Did common people used to shave with fire?
November 9, 2009 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Before the sharp steel razor became generally available, what did most people shave with? Fire seems the best choice. Right?

So I'm living any time prior to the last 400 years or so.
I'm an everyday Joe/Jane, not rich enough for luxuries.
But whatever culture I'm living in mandates a shaved face/legs/head/whatever.

I've heard of bronze age razors and cutting hair with knapped volcanic glass, but it seems to me that it would be a lot easier to just take it off with a burning twig.

Not to mention less painful - I imagine a copper or obsidian razor would probably be like shaving with a carpenter's plane or a piece of broken glass.

And I suppose that the nobility got up to all kinds of fancy things; but I'm more interested in the common person than some kingling who had a team of slaves responsible for plucking each individual hair.

What does the hive mind know about popular deplilatory habits of the previous couple of millennia?
posted by penciltopper to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've heard of bronze age razors and cutting hair with knapped volcanic glass, but it seems to me that it would be a lot easier to just take it off with a burning twig.


How in any way would that be less painful? I don't mean to snark, but it just doesn't make sense to me.
posted by Think_Long at 10:13 AM on November 9, 2009


Maybe they didn't shave but waxed it off?
posted by stormpooper at 10:14 AM on November 9, 2009


I don't understand how burning hair off is not painful.

Kudos, though, for spelling knapped correctly.
posted by dfriedman at 10:16 AM on November 9, 2009


seems like metal razors have been common for a long time. Stone -- flint, obsidian -- can be made very sharp. I really don't think fire close to your face is or has ever been a pain-free option for hair removal.
posted by cubby at 10:17 AM on November 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


How in any way would that be less painful?

You can have your skin under flame for a moment, it won't hurt.
posted by floam at 10:17 AM on November 9, 2009


Threading.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:18 AM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Aside from the very sparse information available on Wikipedia, you have to keep two things in mind: 1) for most of the world's population, it's a moot point, since they have relatively little facial hair, and 2) the people that do have abundant beards have pretty good reasons for keeping it on, i.e. it keeps their face from freezing off in winter. Also, as tough as it might be to get a close shave with a copper razor, it would be even harder to singe it off with a "burning twig" or similar implement without, you know, burning your face off.

I think that, in general, a nice clean shave and/or elaborate facial hair grooming generally was more of a class signifier than a universally-expected standard.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:21 AM on November 9, 2009


Well, re fire: see this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlmGGVQeU4E

That said, it's for ear hair, not the whole face.
posted by dfriedman at 10:21 AM on November 9, 2009


So I'm living any time prior to the last 400 years or so.
I'm an everyday Joe/Jane, not rich enough for luxuries.
But whatever culture I'm living in mandates a shaved face/legs/head/whatever.


And what culture is this, exactly?
posted by rhizome at 10:24 AM on November 9, 2009


How in any way would that be less painful?

It's not like you have to hold the flame directly to your skin; and hair will curl up and drop off before your skin even registers the heat. Anyone who's ever fed a campfire and wondered where their arm hair went knows this.

Seems like if I wanted to clean up my hairy legs or give myself a mohawk, I'd prefer singeing it off with a candle to scraping it off with a rusty piece of copper or a sharpened clamshell. And it seems like this option would be more intuitive to me, as humans would have a longer close experience with fire than with truly sharp objects.
posted by penciltopper at 10:26 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


A Short History of Shaving has pretty good coverage of pre-modern shaving techniques in various cultures.
posted by jedicus at 10:29 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Shaving Historical Timeline
http://www.quikshave.com/timeline.htm

Try shaving with fire and let us know the pros and cons.
posted by andrewzipp at 10:30 AM on November 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


By 100,000 BC, man was engaging in activities that some modern primitives still enjoy -- filing teeth, tattooing the body, and using seashells to pluck out hair. All this is enthusiastically documented in detail in early cave paintings.

By 30,000 BC, the first disposable razors made of sharp flint appeared; they must have been wretchedly painful ... by the Bronze Age, metal innovations led to the creation of permanent copper razors. Iron blades first appeared in 1,000 BC. By 300 BC, Egyptians took the whole shaving trend to heart, as they resolutely believed that head, facial, and body hair were animalistic and uncivilized ... By 500 BC, Alexander the Great insisted that his troops shave to avoid dangerous bead-grabbing in combat, and because he believed it look tidier ... In Rome, the rich retained servants to shave them, while the less wealthy would head to a barber who used an 'iron novacila', a shaving instrument which tended to rust and grow blunt, cutting many and killing a few with tetanus ... one's class and status could be read by the hair on your face, including whether you were a slave or master.


