Shaving cream is one of those things you always think of just being there, like toothpaste and toilet paper. It has become such a staple of modern life that you never take the time to consider what life could have been like before it. But you know Julius Caesar didn’t have Crest White Strips, King Tut didn’t have Charmin Ultra Soft, and Alexander the Great certainly never used Barbasol to perfect that baby-faced visage apparent from all his statues. But just our ancestors lacked these brands didn’t mean shaving was unknown (unless Mona Lisa simply never grew eyebrows). Shaving cream has a long and colorful history, and knowing where it’s been may make you appreciate where it is now.
The earliest recorded use of shaving cream comes from Mesopotamia over four thousand years ago. The Sumerians used animal fats and ashes from wood to create primitive soaps which they would apply to their beards before shaving, similar to the way fur was removed from animal hides. As evidenced by the depilated domes and immaculately shaped facial hair of their sculptures, the ancient Egyptians were probably the first culture that took shaving seriously, and they used animal fats and oils as lubricants for bronze razors. They saw beards as divine attributes of the gods, and although the pharaohs went clean shaven most of the time, they wore fake beards for ceremonial purposes. Even female rulers like Hatshepsut followed this tradition, and while this practice may seem, today, objectively icky, at least we know what they used to keep their faces so clean.
Shaving creams remained essentially unchanged from the Romans to the Renaissance, with people using soaps to develop thick lathers on their beards. Beards fell in and out of style in Europe, but by the 1700s, men and women were shaving their heads to fit under the popular powdered wigs of the time. Around this time, some of the modern shaving implements, like the badger hair brush, began to appear, but it was not until the next century that shaving creams would evolve to a form recognizable today.
Soaps meant specifically for shaving started developing in England in the early part of the 19th century; in 1840, Vroom and Fowler’s Walnut Oil Military Shaving Soap became one of the first widely available foaming tablets on the market, likely due to its catchy name. The thickness and luxuriance of the foam made it more useful for shaving than the simple soaps of before. Also during this time, barber traditions took form which basically remain unchanged today. Though we may no longer sport handlebar mustaches (a circumstance I lament terribly), we owe our knowledge of wet shaving to these early pioneers.
The 1900s saw tremendous advancements in shaving creams, but not all of them were for the better. Burma-Shave, the first “brushless,” pre-lathered shaving cream, was introduced in America in 1925 and quickly grew popular for its convenience and famous rhyming billboards that lined the nation’s highways. In the 1940s, as a result of wartime rationing, shaving creams took a step backward, lubricating without lathering, like the oils of old. In addition, Jacob Schick invented the first practical electric shaver in 1923, a device that works dry with no lubrication or cream. Although early models were somewhat clumsy and expensive, Schick sold millions and contributed to a decline in shaving cream sales across the board.
After the war, shaving cream suffered its toughest blow: aerosol spray cans. First introduced in 1949, Americans chose the speed and ease of aerosol over the quality of traditional soaps and creams, despite the fact that the cans were much more expensive than their alternatives. By the time Nixon took office, 65% of all shaving prep products sold in the US were aerosol cans, likely because of the mid-Sixties fascination with space-age technology (note: most of what I know of the 1960s comes from Star Trek). As competition among companies grew, quality diminished to try to market the cheapest products, and Americans were mired in a wasteland of dry skin and razor burn.
But there was hope. Beginning in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as EPA regulations and public sentiment turned the tide against polluting aerosol cans, many users began to turn back to old-style wet shaving. Today, many companies offer quality products in the tradition of the old masters but with modern science and ingenuity to bring shaving creams to a level previously thought unthinkable. Current wet shavers respect the classics and seek to emulate them with creams and soaps that combine the quality favored by their ancestors with centuries of learning and tinkering. We may not have powdered wigs or fake beards, but our shaving needs are no less urgent than those who came before us, and shaving cream continues its march towards perfection.