The History of Shaving and Beards

Why did men start shaving their beards?

November 7, 2019
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Can you imagine plucking facial hair? When (and why) do men shave beards? Interestingly, shaving has been around since the cave man! Perceptions of facial hair like beards and mustaches have fallen in and out of fashion over the centuries, just as they do today.

When Men Started Shaving Beards

Beards have been regarded as unclean nuisances, signs of divinity, symbols of strength, and handsome characteristics of an elite man throughout the centuries. Beards go in and out of favor. 

Whether or not a man grows facial hair has been determined culturally based on religion, convenience in war, and simple preference. In the present day, due to the safety and convenience of razors, more men have embraced the ease of a clean-shaven lifestyle.

Take a look at how cultures from the ancient Egyptians to the more recent French monarchies decided whether or not to grow a beard!

Shaving and Facial Hair in Ancient History

  • c. 30,000 BC: Ancient cave paintings often depict men without beards, and suggest that people shaved or removed unwanted hair with clamshells, which were used like tweezers, or with blades made of flint.

  • c. 3000 BC: Copper razors arrived in India and Egypt.

  • c. 3000332 BC: Ancient Egyptian nobles shaved their heads and bodies because they highly valued hairlessness. Remember: Back then, lice and staying clean was more of a challenge. However, men (and sometimes women) of noble birth wore artificial beards as a sign of divinity.  (The god Osiris wore a beard.) Wigs were also common to protect the head from the sun.

  • c. 2900500 BC: Mesopotamian rulers and elites wore beards, which were signs of masculinity and strength.

  • c. 15001200 BC: Scandinavian burial mounds contain elaborate bronze razors with handles shaped like the heads of horses.

  • c. 800 BC600 ADThe Ancient Greeks were proud of their beards. The ability to grow a full beard at that time was a sign of high status and wisdom. (Many Greek men wished to emulate the gods Zeus and Heracles, both who were shown with huge beards.) Greeks only cut their beards during times of mourning.

  • c. 400 BCAncient Romans reacted against the long, heavy beards of the Greeks, keeping their beards clipped and neat or shaving their beards completely. In the fourth century AD, Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman soldier wrote, ‘Do you suppose that your beard creates brains …? Take my advice and shave it off at once; for that beard is a creator of lice and not of brains.’

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  • 400300 BC: Alexander the Great was clean-shaven and encouraged his soldiers shave before battle, as beards could be grabbed by enemies in “hand-to-beard combat.”

  • c. 300 BC: Young Roman men celebrated their first shave in parties with gifts symbolizing the transition to adulthood. Roman men either went to the barber at the start of their days or had a live-in servant to help them shave. Romans let their beards grow when in mourning.

  • c. 50 BC: Julius Caesar plucked out his beard hairs, and many Roman men followed suit. (Ouch!) 

  • c. 100 AD: Roman Emperor Hadrian revived the growing of beards throughout Rome, only because he wished to hide his blemished skin.  However, the Romans’ attitudes toward beards would wax and wane through history. Though older men equated beards with wisdom, younger men thought the sight of a man with a full beard looked old and unkempt. 

  • c. 793 AD1066 AD: With the Vikings invading Britain, they depicted the Vikings as unruly in manner and looks with unkempt hair and beards. (This isn’t actually factual.) In reaction, the trend became beardless, once again.

Shaving and Facial Hair in Modern History

  • Middle Ages: Beards went in and out of fashion depending on the habits of prominent men. English King Henry VII was beardless, and Henry VIII wore a beard. Many members of French royalty donned beards as well.

  • c. 1500: Many emerging Protestants grew beads as a demonstration against Catholicism (most priests were clean-shaven).

  • 1769: French barber Jean-Jacques Perret published The Art of Learning to Shave Oneself (La Pogonotomie). The Perret Razor was invented as a safety measure with a wooden guard to hold the razor blade in place and prevent deep cuts.

  • 17891861: The first 15 U.S. presidents were beardless.

  • c. 1800: Straight steel razors were widely popular. Men had to rub the blade against a usually leather or canvas strap, called stropping, to realign the fine metal edge and remove any corrosion before each shave. The blades also needed to be honed periodically, a sharpening process that was often done by a barber.

  • 18611913: Starting with Abraham Lincoln, who was famously advised to grow a beard by a little girl, every president up to William Howard Taft wore facial hair (except Andrew Johnson, who was impeached, and William McKinley, who was assassinated). Beards were required to be carefully maintained during the Victorian Era.

  • 1895: King Gillette invented and began to sell disposable razor blades. With the disposable blade, stropping and honing were no longer needed.

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  • 1913-Present: All presidents have been clean-shaven since William Howard Taft.

  • 1928: Jacob Schick invented the electric razor.

  • 1930: The U.S. military prohibited beards because they prevent a tight seal for gas masks.

  • 1990: J. Ann Reed and Elizabeth Blunk’s paper in Social Behavior and Personality found “consistently more positive perceptions of social/physical attractiveness, personality, competency, and composure for men with facial hair.”

  • 1999: In Police v. City of Newark, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of two Muslim policemen who objected to shaving their beards on religious grounds.

  • Present: Amish men shave until they are married, then never again. Observant Jewish men follow Leviticus 19:27, forbidding them to shave “the corners of the beard.” Most men decide whether or not to shave based on personal preference, but shaving’s ease and convenience have drawn more men to be clean-shaven.

Have a beard and eager to maintain it? Try out these great conditioner recipes and these tips for hair care.

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Reader Comments

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What about the cream?

This is a great detailed list of the process of shaving, but what about the creams and foams that were used at the same time? My interest stems from the fact that we are producing scents of certain periods, and I am currently working on the period around WW1. I would be fascinated to hear from anyone who can help with the main ingredients used in shaving foam/soap of that time.

Ingredients used in shaving soap / powder

My grandfather was born in 1908. As as child, I remember him using his shaving brush to mix “shaving powder” and warm/hot water in his shaving bowl (the bowl that accompanied the shaving brush) to mix the powder into a shaving cream. He would then lap his straight edged razor on a leather strap a few times and begin to shave. Around 1968, I recall him switching to a different razor that had a replaceable single edged blade. Cuts from shaving were occasional. I hope this helps. :-)

Fun article but it would be wise to proof read your work.

This is a great article. I was only today thinking of this table of 20 bearded guys who I saw at a restaurant. I wanted to ask if they were having a beard convention. Alas, I shall never know! I do want to suggest that the author better proof their work. While Bead instead of Beard is funny, Geek instead of Greek could be seen as an ethnic slur.

To be fair, almost anything

To be fair, almost anything could be considered an ethnic slur these days.

Great article!

Great article and fascinating facts. I have a beard as my professional theatre role as Sir Walter Raleigh demands and I have learned that people's reactions to beards is very mixed. Some look at it as disgusting or lazy while others look at it and compliment 'how it looks dashing and masculine'. Since I keep my beard neatly trimmed, I am fortunate that people I encounter every day both on and off the stage have positive things to say about it. *BTW: Love the typo about the Ancient Greeks, 'Geeks only cut their beards during times of mourning.' So I guess geeks stood out (because they were clean shaven) during times of mourning. :) Thanks again for a fascinating article!

Thanks!

I was curious about this. I couldn't imagine plucking my facial hair.