News Release 

New book charts the birth of male grooming

From donkey's genitals to perfumed pampering products -- new book charts the birth of male grooming

University of Exeter

Book Announcement

Perfumed products designed specially to soothe replaced concoctions made from donkey's genitals at the start of a booming new market for male cosmetics in Georgian Britain, research shows.

Before the 18th century the only options for men with sore skin after shaving were either unappealing-sounding recipes made from animal parts or foodstuff or occasional oils or lotions slapped on by the barber.

Changing fashions and a growing focus on men's appearance and personal grooming meant a whole new market of razors and grooming products became available to buy.

In the early modern period shaving wounds and rashes were treated by a barber or barber-surgeon. The turn of the eighteenth century, however, saw the beginnings of a commercial market which allowed men, as well as barbers, to be potential consumers, a new book by historian Dr Alun Withey from the University shows.

The second half of the eighteenth century saw rapid expansion in the numbers and types of shaving products. From virtually a standing start, a whole range of goods, from razors to shaving boxes, began to be advertised in newspapers across the country

For perhaps the first time, men were able to buy cosmetic products created and advertised specifically for them. Shaving slowly shed its earlier connections with medicine and was instead subsumed within a new form of bodywork and self-fashioning. This was a wholly new concept of men's personal grooming.

Men in early modern England didn't use cosmetics because there were few available, and they were shaved by barbers. Options included a preparation made from donkey's genitals, turned to ash and mixed with oil and lead, which was deemed useful after shaving, as well as for thickening and revivifying greying hair, described in 1661's Panzooryktologia. Another in the same book involved the use of powdered Musca fly, brimstone, hog's gall and vinegar, which was used to treat redness after shaving'. While often aimed at women, remedies for skins conditions such as 'redness' were equally applicable to both sexes

Elizabeth Hirst's late seventeenth-century receipt book contained several remedies for treating inflamed skin. One 'to take away pimples or redness in the face' involved anointing it with an unguent made from white wine, brimstone and cream.

Elizabeth Jacob's 'Suett to take away the redness of the skinn' called for a complex mix of sheep's suet, snails, sugar, rose water and wax in order to prepare an ointment, which could be kept in a pot and good for up to a year.

A 1675 'booke of useful receipts for cookery, etc' suggested washing the face with an infusion of candied water, fresh barley and white wine. Another contained a preparation made of raw egg, which was applied 'to take away heate in ye face'.

Dr Withey said: "Whereas over-attention to personal grooming, and particularly the use of cosmetics, had previously been viewed as unmanly and even effeminate, it now formed part of the corporeal duties expected of a polite gentleman."

"The raft of new shaving soaps and other products in the 18th century was designed to make the process of shaving - then sometimes a bit of an ordeal - easier and more comfortable, and even something of a sensory experience. At a time when expectations of male behaviour focussed on hardness and control, these were products sold on their luxurious softness, and scent, including amber and lavender. Razors though, which were becoming available for use by individual men at home, were still advertised using military terminology and imagery."

This apparent surge in shaving products also occurred in context of a major expansion of soap-making in Britain, which rose dramatically after 1800. Changing ideas about bodily cleanliness from the early nineteenth century also drove the demand for soap. Medical manuals stressed the importance of soap as an enabler of hygiene and its role in removing dirt and cleansing the skin. But shaving was also an important function and more than 50 soap brands appeared between 1750 and 1850. Over the same period a range of other products also appeared, including shaving oils, pastes and powders, all promising to make shaving a pleasure.

It could be argued that the eighteenth century actually saw the beginnings of the huge market for male 'product' that we see today.


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