When it comes to shaving, most of us like to live in the now. New technologies, methods and products come out all the time, so it’s no wonder we all want to stay at the cutting edge – but could you be missing out? If you’re a history nerd as well as a keen shaver, you might have wondered from time to time about the origins of male grooming. So many of the gadgets, ointments and accessories we use today date back further than we could have imagined – some as far as the Ice Age!
Did people really shave with rocks and shells? How did they care for their skin after shaving? When did we start to use balms like petroleum jelly, or Vaseline, and is Vaseline bad for you? What’s the weirdest thing anyone’s put on their face for the sake of a close shave?
For answers to these questions and a surprising list of grooming products that have been around longer than you might realize, read on.
1) Shaving Cream
Shaving cream is one of the oldest products we know about – but how far back can you trace it? To the barber shop scenes of old Westerns? Maybe to the tale of Sweeney Todd, which was first published as a Victorian serial in 1846? What about the year 3,000 BCE?
According to the earliest documented record of shaving cream, this product was originally made of wood alkali and animal fat and used in Sumer (now southern Iraq) at this time.
Before the shaving foams and gels we now know and love, shaving cream came as a bar or stick of hard shaving soap. Tubes of oil and soft soap began to replace these soap sticks in the early 20th Century, and brushless shaving creams were invented in the 1940s.
2) Petroleum Jelly
This might seem like an odd item to include, but have you ever really thought about where petroleum jelly comes from and how often it has been used to soothe razor burn?
The raw material for petroleum jelly was discovered on an oil rig in Pennsylvania, USA, in 1859. Workers at the time used it on cuts and burns, believing it helped them heal faster. Robert Cheesbrough patented the process of refining petroleum jelly in 1872, two years after he opened his first Vaseline factory in Brooklyn.
Give its origins, you might wonder is petroleum jelly safe for skin –and the answer is yes! Shaving buffs have been using it to moisturize skin and keep out bacteria for as long as we can remember, so next time you are asked “is Vaseline bad for you?” remember that it’s been a popular grooming product since the early 20th Century and was even distributed in life-raft survival kits during the Second World War!
We all know that razors have been around long before the five-bladed saviors we use now. The safety razor was invented in France in the late 18th Century. The earliest record we have of the manufacture of straight razors (the ones some barbers still use) is from Sheffield, England in 1680. It makes sense that razors have been around for as long as we’ve known how to work metal. It turns out, though, that razors existed long before that.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest razors were flakes of obsidian and clam shells, and were used as far back as the Ice Age, more than 10,000 years ago.
Around 3000 BCE – roughly the same time that shaving cream was first documented – agricultural and industrial developments made way for the invention of the earliest metal razors. Examples of these have been found in Egypt and Rome, and even Alexander the Great insisted that his soldiers shave their heads and beards to ensure that the enemy had nothing to grab onto in combat!
Any shaving buff worth his salt knows that moisturizing isn’t just for ladies, and in times gone by skin care was pretty gender neutral.
If we were feeling fancy, we’d call this section “aftershave balm”, but that’s actually a relatively new concept. Moisturizing, however, has been done since time immemorial – although some pretty wild ingredients have been used in the name of skin care.
Here are a few:
- Castor oil. This was used by early humans for skin and haircare, and it looks like they knew something we don’t as it’s making quite a comeback!
- Tar. We asked ourselves the question “Is petroleum jelly toxic?” earlier, but it’s definitely nowhere near as toxic as this ancient Egyptian salve. A flask of skin ointment found in the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut was found to contain tar when opened by archaeologists! Now better known for its carcinogenic properties, we hope that this particular skincare tip stays buried.
- Eggs and vermillion. Used as an ancient Chinese moisturizer favored by Imperial concubine Zhang Lihau, this concoction is equally as toxic as tar. Vermillion is a bright red compound made by grinding the mineral cinnabar … which is laced with mercury.
- Honey. Another ancient ingredient that’s making a comeback, this tip actually dates back to Hippocrates: the founding father of medicine and the author (or at least the inspiration) behind the “Hippocratic Oath” that all medical professionals still make.
- Bread, eggs, and vinegar. It might sound more like a shopping list, but these ingredients were commonly used for skin care in the Middle Ages. Bon appétit!
So, there you have it – a brief history of some of the shaving products you never knew were as old as they are. This run-down of the weird and wonderful things we’ve applied to our skin over the years really goes to show just how far we have come. Whereas once we may have asked “is petroleum jelly bad for you?”, now we know that it is actually safe – and a much better choice than some of the ancient treatments our forefathers used!
John is a writer and shaving enthusiast. When he’s not trying to perfectly replicate the latest popular shaving hack, he’s writing about skin health or traveling.