. (Something I learned from Mantic59, rather than Dickens)
And here, another:
“It was to this establishment that Newman Noggs led Miss Kenwigs in safety. The proprietor, knowing that Miss Kenwigs had three sisters, each with two flaxen tails, and all good for sixpence apiece, once a month at least, promptly deserted an old gentleman whom he had just lathered for shaving, and handing him over to the journeyman, (who was not very popular among the ladies, by reason of his obesity and middle age,) waited on the young lady himself.
Just as this change had been effected, there presented himself for shaving, a big, burly, good-humoured coal-heaver with a pipe in his mouth, who, drawing his hand across his chin, requested to know when a shaver would be disengaged.
The journeyman, to whom this question was put, looked doubtfully at the young proprietor, and the young proprietor looked scornfully at the coal-heaver: observing at the same time:
‘You won’t get shaved here, my man.’
‘Why not?’ said the coal-heaver.
‘We don’t shave gentlemen in your line,’ remarked the young proprietor.
‘Why, I see you a shaving of a baker, when I was a looking through the winder, last week,’ said the coal-heaver.
‘It’s necessary to draw the line somewheres, my fine feller,’ replied the principal. ‘We draw the line there. We can’t go beyond bakers. If we was to get any lower than bakers, our customers would desert us, and we might shut up shop. You must try some other establishment, sir. We couldn’t do it here.’
– Nicholas Nickleby, 1838-1839”
But, surely not every Victorian man went to the barbers for a shave? No, of course not, as we have seen, ‘We cant go beyond bakers.’ Besides, professional shaves may have been much cheaper back then, but they still cost money, so how did the everyday working man like you – or, at least, I – shave in the nineteenth century?
I am by no means an antique dealer, nor an antique collector, but I have a couple of Victorian items in my possession, and quite a few Victorian books. One of them is a priceless little study into the everyday, mundane things that filled the lives of the residents of Victorian London. The book, entitled ‘Kron: The Little Londoner’, was published in 1901 (so is just on the cusp of the Victorian era) and it appears to be a guidebook for foreign tourists visiting London, explaining things such as how to hail a hansom cab, what to say in restaurants, what attractions to see in London, and, most bizarrely, how to get up in the morning, as this passage shows:
“When I wake up after a good night’s rest, I involuntarily rub my eyes, and then get up in order to dress. I first put on my pants (or drawers), then my socks, or stockings, my trousers (familiarly bags, or breeches; in America pants, or pantaloons), and my slippers.
Then I go to the wash-stand and have a thorough wash in cold water, which is far more refreshing and wholesome than warm (or tepid) water. In washing I use a sponge and a cake or tablet of unscented soap. I have a rough and a soft towel to dry myself with. Many people have a bath-room close to their bed-room and have a tub, ie a bath (hot or cold) every morning.
Then I clean my teeth with a tooth-brush and tooth-powder (or dentifrice), and gargle After every meal I also clean and rinse my mouth to prevent my teeth from decaying. When I have done washing , I comb and brush my hair [with a comb and a brush]. I detest pomatum and perfumes, and never put any on my hair.
My beard grows very fast, and so I shave (or get shaved) every other morning. Being shaved by a barber is an unpleasant affair for me, so I prefer to do it by myself. I have a complete shaving-tackle (a razor, strop, brush, and shaving soap).”
The writer then goes on to tell us how he dresses, but I shan’t bore you with any more details.
In the days before all homes were fitted with plumbing, a wash-stand was common. This was essentially a small wooden table with a detachable bowl on top that would be filled with water. Interestingly, the writer appears to shave in cold water, something that a lot of people on shaving forums seem to advocate these days. Despite his often annoying attention to detail, he doesn’t mention what his brush is made of, I suspect horsehair, but if anyone knows better I’d be delighted to hear it, as it’s often something I‘ve wondered about.
Earlier on I mentioned some of London’s finest traditional barbers, and it is a long-held ambition of mine to have a proper shave at one of these establishments, where the method of traditional shaving has remained virtually unchanged for over a hundred years. Having spoken to a number of people who have treated themselves to this experience, I find it a little odd that the writer of the above article found more pleasure in shaving at home than having an expert do it for him. Remember, this was in the days when a shave cost little more than a penny, but still, each to his own.