From One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:31 AM on November 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


You have to stop using your imagination, I'm afraid, because it's leading you astray. When an edge hurts on your face, it's because it's blunt and pulling the hair out of the skin rather than cutting all the way through. Glass, and particularly obsidian, is extremely sharp. Likewise, bronze is quite hard and will take a good edge. If you read that people used glass and bronze, that's what they did.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:32 AM on November 9, 2009


In Imperial Rome the style changed variously from clean shaven (the Julio-Claudians) to fully bearded (Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, etc), partially dependent on how much the Roman people wanted to draw distinction between themselves and the (typically) bearded Greeks (or to whatever emperor with clout ruled before him). It is normally assumed that the people followed their rulers in facial hair style.

There's some about what technology they had here, in the last section before the bottom of the page.
posted by urbanlenny at 10:36 AM on November 9, 2009


And what culture is this, exactly?
Are you asking for an exact list of any and all societies from the beginning of time to 1600 that had some societal or cultural disposition to remove hair from some part of the body? Come on.

Let's put it this way; I am either a soldier or a dancing girl. Neither has ever really been paid all that much. But warriors throughout time have had distinctive hairstyles, either functional or to mark affiliation; dancing girls throughout time have had to follow fashions of the day or of the ruler's preference.

So for thousands of years people who have never had an entire gold coin of their own have also had to shave. I'm just asking Mefites for reasons why they might have done it with tools more complicated and expensive to manufacture than fire.
posted by penciltopper at 10:36 AM on November 9, 2009


Let's put it this way; I am either a soldier or a dancing girl. Neither has ever really been paid all that much. But warriors throughout time have had distinctive hairstyles, either functional or to mark affiliation; dancing girls throughout time have had to follow fashions of the day or of the ruler's preference.

So for thousands of years people who have never had an entire gold coin of their own have also had to shave. I'm just asking Mefites for reasons why they might have done it with tools more complicated and expensive to manufacture than fire.


Well, that's what barbers are for. They would have made the investment into this very expensive 'razor' thing.
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:47 AM on November 9, 2009


I suggest you try it empirically. With facial hair. I suspect you'll find a significantly higher 'Ow, F*ck!' factor than you seem to expect.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:51 AM on November 9, 2009


2nding threading. I'm have no reference for the historical basis of this but threading would work. Time consuming and probably a bit painful, but less dangerous.
posted by Procloeon at 10:51 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Have you ever seen what volcanic glass (obsidian) can do to you? It is much sharper than any razor, but unpredictably so. I was watching an anthropologist who knows about this stuff hit obsidian at a certain angle to fracture it into sharp fragments, when all of a sudden blood from his hand started dripping profusely on the floor. While he was telling us how sharp it is he cut himself without being aware of it. No way you could shave with this without cutting yourself to ribbons.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:10 AM on November 9, 2009


I just read a bio of Augustus that suggests he singed off excess body hair with heated walnut shells.
posted by Tchad at 11:10 AM on November 9, 2009


So for thousands of years people who have never had an entire gold coin of their own have also had to shave. I'm just asking Mefites for reasons why they might have done it with tools more complicated and expensive to manufacture than fire.

I don't know why you think fire seems like an obvious, intuitive choice to me. It seems like a mistake a would hurt a hell of a lot more. And how are you supposed to get a close shave with fire? I can see how you might be able to burn hair off every couple months but how on earth could you maintain a clean shave that way? I mean, you can't burn off stubble.

On the other hand, humans have had access to knives and blades for a long time. A lot longer then 400 years, for sure. A dull blade might be uncomfortable, but you're not going to burn your face off with it.
posted by delmoi at 11:24 AM on November 9, 2009


Fun fact about Roman beards:
It is now generally believed that the reason that the bearded emperor came into fashion was because Hadrian had a heavy duty case of acne or smallpox or some other sort of disfiguring diease and wanted to cover it up. He was also a huge fan of Hellenistic culture, and thus the obvious solution was to grow a beard. Hadrian was one of the better emperors in history, and so the beard stuck.
posted by daniel striped tiger at 11:24 AM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm just really not clear on why you're dead certain that people could not use properly sharpened cutting instruments. This is one of the most basic tools dating back to prehistory. Cutting instruments were necessary for almost anything you can imagine making in the pre-industrial age. Why would people not have access to them?

