Shaving was an important part of the Victorian gentleman's routine, and the assortment of finely
crafted equipment he used is a delight to the collector
Men started shaving around 4000 years ago and since then facial hair has been in and out of fashion.
The early Victorians adopted a splendid range of styled beards and side whiskers. By the 1880s, however, the fashion for young men had swung towards the clean shaven.
To maintain a neat, well-shaved appearance, the Victorian gentleman needed a range of shaving equipment.
First of all, a good mirror was essential. These came in all shapes and forms, from tall wooden floor stands fitted with a circular table for the shaving equipment, an oval mirror and sometimes an oil lamp to provide additional light, to small metal examples to go on the washstand.
The most vital piece of equipment was the razor.
The cut-throat design used by the Victorians had changed little since the 17th century, although improvements in the steel blade and general design made shaving a somewhat less precarious ritual than it had been in past centuries.
Most men had at least two razors which they used on alternate days, while some owned a matched set of seven, which were either numbered or had the days of the week engraved on the handle.
Although safety razors were introduced in the 1870s, they did not catch on until the turn of the century - Victorians considered them unmanly.
However many razors a gentleman possessed, he (or his manservant) still had the time-consuming task of sharpening the blades regularly.
For this he used either a slate, carborundum or synthetic hone to grind down the edge of the blade, or a strop. Strictly speaking, the strop did not sharpen the blade, but merely realigned its microscopic teeth.
Strops were of two sorts; rigid and hanging. Rigid strops were often made in the form of an elongated handled box which also served as a container for the razor itself.
The hanging strop consisted of a strip of canvas-backed leather, designed to be hung hammock-style
from a wall-mounted hook.
Six strokes of the blade on the tightly-held strop before and after shaving maintained the blade's condition.
The rich lather necessary for a good shave was created with fine shaving soap. This was sold in short sticks or balls which were designed to fit either in a traditionally-styled wooden bowl or a ceramic shaving mug.
To create a lather, a brush made from fine badger hair or hog's bristle was dampened and then rubbed vigorously on the shaving soap.
Many Victorian gentlemen chose to shave in the newly installed bathroom, with its ready supply of hot water. Shelves or a washstand had space for toiletries, including a razor, a shaving mug and soap and a brush.
Improvements in the steel of a cut-throat razor were often indicated on the blade, and this gives a guideline as to the date. Blades marked
'Cast Steel' or 'Acier Fondue' date a razor at somewhere between 1770 and 1830.
The word 'Silver Steel' appeared around 1820 and 'lndia Steel' after 1840.
Another indication of the date can be the reigning sovereign's initials, which were occasionally stamped on the blade.
Blades were often etched in decorative patterns, but the handle was usually the
most striking part. Perhaps the most beautiful handles were
those made from mother-of-pearl or shaped sterling silver. Horn was extensively used.
It could he powdered, melted and pressed into elaborate scenes, painted to resemble tortoiseshell, or
simply, left plain and smooth.
Rarer finds include razors with handles of real tortoiseshell which, on close inspection, is mottled and rippled, whereas horn has a fibrous streaked structure.
In the mid-19th century, plastics first found their way onto the market and handles made from ivorine or celluloid, in imitation of ivory and horn, became common.
When buying a shaving mirror, first check the mirror itself to see that it is in good condition and the silvering has not been damaged by damp.
Mirrors in a similar style, especially small dressing-table swivel mirrors, are still made today.
Signs of wear and the quality of workmanship usually distinguish Victorian versions from the modern ones.