Even as far back as 1841, four years into Queen Victoria’s reign when the labouring classes would bathe in rivers or town water-features every few days, the barber was ridiculed, as this article from satirical magazine Punch shows, as it describes a Truefitt barber in similar terms to a wild animal in a nature book:
THE BARBER (homo emollientissiumus – TRUEFIT)
Physical Structure and peculiarities – The most singular peculiarity of the barber is, that although in his avocations, he always is what is termed a “strapper,” yet his stature is usually short. His tongue, however, makes up for this deficiency, being remarkably long – a beautiful provision of nature; for while he is seldom called upon to use his legs with rapidity, his lingual organ is always obliged to be on the “run.” His eyes are keen, and his wits sharp; his mouth is tinged with humour, and his hair – particularly when threatening to be gray – with poudre unique. Manner, prepossessing; crop, close; fingers, dirty; toes, turned out. He seldom indulges in whiskers, for his business is to shave.
1. Habits, reproduction and food. A singular uniformity of habits is observable amongst barbers. They all live in shops curiously adorned with play-bills and pomatum pots, and use the same formulary of conversation to every new customer. All are politicians on both sides of every subject; and if there happen to be three sides to a question, they take a triangular view of it.
2. Reproduction – Some men are born barbers, others have barberism thrust upon them. The first class are brought forth in but small numbers, for shavers seldom pair. The second take to the razor from disappointment in trade or in love. This is evident from the habits of the animal when alone, at which period, if observed, a deep, mysterious melo-dramatic gloom will be seen to overspread his countenance. He is essentially a social being; company is as necessary to his existence as beards.
3. Food – Upon this subject the most minute researches of the most prying naturalists have not been able to procure a crumb of information. That the barber does eat can only be inferred; it cannot be proved, for no person was ever known to catch him in the act; if he does masticate, he munches in silence and in secret* (*Not so of drinking. Only last week, we saw, with our own eyes, a pot of ale in a barber’s shop; and very good ale it was, too, for we tasted it).
Geographical distribution of barbers – Although the majority of barbers live near the pole, they are pretty diffusely disseminated over the entire face of the globe. The advance of civilisation has, however, much lessened their numbers; for we find, wherever valets are kept, barbers are not; and as the magnet turns towards the north, they are attracted to the east. In St. James’s, the shaver’s “occupation’s gone;” but throughout the whole of Wapping, the distance is very short.
Punch, July-Dec 1841
Perhaps our meticulous writer from 1901 did not care for the suggested incessant conversation of the barber, and preferred to shave at home in peace. Moving on, let us examine our author’s razor – the crown jewel of every traditional shavers’ toolkit – and explore what the Victorian razor was like.
The best place to do this is here on the shaveworld website – a site dedicated to the history of shaving. On this page you can see various razor designs from the end of the 18th century, right to the end of the 19th, when our author friend would have written his account. William Samuel Henson’s razor of the 1840’s is recognized as the first ‘T’ shaped razor that most of us would recognize and be comfortable using today. If anyone has one of these, I‘d love to see a picture!
In 1901, the year our friend Kron wrote of his preference for shaving at home over a trip to the barbers, American inventor King Camp Gillette safety razor with disposable blades. He realized that a neat profit could be made by selling an inexpensive razor with blades that were used for a few shaves and then thrown away, requiring the customer to go out and purchase more every few weeks, rather than sharpening or honing his blade with a strop. This disposable blade system has enslaved many-a-man in the following century who has stuck to the multi-cartridge disposable blade method of shaving, this being the side of the industry that shouts the loudest in the world of advertising.
Speaking of advertising, in my collection of Victorian newspapers I found a few advertisements for 19th century shaving products, with this, featured in the Illustrated London news of 1896 being my favourite:
My brand of cream is Taylor of Old Bond Street, Jermyn Street, which I bought back in April. It’s still going strong and I have around half a tub left. I shave every other day, so will hopefully get a year out of it, but probably not 365 shaves!
Of course, in this world of ever ‘improving’ shaving equipment – “now with FIVE blades!” or “Now in hot-rod-red for a faster shave!” Plenty of men around the globe have liberated themselves and returned to a method of shaving our Victorian ancestors would be more familiar with, but, unlike the Teasmade, flared trousers and Dynasty-esque fashions, this retro comeback is something that I have welcomed with open arms.
Many thanks to Mantic59 for asking me to write this, I have followed his work for over a year now and hold him in the highest esteem.