Home / General / Shaving and Masculinity in the Gilded Age

Shaving and Masculinity in the Gilded Age

Comments
/
/
/
661 Views

Good stuff here on shaving and masculinity in Gilded Age Britain. In an era when shaving could be a real health risk, crazy beards made sense. The situation, both in its gendered and public health facets, is quite similar in the U.S. and in fact the advertisements shown in the linked post were also seen in the United States and in fact are in primary source readers for U.S. history survey courses.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Lee Rudolph

    In an era when shaving could be a real health risk, crazy beards made sense.

    Scissors are (I’d think) much less likely to damage soft tissue inadvertently, or to transmit disease, than razors; so I don’t see that “crazy” made any more sense, as regards health, than “neatly trimmed”.

    • Blood poisoning was a real issue with razors in the Gilded Age.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Exactly. But managing not to wound yourself (or whoever you may be shaving) with scissors is much easier. (Well, as long as you’re not running with them.) I mean, those guys were managing to get haircuts without being blood poisoned, weren’t they?

      • rea

        From Wikipedia, a famous case, though perhaps a few years post “gilded age”:

        On 25 March 1923 Carnarvon suffered a severe mosquito bite infected by a razor cut. On 5 April, he died in the Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo. This led to the story of the “Curse of Tutankhamun”, the “Mummy’s Curse”. His death is most probably explained by blood poisoning (progressing to pneumonia) after accidentally shaving a mosquito bite infected with erysipelas.

      • ajay

        Blood poisoning was a real issue with razors in the Gilded Age.

        But it was a real issue with razors in the Regency as well. And Regency men were clean shaven.

        • LeeEsq

          As were men for the second half of the 17th century and all of the 18th century. Those weren’t exactly golden times for public health and medicine either.

          • ajay

            As were men for the second half of the 17th century and all of the 18th century. Those weren’t exactly golden times for public health and medicine either.

            And further back as well, for that matter. Even fashionably bearded men of the early 17th century weren’t fully bearded – they shaved some bits of their faces. Look at Bruegel’s paintings of 16th century peasants – most of them are clean-shaven.

  • ajay

    Which, if any, of these factors were absent before 1830, when you could have thrown bricks all day in central London without running the risk of hitting a single bearded man? Were barbers cheaper or razors cleaner in 1790?

    Why does the article not address the huge contradiction between a) the proposition that shaving was centrally linked to masculinity in late 19th century Britain; b) the fact that late 19th century Britain probably had fewer clean-shaven men around than Britain at any other time in its history; c) the fact that prominent clean-shaven men in that period were hardly examples of conventional masculinity, eg Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde?

    • sibusisodan

      prominent clean-shaven men in that period … Aubrey Beardsley

      Made me giggle.

      • Quicksand

        I’ll see your Aubrey Beardsley and raise you ZZ Top.

        Incidentally, I have a lot of feeds in my RSS reader. Probably too many. But as soon as I saw the article entitled “Shaving and Masculinity in the Gilded Age” I thought to myself, “ah, Loomis.”

      • Halloween Jack

        I’d always assumed Beardsley to have looked somewhat like Wilde (maybe because of the languid sensuality of much of his art); not so.

    • Anonymous

      But men can’t be slaves to fashion! They MUST have had a pragmatic reason for their ridiculous personal grooming choices.

    • LeeEsq

      British artists and bohemians like Oscar Wilde went clean-shaving because facial hair was perceived as very conventional.

  • AcademicLurker

    Given what a pain in the neck (couldn’t resist) shaving was prior to the invention of the modern safety razor, I’m kind of curious why a preference for clean shaven faces emerged in so many cultures so early on.

    • Katya

      Sign of class and wealth, maybe? You could afford to pay someone to shave you, and you could afford to spend time sitting around getting shaved. At the very least, you could afford a damn mirror so you could see what you were doing.

      • Lee Rudolph

        But if you could afford to pay someone to shave you, you could equally afford to pay someone to trim your beard neatly with scissors (or, if they had been invented by then, special beard trimmers).

      • ajay

        Sign of class and wealth, maybe? You could afford to pay someone to shave you, and you could afford to spend time sitting around getting shaved.

        See above: peasants were clean-shaven as well. Not many beards in Bruegel.

    • TribalistMeathead

      It was (and is) a pain to shave yourself using a straight razor, but I’d just assumed that, as with many things, the fact that demand was higher for barber shaves meant that barber shaves were cheaper back then.

      • LeeEsq

        Most men would go the barber around once a week back than. Few had the money or the time to get a daily shave by a barver. Back than most men would have what we would call five o’clock shadow rather than really clean-shaven faces. Some men used the straight razor at home but it was the safety razor that made daily shaving yourself a real possibility.

    • rea

      Also, the Greeks thought looking like a boy was sexy, and everyone who followed them in Western Civ. thought looking like a Greek was cool . . .

      • Anonymous

        Shaving (and close shorn hair) was useful for the warrior class by depriving your enemy of a potential handhold.

        Alexander is reputed to have promoted it for that reason.

        • chris

          Of course you don’t need a true clean shave for that; anything the length of a buzz cut or shorter will do just fine.

          I wouldn’t limit “looking younger = sexy” to the Greeks though. Plenty of men and women (although not all) have preferred adolescent men to middle-aged ones for centuries. Clean shaving is one way to look younger than your real age, especially if your beard starts graying before the rest of your hair.

          • ajay

            I wouldn’t limit “looking younger = sexy” to the Greeks though. Plenty of men and women (although not all) have preferred adolescent men to middle-aged ones for centuries.

            Contrast, of course, the fashion for powdered wigs – men with naturally brown (or black or whatever) hair would wear wigs of white hair.
            Though there’s an argument here that the wigs were so clearly artificial that the contrast would in fact make you look younger rather than older.
            Certainly this was borne out a few years ago when a friend of mine dyed his hair grey for reasons never clearly explained.

  • Was the story of the New York City barbers’ strike something I read about here, probably as part of the series on labor history, or was it somewhere else. Interesting story either way, as I recall.

    • No, I haven’t talked about that yet. Should.

It is main inner container footer text