Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, June 27, 2016

Shaving, Disposability, and the First World War

A Doughboy Shaving in Camp with a Gillette Razor

For much of human history, men were stuck with facial hair. Beards were mandatory unless one wanted to pluck out the follicles.

Once metallurgy has been refined in any civilization, however, the technology of knives and scissors follows soon after. These cutting tools become more and more refined, and these refinements lead to the development of the razor — the sharpest knife possible. With a very sharp knife, it became possible to begin shaving.

Even with these developments, however, men preferred beards. This may be because shaving with a straight razor is a somewhat dangerous activity unless you lived in a city and were able to afford regular visits to the barber. And so, all the way up to the 20th century, beards were fashionable and most men wore them.

But during World War I in the United States, that all changed thanks to a former traveling salesman and socialist manqué Utopian named King C. Gillette. He released his "safety razor" in 1901, and by 1917 it was steadily gaining popularity because of a massive ad campaign. His device made it possible and inexpensive for men to shave daily.  

Better yet for razor manufacturers, soldiers in the expanding United States Army were required to shave. This was in good part a necessity due to the emerging dangers of chemical warfare. Soldiers had to use gas masks for the first time. In order for a gas mask to fit properly, you need to be clean shaven.

For whatever his anti-capitalist tendencies, King Gillette was a marketing genius. For instance, he had instinctively known that his real moneymaker wasn't the razor but the blades that had to be regularly replaced. His concept of selling the razor — effectively just a mount and shaper for his blades and which never wore out — at highly discounted prices, while making his profit on the blades that needed to be regularly replaced, was the birth of the disposable,  limited-lifespan culture.

When war broke out Gillette jumped on the opportunity to expose his product to a shaving-obliged and captive market of millions of young Americans. He sold 4.8 million of his "Khaki" razor sets to the U.S. government at cost. His real bonanza came after hostilities ended and the Doughboys went back home.

After the War
As I Mentioned, Gillette Was a Marketing Genius

When all of the soldiers returned from WWI with their clean-shaven faces, they were heroes. They appeared in their home towns, and they also appeared in newsreels in the new movie theaters that had sprung up everywhere. Combined with ad campaigns from companies like Gillette, it became the fashion to be clean shaven. Between 1920 and 1960, beards were definitely out of fashion, but, as we know, that trend moderated afterward.

Sources: How Stuff Works, Wikipedia


  1. My grandfather told me a story about trying to buy shaving cream and toothpaste in France. It seems that he accidentally bought glue in both cases. He was gassed anyway.

  2. Beards and facial hair on men was not a permanent fashion necessity throughout history. Think of the signers of the Declaration of Independence - not a beard amongst the lot. Think also of the changes in appearance of Abraham Lincoln, who started his political career clean shaven but only in the White House came to be known for his rather distinctive beard. As late as the Mexican War, the majority of men were clean shaven, Robert E. Lee only sporting a small mustache at the time. Think also of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic times, clean shaven except for possibly the soldiers of the Old Guard ...

    1. You are correct. Every photograph (of a painting) of the Revolutionary War has clean shaven men. The only exception I have seen are depiction of Lexington and Concord.The people painted were often well off and many battle paintings were made years after the battle. The Civil War had the first photos.

  3. Cleanly shaved wounded warriors were much easier to operate on..

  4. But razors heads needed to be kept clean. All rust and crud removed as a knick with a razor blade could be infected. Razor blades themselves had other uses beside shaving. They could scrape floors of barracks and dried mud and dirt from windows of vehicles.

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