Saturday, 13 December 2014

What You Didn't Know About Shaving

     There are so many things we just take for granted, but never question: like men shaving themselves. We've always done it, haven't we? Well, at least since we decided we didn't like our beards? Not exactly. In ancient Rome, men didn't shave themselves; they went to the local barber (from barba, a beard), who wielded his razor at a streetside stall while the crowds jostled around. They also went only every second day, which meant that most males sported a five o'clock shadow - something Hollywood never cottoned on to. So why didn't they shave themselves?
     Part of it was just culture, I suppose, but you must remember that the Roman Empire was 2,000 years ago, and was thus "third world". The average citizen dwelt in a pokey little dive in a big apartment complex in a city as crowded as Bombay or Calcutta. They had no running water. Drinking water was hauled upstairs from fountains or wells. Their clothes were washed by the local laundryman, and their bodies washed in the public baths - but not every day, for the facilities just weren't available. As for shaving, if a man wanted to do it in his pokey little dive, then he was shaving blind. Mirrors were a feminine item, and they were made of bronze. That is the significance of St Paul's off-quoted words, "through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). It is a bad translation, of course; it should be "by means of a glass darkly", with "glass" being merely the King James term for a mirror. And, obviously a bronze mirror is not exactly perfect for reflecting the stubble on a man's face. Although expensive glass mirrors were known in the fourteenth century, they really took off only after the Venetians learned how to coat the back of a sheet of glass with an amalgam of tin and mercury in the 1560s, and it was almost another three centuries before silvering on mirrors became the vogue.
     Maybe I'm spoilt, but I would have thought that good hand mirrors would be essential for effective self-shaving. Nevertheless, I haven't yet been able to discover when it became fashionable for men to wield a razor on their own faces, rather than those of his customers. What I did find out was this: when Gillette introduces a new razor, the pay men to shave in front of a two-way mirror so that they can discover its quirks. It turns out there are endless male foibles in shaving. Some of us whip it off in 40 broad swipes; others use 2,000 small ones. Some men remove their whiskers in just a couple of minutes, while some take up to half an hour.
     That came as a surprise to you, didn't it? I bet you thought shaving was just shaving, and everybody did it just the same as you? But think about it: how often have you watched another man shave? No doubt, as boy, you saw your father do it, but you didn't study his style in detail. If you tried, he probably told you to get lost, as it was ruining his concentration. Then, when your time came, he gave you a brush and razor, and some simple instructions in how to use them. But your beard was nothing like his. Every two or three days you would wield the blade over the few tufts of bristles which began protruding from your boyish skin, probably at the same time attempting to negotiate the pimples which are the poison of puberty. As time went on, and your whiskers began to proliferate, you gradually developed a system of your own for removing them.
     Your sister would have received more instructions about applying makeup than you ever did for shaving. Shaving is one of the very few skilled tasks which are virtually self-taught.