Shaving Thoughts


‘TALKING of shaving the other night at Dr. Taylor’s,’ wrote the biographer Boswell, ‘Dr. Johnson said, “ Sir, of a thousand shavers, two do not shave so much alike as not to be distinguished.” I thought this not possible, till he specified so many of the varieties in shaving, — holding the razor more or less perpendicular; drawing long or short strokes; beginning at the upper part of the face, or the under; at the right side or the left side. Indeed when one considers what variety of sounds can be uttered by the windpipe, in the compass of a very small aperture, we may be convinced how many degrees of difference there may be in the application of the razor.’

So they talked of shaving at Dr. Taylor’s before the advent of the safetyrazor; and our curiosity can never be satisfied as to just what so acute an observer as Dr. Johnson would have thought of this characteristically modern invention to combine speed and convenience. I can imagine Boswell playfully reminding the doctor how that illustrious friend had quite recently expressed his disapproval of bleeding. ‘Sir,’ says Samuel, as he actually did on another occasion, ‘courage is a quality necessary for maintaining virtue.’ And he adds (blowing with high derision), ‘Poh! If a man is to be intimidated by the possible contemplation of his own blood — let him grow whiskers.’ At any rate among a thousand shavers to-day, two do not think so much alike that one may not be influenced by this consideration and regard Byron, composing his verses while shaving, as a braver poet than if he had performed the operation with a safety.

The world of shavers is divided into three classes: the ordinary shaver; the safety shaver; and the extraordinary-safety shaver, who buys each safety razor as soon as it is invented and is never so happy as when about to try a new one. To a shaver of this class, cost is immaterial. A safety razor for a cent, with twenty gold-monogramed blades and a guarantee of expert surgical attendance if he cuts himself, would stir his active interest neither more nor less than a safety razor for a hundred dollars, with one Cannotbedull blade and an iron-clad agreement to pay the makers an indemnity if he found it unsatisfactory. He buys them secretly, lest his wife justly accuse him of extravagance, and practices cunning in getting rid of them afterward; for to a conscientious man throwing away a razor is a responsible matter. It is hard to think of any place where a razor blade, indestructible and horribly sharp as it is, — for all purposes except shaving, — can be thrown away without some worry over possible consequences. A baby may find and swallow it; the ashman sever an artery; dropping it overboard at sea is impracticable, to say nothing of the danger to some innocent fish. Mailing it anonymously to the makers, although it is expensive, is a solution, or at least shifts the responsibility. Perhaps the safest course is to put the blades with the odds and ends you have been going to throw away to-morrow ever since you can remember; for there, while you live, nobody will ever disturb them. Once, indeed, I — but this is getting too personal: I was simply about to say that it is possible to purchase a twentyfive cent safety razor, returnable if unsatisfactory, and find the place of sale vanished before you can get back to it. But between inventions in safety razors, the extraordinary-safety shaver is likely to revert to first principles and the naked steel of his ancestors.

And as he shaves he will perhaps think sometimes of the unhappy Edward II of England, who, before his fall, wore his beard in three corkscrew curls — and was shaved afterward by a cruel jailer who had it done with cold water! The fallen monarch wept with discomfort and indignation. ‘Here at least,’ he exclaimed reproachfully, ‘is warm water on my cheeks, whether you will or no.’ But the heartless shave proceeded. Razed away were those corkscrew curls from the royal chin, and so he comes down to us without them, shaved as well as bathed in tears, — one of the pitifulest figures in history. Personally, however, I prefer to think of kindlier scenes while shaving. Nothing that I can do now can help poor Edward: no indignation of mine can warm that cold water; perhaps, after all, the cruel jailer had a natural and excusable hatred of corkscrew curls anywhere. I should feel quite differently about it if he had warmed the water; but although a man may shave himself with cold water, certainly nobody else has a right to.

There have been periods in the history of man when I, too, would probably have cultivated some form of whiskering. Perhaps, like Mr. Richard Shute, I would have kept a gentleman to read aloud to me while my valet starched and curled my whiskers, — such being the mode in the seventeenth century when Mr. Shute was what they then called, without meaning offense, a turkey merchant; and indeed his pride in his whiskers was nothing out of the common. Or, being less able to support a valet to starch and curl and a gentleman to read aloud ‘on some useful subject,’ — poor gentleman! I hope that he and Mr. Shute agreed as to what subjects were useful, but I have a feeling they did n’t, — I might have had to economize, and might have been one of those who were ‘so curious in the management, of their beards that they had pasteboard cases to put over them at night, lest they turn upon them and rumple them in their sleep.’ Nevertheless, wives continued to respect their husbands in about the normal proportion. Within the relatively brief compass of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I, who would have gone smooth-shaven in the fourteenth, could conceivably have fluttered in at least thirty-eight separate and beautiful arrangements of moustaches, beard, and whiskers. Nor, I suspect, did these arrangements wait invariably upon the slow processes of nature. One does not have to grow whiskers. Napoleon’s youthful officers were fiercely whiskered, but often with the aid of helpfully adhesive gum; and in the 1830’s there occurs in the Boston Transcript, as a matter of course, an advertisement of ‘gentlemen’s whiskers ready-made or to order.’ We see in imagination a quiet corner at the whiskerer’s, with a mirror before which the Bostonian tries on his readymade whiskers before ordering them sent home; or again, the Bostonian in doubt, selecting now this whisker and now that from the Gentlemen’s Own Whisker Book, and still with a shade of indecision on his handsome face as he holds it up to be measured. ‘Perhaps, after all, those other whiskers’ —

But the brisk, courteous person with the dividers and tape-measure is reassuring. ‘Elegant whiskers!’ he repeats at intervals. ‘They will do us both credit.’

