Thursday, January 06, 2011

Beards, Razors, and History

I have been traveling, carelessly forgot to pack my electric razor, and so had to make do with a safety razor—an experience that suggested an interesting conjecture. A safety razor is easy to use on flat parts of the face such as cheeks and temples. It is harder to use and more likely nick you where the face is more curved, for example on the chin. I have never shaved with an old fashioned straight razor, but I assume the same pattern would hold.

The conjecture is that styles in men's facial hair are in part influenced by which parts of the face are harder or easier to shave. A mustache plus goatee, for example, leaves unshaven precisely the parts of the face that are hardest to shave, judged at least by my experience. If that conjecture is correct, the invention of the electric shaver ought to have resulted in some shift away from that style in favor of others.

Actually testing the conjecture would require a good deal of work, so I will leave that part of the project to others.


At 9:12 AM, January 06, 2011, Anonymous Genius said...

I think of the electric razor as coming from the second half of the twentieth century, the safety razor as coming from the first half, and the straight razor as coming before that.

My impression is definitely that men were more cleanshaven in the first half of the twentieth century than in the second half. I don't think a lot of men between, let's say, 1930 and 1960 had a van dyke (goatee plus mustache). This would go against your notion that it's easier to shave all areas of the face with an electric razor, so that resulted in men shaving all areas of their faces.

Did most men who used straight razors shave themselves, or did they get their barbers and/or wives to do it?

At 1:28 PM, January 06, 2011, Anonymous Bruce said...

Perhaps causation worked the other way. Fashion trends towards mustaches and goatees created a demand for the electric razor, and so it was invented. : )

At 5:15 PM, January 06, 2011, Anonymous Peter A. Taylor said...

I was under the impression that men in the 1st half of the 20th century shaved in order to look like WWI veterans, who were required to shave in order to minimize lice.

At 8:01 PM, January 06, 2011, Anonymous Leonilo Rivero said...

I concur to your observations about shavings and razors. However, this subject always put be back in some intangible issues about trust, self-esteem and, perhaps, psychological projections.

All iwant to say is that i found your blogsite and decided to "follow".. :)

At 4:29 AM, January 07, 2011, Anonymous SheetWise said...

Trimming, and sculpting facial hair is much more time consuming than being clean shaven. Perhaps the effort reflects our vanity, perhaps our dedication to grooming.

At 2:40 PM, January 07, 2011, Blogger Perry E. Metzger said...

I've always used a safety razor as electrics produce unsatisfying results for me.

I have never found shaving, say, my upper lip or chin particularly difficult. My suspicion is that hair patterns are driven much more by crowd effects (aka "fashion), but of course, that is also simply a conjecture.

At 6:58 PM, January 07, 2011, Blogger Kalim Kassam said...

The chin & moustache might be the hardest part of the face to shave, but my experience suggests there's a much smaller difficulty gap between the flat and curved parts of the face than the one between the face and the neck.

The neck beard, though considered ugly today, seems to have had some popularity in 19th century America. E.g. Henry David Thoreau & Horace Greeley

At 9:18 AM, January 08, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps more interesting is that the better (cheaper?) shaving techniques seem to have made fashion for men in facial hairstyles more diverse. Before about the mid-20th century (and the safety razor), breads were either in fashion or out of fashion to the extent that one reads of breaded men being jeered at in the streets.
Going back to the Romans, being neatly shaved took a lot of effort and expense - I recall reading that two slaves and two bronze razors were needed - one sharpens the razor not being used! Bronze isn't all that hard, of course.
Upper class men, as Genius notes, used to be shaved by valets; the middle or lower-middle class by barbers; only the poor shaved themselves. But the phenomenon of imitating the upper classes also enforced the bread fashions.

At 2:44 PM, January 08, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What kind of razor did you use? If you used some cheapo plastic crap razor, it may well have been difficult.

But a Gillette Mach 3 or Fusion provides a close, clean shave, with a minimum of hassle and very little risk of facial laceration.

Gillette's innovations, starting with the Sensor, are as significant as the move from the straight razor to the safety razor.

At 4:34 PM, January 08, 2011, Blogger chriscal12 said...

At this point I've grown to like the style for aesthetic reasons as well, but that's exactly the reason I first grew a mustache and goatee.

At 7:44 AM, January 13, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My personal experience: the characteristics of people's facial hair are significantly different person to person.

I use a safety razor and this is the only method I can shave with which keeps razor bumbs and ingrown hairs to a minimum. When I used the various triple blade varieties I also got ingrown hairs.

I do not use electrics because I can never really get a clean shave with them, and on my hair they tend to do alot of biting into the skin instead of actual hair cutting. My former roommate had the same problem, but he could use the mach3s without any problem of ingrown hairs.

This has resulted in the growth of a goatee. I can get a clean ahve in the areas where cutting is minimal, and i still look fairly good in the regions it is not minimal.

At 2:48 AM, February 03, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wetshaving (shaving with traditional shaving products such as shaving brushes, DE safety razors, etc.) are actually a lively hobby with many online community groups.

It might be a sign...


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