The Art of Shaving

The Art of Shaving
Brad Larson, Director

 The first thing each new [guard] would do was go through my pockets ... The one thing that interested all ... was my Gillette razor and they all wanted it. Two offered to buy it and another to trade his straight razor for it, but ... I declined.”[1]

    In October 1918, an eighteen-year-old American private named Lowell Hollingshead was fighting with the 77th Division in France’s Argonne Forest. Hollingshead was the only survivor in a skirmish. Wounded in the leg, he was captured and taken for interrogation. German guards searched his pockets and all wanted his Gillette razor, but Hollingshead would not give it up. Why was his razor so coveted?

 Men did not shave much before the 18th century. Facial hair was kept in check with a sharp knife, but a truly smooth face was rare. The straight or “cutthroat” razor, invented in Sheffield, England, in the late 1600s, changed that. The blade was thin and able to hold an exceedingly sharp edge. The straight razor was very expensive, as were mirrors, so shaving was limited to the wealthy. A smooth shaven face became the mark of a man of means.


Straight razors and mirrors became more affordable in the 1840s due to the Industrial Revolution.[2] Still, most men had facial hair because it was fashionable, and because not everyone had the skill to use or correctly sharpen the cutthroat razor. Shaving was unpleasant, especially around the throat. When someone wanted a shave, they went to a barber.

In the late 1890s, a traveling salesman by the name of King C. Gillette invented his “safety” razor, and it went on the market in 1901. Gillette knew the real money was in the replacement blades and not the shaver. When the nation went to war in 1917, he sold 4.8 million razor sets to the government at cost.

World War I ushered in the use of various types of poison gas and all warring nations used it. A soldier’s protection was a mask, and it had to fit tightly against the facial skin to be effective. Facial hair prevented a tight seal and gas would leak in, so that meant that a soldier had to shave every day — even if that meant a painful dry shave. As a result, Private Hollingshead’s coveted Gillette razor might be the difference between life and death.

When the war ended, the smooth-shaven man was the model. A popular saying about 1920 was that a clean face was the mark of a clean-minded man. Facial hair was out of style and viewed as crude, the characteristic of a revolutionary. Facial hair regained popularity in the 1960s. Today the unshaven look is popular, especially with younger men.

The post-World War I shaving craze was not just for men. Not every woman in the 1920s wore the iconic flapper dress, but women’s fashion moved to shorter hem lines, low necklines, and bare backs. Swim suits became smaller, too. Those changes put more of the female body on view. It was unseemly for women to have hair in the wrong places, so it had to be removed. (This wasn’t a serious concern when Victorian and Edwardian fashion covered legs and arms.) Hair removal for women was not referred to as shaving, but instead it was called “smoothing.”

Americans were quick to capitalize on the popularity of smooth skin and women also used the Gillette razor, as well as depilatory creams and hot wax.[3]  In 1921, a U.S. Army Colonel named Jacob Schick invented a new type of safety razor that had replacement blades stored in the handle that were fed into shaving position. The Schick design eliminated the danger of handling the razor blade, promoted as especially appropriate for women. Alternatively, women could use a product called “Baby Touch Hair Remover,” which was actually just a piece of very fine-grit sandpaper used to abrade unwanted hair.

Today, there is a movement among some women to reject “smoothing” in favor of the natural look. Among men, the use of the straight razor is making a comeback. In the 2012 movie Skyfall, spy James Bond shaved with a straight razor. That scene set off a craze for straight razors that has yet to peak, and the German firm of DOVO barely keeps up with demand for a razor designed over 300 years ago.


  • A customer gets a shave in this c1915 photo of John H. Schmitt’s Main Street barber shop. OPM #P2000.42.86
  • Straight razor, was used by William A. Weisgerber, who operated a barbershop on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Hancock Street. It has been sharpened so often that the steel has been worn away. OPM #
  • Grouping of safety razors. OPM #

[1] McCollum, L.C. History and Rhymes of the Lost Battalion. Columbus, Ohio: L.C. McCollum Co., 1929, 74.

[2]  Mirrors, typically called a “glass,” were made widely affordable after 1835. In that year, a German   chemist named Justun von Liebig invented a way to make a low cost mirror by using metallic silver on glass.

[3]  Creams dissolve hair, and wax pulls hair out.

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