Hair. If you’re female it’s great on your head, but we don’t really want it anywhere else. We’ve gotten pretty good at getting rid of it too, and for the most part it’s not that hard . . . now. But what about women in the past? How did they get rid of offensive hair before they had the luxury of day spas and disposable razors? Did they even care about what we would consider excess hair?
Well yes, as a matter of fact they did care. People of the 18th and early 19th centuries saw scars, blotches, or hair anywhere but on the head as a deformity. A good woman should have the complexion of a china doll, not only because it was pretty, but it was thought to be a sign of good character as well. An evil disposition, as we all know, comes out as hair, spots and freckles.
Women therefore, did what they could to look as pure and innocent as a rose, but if you had errant hair what could you do? Men went to the barber to have their hair removed, but no self-respecting woman would dare enter that manly domain. Home shaving wasn’t an option either. You practically needed a degree in cosmetology, six years with a Buddhist monk, lessons in tight rope walking and ninja training to learn how to wield one of those straight cut throat razors. As unattractive as hair might be, razor scars were no better. Home made depilatories were therefore the only way to go. One recipe you could try was a delightful mix of lime and arsenic. That’s what The Birth of Mankynde, a book first published in 1540 suggested.
Not into arsenic? Well how about cat dung?
Boy, you’re hard to please. Granted it did take skill to create these wonderful beauty products. Maybe that’s why industry began taking over their production in the early 1800s. It was pretty cheap too. For just a few cents you could purchase a thallium compound. It worked wonders for hair removal. Of course there was also systemic toxicity that could result in nerve damage or death, but on the plus side at least you’d die with smooth hairless skin. There’s always a silver lining if you look for it.
By the beginning of the 20th century the whole hair thing was beginning to take it’s toll on women. Some of this probably had to do with changes in fashion. Hemlines were getting higher, sleeves were getting shorter: taking refuge behind your clothing was no longer much of an option. For women with excessive hair this was a real problem. Physicians described “severe depression, self imposed seclusion, and nausea” as symptoms of ladies with too much hair. The Journal of the American Medical Association talked about women being embittered, melancholic and resentful.
Hair removal choices were at least becoming a little more varied by this time. You could try to rub it off with a pumice stone, sandpaper mittens, or a slightly modified shoe makers wax. 1903, however, was the year that would rock the world of stubble. From out of the hairy jungle came King Camp Gillette wielding the first T-shaped, double edged, disposable blade safety razor. A person could now shave without the risk of a mortal wound and without the worry of a dull blade. All this, and in the privacy of your own bathroom. Life, was sweet.
The dawning of World War I, brought many changes, and shaving was one of them. No longer dependent on their barbers a daily shave for men was the new expectation. But, if those same razors were left helpless and alone, it wasn’t unusual for a wife or sister to sneak in and take them for a test drive. Marketing, after all, was working double time to convince women that a hair free body would free them from all their woes; economic and social. You can blame it on Harper’s Bazaar.
May 1915 to be exact.
Summer dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair, it said under a picture of a scantily clad woman with her arm raised. The ad was for a depilatory powder but the mood was set. Underarm hair was about as glamorous as ketchup on a white dress. If you wanted to get the guys, you’d better fix that ASAP. Women had no reason to fear, however. King Gillette was soon to be not just king of the razor, but king of their hearts. In 1916 he came out with a razor specifically for those delicate little underarms; the Gillette Milady Decollete.
I have a vision, said the King, of a utopia, where women are all beautifully hairless, and he used his advertising skills to help his dream come true. Notice he refers to hairless underarms as a feature of good dressing and grooming. So if you don’t shave, you’re a slob. Unless you wanted to date Wilbur, your uncles prized pig, you’d better get that razor. In other ad’s Gillette referred to razors as a “modern necessity”, or a product for the “modern woman.”
By the time World War II rolled around women had a new challenge; their legs. Before the war, women could hide hairy legs under thick nylon stockings, but now Uncle Sam was hoarding a whopping 97% of the countries nylon. If you wanted to have the smooth leg look liquid stockings were now the only option. Basically, this was just foundation for your legs. Funny thing about those. For some reason they just couldn’t hide leg hair. It wasn’t as quick as pulling on a pair of stockings either. It was time consuming enough just to put make-up on your face. With all the added duties women had during the war, constantly painting on pantyhose just wasn’t going to cut it.
It was the Remington company that saw woman’s lack as their companies gain. They introduced the first electric razor designed for women in 1940. Things couldn’t get much easier, and by the 1950’s women shaving was a done deal.
Of course nowadays it’s taken for granted that most American women shave, and razor companies have met our enthusiasm with a wide variety of razors uniquely made for us. We even get our own special tax just for the privilege. It’s called the pink tax. Products for women average about 42% more than their male counter parts. Hum, maybe my husband’s razor isn’t so bad after all.
Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, Rebecca M. Herzig