Making things strong and sharp was a critical technology, and people got very good at it.
posted by dhartung at 11:58 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


weapons-grade pandemonium: when I was a kid, I experimented trying to make obsidian arrowheads. Yes, you can have scary sharp edges. But I could shave the hair off my arm without cutting myself. I think would have been about 9 or 10. I'm sure an adult Aztec with a polished stone for a mirror could manage just fine (or get a trusted helper to do it).

I have to say I am kind of perplexed that people's automatic reaction to recorded phenonmena is to say "ooh, I can't imagine that working, therefore it must not have happened."
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:55 PM on November 9, 2009


I mean, you can't burn off stubble.

Have you never noticed after playing with fire your stubble and eyelashes are gone?
posted by floam at 12:55 PM on November 9, 2009


Oh look what 10 seconds of Googling produces.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:56 PM on November 9, 2009


I have anecdotally heard about sharpened shell edges (as in a good-sized clam shell) being used in native cultures.

Also, and dhartung points out, if a sharp edge is your only technology, and you can make it by rubbing one thing on another, a lot of people are going to get very very good at it.
posted by Aquaman at 1:12 PM on November 9, 2009


Some people use shave grass (horsetail) because silica crystals line up on the edge of the blade of grass which can be used to cut very precise clean lines,such as a mohawk.
posted by hortense at 1:41 PM on November 9, 2009


I know your question is about shaving, but I've read before that in the middle east and India-type countries, they made wax out of sugar/honey to remove body hair, for example when a girl is getting married and her body must be totally hairless (except for her head). I don't think the same would work for facial hair because it is a lot coarser.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 1:55 PM on November 9, 2009


Data point on the 'shaving with fire' issue: I once saw a homeless person quite adeptly singeing his whiskers off with a lit piece of rolled up newspaper, so it's not impossible.
posted by trip and a half at 2:17 PM on November 9, 2009


Pumice.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:07 PM on November 9, 2009


Flint and obsidian seemed too precious and easily worn materials for everyone to have their own razor.
Scraping a piece of copper or bronze over your skin seemed like it would require too much skill and practice and tool maintenance.

In both cases, I forgot about barbers! Of course this would have been an early specialized form of work! And its ubiquity would mean that the barber could fashion/maintain his single set of tools when not actually shaving people, and the price for a shave would have been next to nothing, especially in societies where everyone had to go to the barber to get shaved regularly.

So it's not like I don't believe it's possible to shave with obsidian, it just didn't fit the modern model I was using, where everyone has their own full personal set of grooming tools made possible and inexpensive by advanced materials and mass manufacturing (and yes, I consider quality steel as an advanced material, at least in this ancient-history context).
posted by penciltopper at 5:59 PM on November 9, 2009


not to be pedantic (which of course means I'm going to be pedantic) but an obsidian edge is one of the sharpest in the world, actually.
c.f. the wikipedia entry on obsidian:
Obsidian has been used in cardiac surgery, as well-crafted obsidian blades have a cutting edge many times sharper than high-quality steel surgical scalpels, with the edge of the blade being only about 3 nanometres wide.[10]
clearly, a barber could shave you with it.
posted by namewithoutwords at 6:26 PM on November 9, 2009


Unless someone happens to have particularly thin facial hair, threading will not work. Beard hair goes in deep and there are a lot more nerve endings on the cheeks than [most of] the other places one would want to remove hair from.

I'd wager that the clean-shaven look in a culture only appeared when some kind of cutting blade technology had already appeared. The fancy guy in the tribe is slicing up some elk or something, and gets a burning stick above his head (because the lightbulb hadn't been invented yet), and shaves his face. He is, of course, laughed at and killed at sunrise. But six months later, everyone who is anyone is doing it.

In cultures before blades, I would imagine that abrasion from living a hard life probably kept the beards at a decent length. And if the hair got in the way, they probably developed a hair pulling out tic of some kind, or ground it off between two rocks. If they lived long enough for the hair to get that long.

[aside to the anthropologists in the crowd- what was the purpose of the bride-shaving ritual? I'm guessing it started as a health-check kind of thing, which probably quickly morphed into a youth-emulation and/or religious thing. I don't see it starting as a youth-emulation thing, because wouldn't it be a secret? Nobody would go around demanding shorn brides, because that would defeat the purpose, which would be making sure you are getting a youthful bride. So if that was the purpose, you'd probably start a tradition of making sure the bride *hadn't* been depilated, not the other way 'round. And if it was simply aesthetic, wouldn't it have become more frequent than a wedding-chore?]
posted by gjc at 5:10 PM on November 10, 2009


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