Cosmetic and hygiene-related products, perhaps due to the personal and often somewhat private nature of their use, are a deeply compelling class of artifacts. As commodities through which we tailor our appearance (or odor) and in turn shape our relationships and encounters with others, objects …
This blog invites you to participate in Garbology–the practice of looking at modern trash to understand how archaeological deposits are formed (Rathje 1992). Go to your bathroom and take a look around. How many hygiene products do you have? What is the packaging made of? …
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)
The Saints’ Rest Dormitory has a foundational history with Michigan State University, acting as the first dormitory for the fledgling college, and with the Campus Archaeology Program itself, being the first large-scale excavation and archaeological fieldschool on campus. Built in 1856, Saints’ Rest was the …
For my personal research I study issues related to health and disease, so whenever I see something health related in the CAP collection I jump at the opportunity to do a blog post about it. That happened recently when I came across this seemingly simple …
Lisa Bright, the reigning Campus Archaeologist, wrote to me recently to say that she had discovered a Listerine bottle in the Admin/Gunson assemblage that was excavated during the CAP field school this past summer. While a Listerine bottle may seem like a fairly innocuous item (especially when found in the context of the extremely large Admin assemblage), the bottle actually tells us quite a bit about past activities on campus. Or, rather, it gives us a clue about the past activities. Part of the fun of archaeology is detective work, and this bottle is a great example of how historical archaeologists can use a blend of archival information and historical advertisements in their assessment of artifacts.
What makes this bottle particularly useful for interpreting past activities is that the hand blown maker’s mark indicates that it was made by the Obear-Nester glass company of East St. Louis in Illinois between 1895-1914. According to the Listerine website (www.listerine.co.za), Dr. Joseph Lister entered the history books as the first surgeon to operate in a sterilized chamber; following this operation, sterilization became a critical component in surgical theaters, leading to a significant reduction of infections and deaths. Having been inspired by Dr. Lister’s work, Dr. Joseph Lawrence formulated a compound in 1879 that could be used as a disinfectant for surgical rooms as well as a wash for abrasions and wounds. Named after Dr. Lister, Listerine was used for surgical and dental purposes until around 1914 and could be attained only through prescription. After 1915, Listerine re-branded their product and changed their marketing focus to combatting bad breath, enabling sales of the solution over the counter (a first for a prescription product in the United States). We can even thank Listerine for coining the term, “halitosis” (www.listerine.com.za/history/brand-heritage).
So, what does a surgical and bad breath antiseptic mean for archaeology (and for early MSU students)? Because of Lisa’s research, we are able to position the Listerine bottle from the Admin/Gunson assemblage within that first wave of prescription Listerine products. The fact that it was found in this collection of materials is interesting – and its presence makes us question what activity (or mishap!) led to need for the prescription. In contrast, CAP has found another Listerine bottle at People’s Park that was made after 1915. Because Listerine was widely available then as an anti-bad breath agent, we can confidently infer its usage. The Admin/Gunson bottle, however, will have to be understood within the context of the rest of the assemblage. It will be exciting to see if more medical bottles are located in the artifacts excavated this summer.
A Google search for historical Listerine ads will result in a many images of advertisements that center around a common theme of women looking forlorn that they have such horrible breath. In modern context, they are quite funny. Imagine a student at MSU viewing one of these ads then rushing out to buy Listerine! If anyone has access to Listerine ads that ran earlier than 1914, please let us know.