A Close Shave: Personal Grooming and Social Interaction during the Early History of MAC
The Saints’ Rest excavations conducted by the Campus Archaeology Program have been well-documented and researched not only because this was the inaugural project for CAP, but also that it is one of the earliest buildings on campus, giving us a rare glimpse into how students lived during the formative years of the institution. Due to the many posts written about his site, I will not attempt to synthesize the vast amount of information we have gathered here, but will focus on a particular artifact that that I feel is particularly pertinent for this time of the year.
During the 2005 excavations of Saints’ Rest, CAP unearthed (and expertly reconstructed) a mid-19th century shaving mug. Given that the close of No-Shave-November is upon us, it is only appropriate that I delve into the history of personal hygiene and social interactions through the lens of cumbersome facial hair. The mug in question was possibly a deep or royal blue color during its use-life, but was likely damaged in the fire that consumed Saints’ Rest, thereby distorting its true color and any decoration applied after it was fired in a kiln.
Facial hair hygienic practices have archaeological roots indicating that before the adoption of metallic shaving devices, sharpened shells were likely used (1). Once copper began being utilized for various other reasons, the metal was manipulated into rudimentary shaving implements. During the 18th century, the straight razor is known to have been manufactured in England (2). Yet shaving mugs, and its not far-off cousin the shaving scuttle, were not officially patented until 1867 (3). Shaving mugs (and scuttles) were used mainly for mainly two functions: 1) to hold hot water used to heat up the brush, and 2) whip up a large lather from the shaving soap. Traditional shaving soaps were hardened soap discs, not the canned foams or gels we know today.
The mug would be filled with water that had been heated over a stove and then let the soap brush sit and warm up in the water. After the water was dumped out and the brush had coated in the shaving soap, the mug was then used to create a lather by whipping the soapy brush until a thick foam appeared.
This is obviously a much more laborious process than we know today, especially since the straight razor was the most popular shaving implement until the invention and patent of the safety razors in 1887 (although the most popular was designed by King C. Gillette in 1895), although it still took some time before these razors were widely used (4). The safety razor changed the culture of shaving by making it less time-consuming, less intimidating, and an overall easier process since the razors were designed to be discarded after one use.
Given the date of both the patent of the safety razor (1887) and the date when Saints’ Rest burned down (1876), this mug would have been used during the hey-day straight razor shaving. Additionally, since no other shaving mug pieces have been found or identified from the Saints’ Rest assemblage, this might indicate that shaving may have been a social bonding experience between students as well as a representation of social identity. The modification of any type of appearance on the body is both a reflection of the self as well as a reflection of the culture in which one exists (5). Although the vast majority of men do not let their facial hair grow wild and untouched, grooming by means of shaving off all facial hair or implementing certain styles is a social communication that produces, reproduces, and emphasizes a sense of self within a cultural system.
In order for these excavations and artifacts to have any meaning, we must root them within the cultural context from which they were found. Only then do we go beyond the description of an object, such as a simple shaving mug, to the interpretation and social importance that the object can convey. So as the end No-Shave-November is creeping near, grab your shaving mug, your shaving soap, and your straight razor and participate in the culturally communicative body modification process and express your social identity! (or keep the beard, it matters not to me)
Be sure to check out our 3D photogrammetry model of the shaving mug linked here!
- Sherrow, V. (2006). Encyclopedia of hair: a cultural history. Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Brown,K. (2009). Foul bodies: cleanliness in early America. Yale University Press.
- Brooks, J. P., & McGrady, J. (1867 – July). Improvement in shaving-cups. U.S. Patent 66,788.
- Thorpe, S. C. (1953). Practice and science of standard barbering, Milady Publishing Corp.
- Turner,T. S. (2012). The social skin. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2(2),486-504.