We know very little about the shaving habits and customs of our prehistoric ancestors, but ancient cave paintings normally depict men without beards. In fact, men with beards are completely absent in Spanish rock art which is among the oldest in the world.
The most accessible way of removing hair has for centuries been to cut it off with a sharp object. In the Stone Age, men would do this with flint razors, or sometimes with sharpened horn or shells. All types would, unsurprisingly, have very sharp edges.
With man's mastery of metals came new tools for many mundane tasks. Shaving being one of them.
In Egypt the nobility used gold or copper razors as far back as the 4th millennium BCE. For these early Egyptians, a hairless body was considered a beautiful body. Only on top of the head was hair allowed. Copper razors also appear in India around 3000 BCE.
Much later and much further north, around 1500 BCE, Scandinavian peoples were creating the most elaborate razors known from prehistoric times. At this time, the Bronze Age, shaving was very common all over Europe and many razors from this period have been found.
Rome didn't pick up the habit until around 500 BCE when men started shaving with razors. Now the razors were made of iron and gradually evolved into having straight blades unlike the often concave and convex styles used in the bronze age.
Later, in the Middle Ages, European women had a whole new fashion ideal to live up to: Removing their eyebrows and the hair from their temples and necks. More razors were needed.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, razors would often take the shape of miniature battle axes. But this was soon to change. A renaissance also occured in the world of hair removal.
The town of Sheffield in England is often credited with being the first to produce the straight razor, or cut throat, around 1680. But very similar designs were in fact used elsewhere in Europe as far back as the 1400s.
The straight razor was a return to the simpler shapes of Byzantine and late Roman razors but with the convenient addition of the blade being able to fold into the handle. This made the razor more portable and the user much less likely to cut unwanted parts of himself.
The cut throat is still widely used today, especially in less developed countries and with razor aficionados. Ian Fleming's James Bond naturally uses one – last seen in Skyfall (2012) where Daniel Craig is sensually shaved by Naomie Harris.
Making it safer
The next major development in shaving adressed the problem of people often ending up cutting not just their hair but also themselves when using a straight razor.
A so-called safety razor deals with this problem by enclosing most of the blade in some sort of casing so only a very small part of the blade is exposed.
It is generally believed that the Frenchman Jean Jacques Perret was the first to market such an invention – enclosing a normal straight blade in a wooden sleeve. This was in 1762 and various other solutions for guarding the blade was patented in the following decades.
The big breakthrough, however, did not come until around 1875 when, in New York City, the Kampfe brothers started selling the first razor actually labelled a safety razor.
The main difference from the Perret design was that the Kampfe brother's "Star" razor put the blade on top of a "box" at the end of a handle – much like today's razors. The user would then glide this box, or the 'head', across the skin, and as the blade protruded slightly beyond the edge of the box, it would cut off the hair. The blade could be removed, sharpened and re-used.
"The mowing operation [..] could be performed with almost reckless boldness as one cannot cut himself, and in fact had become a pleasant amusement instead of an irksome task. I have never used any other means of shaving from that day to this."
Making it easier
This sparked a small revolution in shaving, and not many years later, in 1903, an American named King Camp Gillette started selling similar safety razors but with one important change: The blade was very thin and could not be re-sharpened, so the user would be required to buy a new one instead of having the existing one sharpened every time it went dull. The disposable blade had arrived.
This small alteration made keeping your razor sharp much easier but also more costly as you would have to keep buying new blades. This concept would make Gillette a very wealthy man and virtually all safety razors used today are based on this principle.
Today Gillette is owned by Procter & Gamble and no longer produces metal, one-blade safety razors but instead multiblade systems where the handles are made of plastic. On these modern inventions not just the blade, but the whole "cartridge" holding multiple blades, is disposed of.
The "Gillette Fusion ProGilde Power Razor" (sic) from 2011 holds no less than 5 blades, a microchip and a battery. The multi-blade arms race between major producers of razors has often been the subject of satire. No evidence exists to suggest that one gets a better or closer shave with multiple blades.
Although many today still prefer a wet shave with either a cut throat or one form of safety razor, the 20th century offered humanity yet another way of removing hair: the electrical one.
The first razor powered by electricity was patented in the USA in 1928 and marketed shortly after. It worked by means of an oscillating motor sliding a blade back and forth. The user would then move the shaver across the skin to let the moving blade cut off the hair.
Various ways of electrically cutting the hair have been introduced since then, and today two main types exist:
The "foil shaver" uses a series of blades under a, usually rectangular, metallic foil. The foil is designed to raise the hair and guide the hairs closer to the vibrating blades that move in straight lines.
The "rotary shaver" was invented later and is mainly sold by Philips today. On this, the blades rotate in circular encasings. Normally three encasings are used – placed in a triangular pattern.
Theoretically, the foil shaver will give you a slightly closer shave, but the rotary shaver will work better on curved areas and can cut longer hairs.
Electrical razors are usually considered more convenient as you can shave more quickly and without water and lather. They can, however, not shave the skin quite as close as wet shaving can, are more likely to cause skin irritation and, many feel, do not leave the user feeling "fresh faced" like one does after a wet shave.
A new renaissance?
Maybe the desire for a fresh face obtained in style is the reason the 21st century is seeing an emerging revival of the classic safety razor. It will provide a close shave, and the initial investment in the handle is balanced by the now inexpensive blades being significantly cheaper to replace than the multi-blade cartridges needed for more recent mass market razors. As an example, a double edge blade costs 0.36 euro here on Waremakers, if bought in a pack of 25. A cartridge can easily cost ten times that.
The classic safety razor will also, some feel, provide a more elegant way of removing one's body hair. Presumably not a main priority for the ancient caveman, but certainly one today for many men.
According to Gillette, 72 percent of the American men who shave, do so with a blade and razor. 28 percent use an electric shaver. The organization Superbrands assesses that world wide 85% of all shavers prefer to wet shave.
When you wake up in the morning you have less body fluids, so it is a good idea to avoid shaving right after waking up. Shaving dry skin can lead to skin irritation.
Men's facial hair on average grows around 15 cm, or 6 inches, in a year.
Apr. 7% of the world's men do not shave due to religious convictions.
The straight razor has been used in one form or another for centuries. Today the term normally refers to a single blade that will fold into an attached handle.
The safety razor encases most of the blade in some type of "housing" so only a very small part of it is exposed. The original safety razor uses a single blade, but today's mass market products with multiblade cartridges are also a form of safety razor.
The electrical razor today uses either an oscillating or a rotating blade to cut off the hair. It is generally considered a convenient way of shaving - although not as effective as a wet shave.
Razor blades are today almost entirely made of stainless steel.
The razors themselves are made with many materials. The mass market razors found in supermarkets are usually made of various plastics.
The handles of higher quality straight razors and safety razors can be made from steel, horn, wood, resin (hardened plant liquid) or even ivory and porcelain.