The matter has, in fact, been intelligently studied; the beautifying effect of whiskers reduced to principles. If my face is too wide, a beard lengthens it; if my face is too narrow, it expands as if by magic with the addition of what have sometimes been affectionately called ‘ mutton chops ’ or ‘ siders ’; if my nose projects, almost like a nose trying to escape from a face to which it has been sentenced for life, a pair of large, handsome moustaches will provide a proper entourage,— a nest, so to speak, on which the nose rests contentedly, almost like a setting hen; if my nose retreats backward into my face, the æsthetic solution is obviously galways. A stout man can do wonders with his appearance by adopting a pointed beard, and a suit of clothes, shirt, necktie, and stockings with pronounced vertical stripes. A thin man, on the other hand, becomes at once substantial in effect, without being gross, if he cultivates side-whiskers, and wears a suit of clothes, shirt, cravat, and stockings with pronounced horizontal stripes. If my face lacks fierceness and dynamic force, it needs a brisk, arrogant moustache; or if it has too much of these qualities, a long, sad, drooping moustache will counterbalance them. I read in my volume of Romantic Love and Personal Beauty that ‘the movements of the moustache are dependent on the muscle called depressor alœ nasi. By specially cultivating this muscle, men might in course of time make the movements of the moustache subject to voluntary control. Just think what a capacity for emotional expression lies in such a simple organ as the dog’s caudal appendage, aptly called the ‘psychographic tail’ by Vischer; and moustaches are double, and therefore equal to two psychographic appendages! Truly I know not of which to think first — a happy man wagging his moustache or a happy dog wagging two tails. And yet here am I, shaving away the daily effort of this double psychographic appendage to become visible! One might almost think that my depressor alœ nasi was a vermiform appendix.

It has been said by some critics that whiskers are a disguise. I should be unwilling to commit myself to this belief; nor can I accept the contrary conviction that whiskers are a gift of Almighty Providence in which the Giver is so sensitively interested that to shave them off is to invite eternal punishment of a kind — and this, I think, destroys the theory — that would singe them off in about two seconds. Whiskers are real, and sometimes uncomfortably earnest; the belief that they betoken an almost brutal masculine force is visible in the fact that those whose whiskers are naturally thinnest take the greatest satisfaction in possessing them, — seem, in fact, to say proudly, ‘ These are my whiskers!’ But I cannot feel that a gentleman is any more disguised by his whiskers, real, ready-made, or made to order, than he would be if he appeared naked or in a ready-made or made-to-order suit. Whiskers, in fact, are a subtle revelation of real character, whether of the kind that exist as a soft, mysterious haze about the lower features or such as inspired the immortal limerick, — I quote from memory, —

There was an old man with a beard
Who said, ‘I am greatly afeard
Two larks and a hen,
A jay and a wren,
Have each made a nest in my beard.’

Yet I feel also and strongly that the man who shaves clean stands, as it were, on his own face.

We have, indeed, but to visualize clearly the spectacle of a man shaving himself and put beside it the spectacle of a man starching and curling his whiskers, to see the finer personal dignity that has come with the general adoption of the razor. I am not going to attempt to describe a man starching and curling his whiskers, — it would be too horrible, — but I like to dwell on the shaver. He whistles or perhaps hums. He draws hot water from the faucet — Alas, poor Edward! He makes a rich, creamy lather either in a mug or (for the sake of literary directness) on his own with a shaving stick. He strops his razor, or perhaps selects a blade already sharpened for his convenience. He rubs in the lather. He shaves, and, as Dr. Johnson so shrewdly pointed out that night at Dr. Taylor’s, ‘Sir, of a thousand shavers, two do not shave so much alike as not to be distinguished.’ Perhaps he cuts himself, for a clever man at self-mutilation can do it even with a safety; but who cares? Come, Little Alum, the shaver’s friend, smartly to the rescue! And then, being shaved, he exercises the shaver’s prerogative and powders his face. Fortunately the process does not always go so smoothly. There are times when the Local Brotherhood of Razors have gone on strike and refuse to be stropped. There are times at which the twelve interchangeable blades are hardly better for shaving than twelve interchangeable postage stamps. There are times when the lather might have been fairly guaranteed to dry on the face. There are times when Little Alum, the shaver’s friend, might well feel the sting of his own powerlessness. But these times are the blessed cause of genial satisfaction when all goes happily.

Truly it is worth while to grow a beard — for the sake of shaving it off. Not such a beard as one might starch and curl — but the beginnings — an obfuscation of the chin, cheeks, and upper lip — a horror of unseemly growth — a landscape of the face comparable to

that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower’

in Browning’s grim poem of ‘Childe Roland.’ Then is the time to strop your favorite razor! I wonder, while stropping mine, if any man still lives who uses a moustache cup?