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There's nothing more drastic that we men can do to change our appearance than deciding to change how we groom our facial hair. Whether you spend every morning religiously applying shaving cream for a close shave, or you keep your beard trimmed to the perfect length, you might wonder just when did men start shaving?
When Did Men Start Shaving?
Men started shaving as far back as our cavemen days. Yes. You read that right. Even before men crafted the first metal knives, some were taking the time to shave their beards. We know this thanks to ancient cave paintings in the Ukraine that show men with short stubble on their faces.
These early attempts at grooming were likely done with sharp stone blades or possibly by tweezing using seashells—a shaving practice later used by the ancient Egyptians. While it's not clear why those early cavemen began shaving, we do know that men's shaving habits—and reasons for shaving—have a long and varied history throughout the millennia.
Shaving In Ancient History
2600 B.C. - Ancient Egypt
Conjure up an image in your mind of ancient Egypt and you're likely to imagine a Pharaoh decked out in gold sporting an impressively long beard. That beard was so iconic that even the female pharaoh Hatshepsut donned a false beard to signify her divine right to rule.
Beards might have been an attribute of the gods, but the Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs tied on false beards (called an "osird") made of precious metals and gemstones rather than growing their own. In fact, facial hair was seen as a dirty and even animalistic. Only the poorest Egyptians grew their beards out, and that was by necessity more often than choice. Anyone with the leisure time fastidiously shaved every day.
The earliest Egyptians shaved using sharpened oyster shells or a simple stone blade set into a wooden handle, but by 1600 B.C. bronze razors were the tool of choice. The earliest hair removal creams date back to this same time period. Professional barbers attended to nobles and commoners alike, keeping men, women, and children smooth-skinned from head to toe. Keeping well-shaved was so important that razors became one of the essential items Egyptians wanted to take with them after death.
1500 B.C. - Ancient Scandinavia
Ancient Egyptians weren't the only ones wanting a nice clean shave in the afterlife. Ancient Scandinavians buried men with razors bearing carved horse-head handles.
800 B.C. - Ancient Greece
The ancient Greeks had a very different view of facial hair than their predecessors to the South. Beards were vitally important to men's status in Greek society. Beards equaled wisdom for the men of Ancient Greece. Young boys could not cut their hair until they began to grow their first facial stubble, which was then ritually cut and presented to the gods to obtain blessings for the boy. Being clean-shaven was such a disgrace that criminals' beards were shaved as a humiliating punishment.
Beards continued as the staple fashion for Greek men until around 350 B.C. when Alexander the Great demanded that his soldiers be clean-shaven. He saw the beard as just another striking point for the enemy, who could grab hold of it and yank a soldier off a horse. Alexander's army employed a battalion of barbers who would shave every soldier the night before a battle.
700 B.C. - Ancient Rome
Like many other aspects of ancient Greek culture, early Romans adopted the habit of sporting a beard. However, those in military service often found long beards impractical for being on the frontiers and kept their beards closely trimmed. Around 600 B.C., Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the King of Rome, tried introducing the razor to Romans and encouraged Roman men to shave.
Over the next few decades, Romans fully embraced the close-shave. Julius Ceaser was so adamant about keeping a smooth-skinned appearance that he would have his barber pluck each hair from his face!
Christianity's Beard Wars
Early Christendom - To Beard Or Not To Beard
While the only religious prescriptions against shaving came from the original Jewish Old Testament practice of tonsure (where men can't shave the sides of their beard), some of the earliest Christians shunned shaving in any form. They favored a full beard.
One of these pro-bearded Christians was the Church Father Clement of Alexandria. To Clement, beards represented everything a man should be. He famously declared that it was "unholy" for men to shave their beards. But since beards represented status and pride, most monks and clergymen shaved regularly as an act of humility.
Push Back From Bearded Clergy
By the 5th century A.D., there was a greater push against monks and clergy who shaved or trimmed their beards. The Judean Desert monastery refused to admit any clean-shaven initiates. The leader of the monastery didn't want any "womanly-looking" monks in his cloister. A few decades later, a rule stated that no cleric should grow his hair long or shave his beard, though later copies often shortened the rule, claiming men just couldn't grow their beards too long.
