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History of Wet Shaving-West Coast Shaving

History of Wet Shaving

It seems that as long as humans have been growing hair, they have also entertained ways to remove it. Even cave paintings show evidence of ancient man getting rid of hair. While motives, technique, and popularity have varied across the millennia, there is a storied history to the practice of wet shaving.

Ancient Practices of Wet Shaving

Pluck it like a caveman

The first evidence of eliminating hair comes from cave paintings and artifacts from 100,000 BC. Ancient man removed hair by plucking it out using shells as tweezers or flint rocks as blades. But they weren’t looking to start a fashion trend. Initially they would practice hair removal for safety/health reasons. One theory is that these early shavers would remove hair to prevent frostbite (It reduced the build up of ice that froze to beards, braids, or buns) or to combat lice and other pests. Just playing it safe.    

Eliminate it like an Egyptian

Thousands of years later, we see the advances of the Mesopotamians/Egyptians. The removal of all hair was paramount in this society. Particularly with the Egyptians, hair was removed from the entire body as a way to stay cool & clean in the hot, arid climate. They removed hair with sharpened stones and copper blades, some of the world’s first razors. But they also used depilatory creams and beeswax/sugar-based waxes.  In fact, the Sumerians might be called the Fathers of Wet Shaving as being the first to use shaving creams. After their hair elimination processes, nobles would then craft cooling wigs to cover their hairless heads and fake beards to represent their divinity. Just keeping it fresh.

Grow it like a Greek 

Unlike the Egyptians, many of the ancient Greeks were fond of the beard; so much so that removal of the beard was a sign of deep mourning or a way to shame an enemy. The Greeks equated hirsute prowess with the gods, who were often depicted with full beards.

It wasn’t until Alexander the Great that the Greeks turned to the shave. This great military conqueror required all his soldiers to be clean-shaven, as it prevented enemies from having something to grab in close-quarters combat. Just leveling up the fight. 

Shave it like a  Roman 

The Roman civilization also touted the benefits of a clean shave for health and safety (in society and in battle). A Roman soldier, Marcellinus once quipped about beards, “Take my advice and shave it off at once; for that beard is a creator of lice and not of brains”. Not being a brainless sort, Julius Caesar himself was beardless. Many young men of the culture celebrated their first shave with parties welcoming them into adulthood.  Like many of these ancient cultures, however, shaving was the purview of the elite - upper classes or the military - who had access to servants or barbers as shaving generally wasn’t done by oneself. Having wealth meant you could afford a household barber. In fact, the less body hair you had, the wealthier you appeared. Romans, just keeping it class-y.

Dye it & Hide it like an Elizabethan/Victorian

Attitudes toward facial and body hair continued to change. Hair removal became less about health & safety and more about vanity & fashion. Queen Elizabeth plucked her eyebrows and used walnut oil and other products to lighten and thin the hair on the face and the hairline. (A receding hairline was considered in vogue.) Beards were well maintained or non-existent in the upper classes. The strictures of Victorian society dictated full-coverage clothing, so hair removal on the body was a moot point.  Just keeping it outta sight.

Modern Practices of Wet Shaving

Personalize it like an Industrialist

Modern techniques and advancement began to impact shaving as well. In 1740, Benjamin Huntsman developed hollow-ground blades from Sheffield steel that advanced the design of the first straight razors. It was during the late 1700s that Jean-Jacques Perret published his “The Art of Learning to Shave Oneself” and invented a wooden guard to hold a razor blade - the precursor to the modern razor. This allowed men to shave themselves at home instead of having to be shaved by a barber. In the mid 1800s, William Henson’s hoe-shaped razor was the predecessor of today’s double-edge safety razor. Patents for shaving scuttles developed during this time. Shaving soaps and shaving brushes specifically for shaving were also experiencing popularity as men could do-it-yourself with their shave. Just keeping it DIY.

Market it like King Camp Gillette

Much of today’s wet shaving culture, however, can be traced back to King Camp Gillette. 

This traveling salesman combined the advances of previous razors with a disposable double-edge razor blade. Allowing the shaver to replace the blade with a fresh one whenever it dulled eliminated the need for stropping and honing and was more hygienic than blades that rusted easily. 

However, it also meant that shavers were on the hook to buy blades. . .  continually. He made a fortune selling the razors cheap and then providing the blades. But he really hit the jackpot when he was contracted to provide his invention as general-issue gear for the US Army in WWI. 

It quickly became a way of life to a generation of young men. Then a few years later, Gillette was targeting the untapped women’s market with his Milady Decollete razor. Just keeping it profitable.

Of course, the twentieth-century continued the trend of disposable convenience, but often at the expense of a great shave. The electric razor was introduced in 1927 to compete with a wet shave. Plastic razor handles and multiple bladed cartridges flooded the market (and the landfills). 

But by the turn of the millennium, shavers were re-discovering the benefits of a traditional wet shave. And today’s shavers are enjoying a resurgence of interest in classic tools,  natural soaps/creams, and beautiful brushes.

What drew you to wet shaving? Let us know in the comments below.
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Ronald - June 10, 2022

I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and my father always used a DE Gillette butterfly with Gillette, Wilkinson, Personna, Schick, or Gem blades. As a kid, I’d watch him lather up with his brush and soap—in what was then a real coffee mug from my uncle’s cafe—and then watch him shave (He never used after-shave lotion.). It was fascinating to me, and it was assumed in those days that—just as all male children would serve in the military—I would one day shave in the same way. In my case, that day came far sooner that I expected: I was fifteen, and very proud of my prematurely-thatched goatee and moustache, and wore long sideburns to match. One Tuesday afternoon, my clean-shaven 11th-Grade biology teacher came up to me in the hallway and very pointedly told me “the next time I see you, Mister, that goatee better be gone, and those sideburns better be up to the middle of your ears.” When I told my father what had happened, he handed me five bucks, and said, “Well, go down there to Clarence’s (the local neighborhood drugstore) and pick yourself out a razor. I’m a Gillette man, myself.” I came back with a Gillette Adjustable 10 (blades included in the smart little plastic case) and a can of Barbasol—or was it Gillette Foamy?

Terry Wallace - June 6, 2022

I’ve been DE wet shaving for about 70 years. Started with a Red Dot Fat Boy from my father (wish I’d kept that!). Occasionally I’d go off to electric or multi-blade razors, but always came back to DE wet. Never had the inclination or bravado to try straight/cutthroat though.
I shave two or three times a week going through the whole grooming ritual – hot shower face scrub, pre-shave oil, hot scuttle, brush & soap, water rinse, witch hazel, after shave & balm topper. Look twenty years younger than my peers.
I have a collection of what I consider “best for me” razors in rotation; Merkur 34C, Gillette Slim K-1 (1964), Mergress, Rockwell S6, Karve brass OC-C & OC-B open plates & a Yates 921 HYB.
Same with brush rotation, horse, boar, badger & synthetic. DIY brush with 26mm silvertip badger & exotic wood handle.
A variety of soaps (I don’t care for creams or sticks) including a DIY that works well.
I prefer Bay Rum as an after shave.
Made a wood glass door display cabinet to keep my kit together.
Life is short. Take care of yourself.

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