For many centuries men allowed their facial hair to grow. In the early decades of United States history, such public figures as politicians and businessmen often sported beards or mustaches. In an act of rebellion during the 1890s, British artist-illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), and Irish poet-playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) shaved their faces. It was not until after World War I (1914–18) that shaving became fashionable. By then a modern, well-groomed male was a clean-shaven male.
Men grew their facial hair for several, logical reasons: it was annoying and difficult to remove on a regular basis and doing so was quite literally a bloody affair. Men who attempted to be clean-shaven employed an array of mostly complicated objects to cut their hair, from clamshells to stones to steel razors. The latter had to be constantly sharpened and were referred to as being cut-throat because, if used improperly, they could be quite dangerous.
The shaving process became easier and safer during the nineteenth century with the invention of the T-shaped safety razor, in which the skin was exposed only to the edge of the blade. The trend towards shaving, however, may be most directly linked to King Camp Gillette (1855–1932). In 1895 Gillette, a traveling salesman, originated the concept of a disposable razor blade. Working with engineer William E. Nickerson (1853–1930), he created a thin, replaceable double-edged blade, which was patented in 1901 and immediately marketed. Previous blades were sharpened when they became dull. Gillette's blades were disposable and were safe and inexpensive.
At the time most men were shaved by barbers; they occasionally shaved themselves at home, peering into small mirrors before lathering up their faces. They favored some form of facial hair if only because they could not be bothered to shave themselves, or be shaved, every day. During World War I Gillette struck a deal with the U.S. armed forces, which issued a safety razor and disposable blades to each soldier. While in combat shaving one's face was practical, and potentially lifesaving, because it allowed the soldier to more safely close and seal his gas mask. Thus, hundreds of thousands of young men simultaneously became adept at shaving themselves. At the war's end each soldier was allowed to keep his razor and Gillette began mass-producing replacement blades for this ready-made market of men who shaved daily.
Adding to the popularity of the clean-shaven look was the development of the electric shaver in the 1920s and its subsequent marketing during the following decade. With the advent of the electric shaver, men found it even easier to remove their facial hair without having to depend upon water, soap, and razor blades.
Adams, Russell B. King C. Gillette, the Man and His Wonderful Shaving Device. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1978.
Barlow, Ronald S. The Vanishing American Barber Shop. El Cajon, CA: Windmill Publishing Company, 1993.
Dowling, Tim. King Camp Gillette: Inventor of the Disposable Culture. London, England: Short Books, 2001.
[ See also Volume 4, 1930–45: Electric Shaver ]