Shaven Pearly Gate-Keeping
The trend for beards fell in and out of favor over the centuries. So, when did men start shaving in Christian communities? Pope Leo III became the very first clean-shaven Pope in the late 700s A.D.
Three-hundred years later, Christendom was split between the Western (Roman Catholic Church) and Eastern (Byzantine Eastern Orthodox Church) halves. Western Christians were clean-shaven or had trimmed beards, especially after the Roman Catholic Church banned beards in 1031. But Byzantine Christians kept growing their beards long.
In 1054 when Pope Leo IV sent an emissary to the Byzantine Eastern Orthodox Church to smooth over some theological discrepancies between the Western and Eastern halves of Christendom, relations took an especially sour turn. The Roman Catholic Church emissary excommunicated the entire Eastern half of Christianity. And one reason listed was that those unruly Byzantine Christians didn't shave.
By 1105, the Western Christian tradition of being clean-shaven was so entrenched that one Bishop refused to provide Holy Communion to any man that came to church unshaven on Christmas Day. The clean-shaven face had become the epitome of holiness.
The Reformation And The Bearded Rebels
By the 1500s, after Martin Luther hammered his theses on the church door, beards starting staging a comeback. The new Protestants didn't stage their protest with sit-ins or marches. Nope. They grew beards. And they grew them long. A short beard meant a man might just kind of support the new Protestant movement. But a long beard? That meant a man was steaming mad, and he wanted the church to know it.
The bearded style was back, becoming more and more popular with the men of Western Europe.
The Beard Taxes
So, when did men start shaving again in Europe? A part of the answer dates to the beard taxes. In England and Russia, in the 16th and 17th centuries, some rulers decided to place a tax on beards. These taxes deterred men from growing beards and encouraged them to shave regularly.
King Henry VIII of England
Supposedly, the first to tax men for having hairy chins was the bearded King Henry the VIII of England. There isn't much hard evidence for King Henry's beard tax in 1535, but the tax might've been a part of the Sumptuary Laws. The Sumptuary Laws were a set of rules about what people of different classes were allowed to wear, even going so far as what materials and colors a man could wear. The beard tax was said to depend on social class and might have been a way to protect the prestige of the beard.
Queen Elizabeth I of England
Queen Elizabeth I is believed to have followed in her father's footsteps by instituting a beard tax along with a proclamation about what a person could wear based on their class. Like her father before her, she wanted to make it easy to see just who was nobility and who was not. But the barely enforced beard taxes of England had nothing on the Russian beard tax that would follow in the next century.
Peter the Great of Russia
Russian society, since the days of the early Byzantine Eastern Orthodox Church, placed a high value on long beards. But by the end of the 17th century, times were changing. For Tsar Peter I, who traveled through Europe in disguise, the shift to a clean-shaven Russia couldn't come fast enough.
Tsar Peter returned from his travels with his razor in hand and his jawline as smooth as a baby's bottom and demanded the rest of his subjects follow suit. A clean-shaven face was the future of the modern Russian man.
To kick off his campaign for modernity, he whipped out a massive razor at a welcome-home party and shaved the beard off of every horrified commander, diplomat, and guest in attendance. He then instituted a beard tax and had Russian police enforce it by checking to see if bearded men had paid up. Those who had paid the tax presented their special bearded token and went on their way. Those who hadn't were forcibly shaved.
A Modern History Of Shaving
Popularity Of The Straight Blade Razor
The straight blade—or cutthroat—razors became popular when the Sheffield razor was invented in 1680. These silver-handled razors were exported throughout Europe all the way to the newly converted Russian shavers.
The straight blade would hold its status as the razor of choice through Victorian times. Even today we consider it one of the best razors for those prepared to learn the craft of shaving with a straight blade. Few can compete with the close shave that a straight razor provides.
When Did Men Start Shaving With A Safety Razor?
Jean Jacques Perret has the honor developing the first safety razor. He published a book in 1769 called "The Art of Shaving Oneself" which gave instructions for the razor blade he had invented a few years earlier. He called it a rasoir à rabot, or a plane for the beard. Perret's razor had a wooden cover that only exposed a small portion of the blade, making it safer for the average man to use.