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On Shaving

A philanthropist has published a little book which interests persons who in civilized society form a respectable minority, and in the savage world an overpowering majority. But, savage or polite, almost all men must shave, or must be shaved, and the author of "A Few Useful Hints on Shaving," is, in his degree, a benefactor to his fellow-creatures. The mere existence of the beard may be accounted for in various ways; but, however we explain it, the beard is apt to prove a nuisance to its proprietor. Speculators of the old school may explain the beard as part of the punishment entailed on man with the curse of labour. The toilsome day begins with the task of scraping the chin and contemplating, as the process goes on, a face that day by day grows older and more weary. No race that shaves can shirk the sense of passing time, or be unaware of the approach of wrinkles, of "crow's-feet," of greyness. Shaving is the most melancholy, and to many people the most laborious of labours. It seems, therefore, more plausible (if less scientific) to look on the beard as a penalty for some ancient offence of our race, than to say with Mr. Grant Allen, and perhaps other disciples of Mr. Darwin, that the beard is the survival of a very primitive decoration. According to this view man was originally very hairy. His hair wore off in patches as he acquired the habits of sleeping on his sides and of sitting with his back against a tree, or against the wall of his hut. The hair of dogs is not worn off thus, but what of that? After some hundreds of thousands of years had passed, our ancestors (according to this system) awoke to the consciousness that they were patchy and spotty, and they determined to eradicate all hair that was not ornamental. The eyebrows, moustache, and, unfortunately, the beard seemed to most races worth preserving. There are, indeed, some happy peoples who have no beards, or none worth notice. Very early in their history they must have taken the great resolve to "live down" and root out the martial growth that fringes our lips. But among European peoples the absence of a beard has usually been a reproach, and the enemies of Njal, in ancient Iceland, could find nothing worse to say of him than that he was beardless. Mehemet Ali bought sham beards for his Egyptian grenadiers, that they might more closely resemble the European model. The soldiers of Harold thought that the Normans were all priests, because they were "shavelings;" and it is only natural that soldiers should in all countries be bearded. It is almost impossible to shave during a campaign. Stendhal, the French novelist and critic, was remarkable as the best, perhaps the only, clean- shaved man in the French army during the dreadful retreat from Moscow. In his time, as in that of our fathers, ideas of beauty had changed, and the smooth chin was as much the mark of a gentleman as the bearded chin had been the token of a man.

The idea that shaving is a duty--ceremonial, as among the Egyptian priests, or social merely, as among ourselves--is older than the invention of steel or even of bronze razors. Nothing is more remarkable in savage life than the resolution of the braves who shave with a shell or with a broken piece of glass, left by European mariners. A warrior will throw himself upon the ground, and while one friend sits on his head, and another holds his arms and prevents him from struggling, a third will scrape his chin with the shell or the broken bottle-glass till he rises, bleeding, but beardless. Macaulay, it seems, must have shaved almost as badly with the razor of modern life. When he went to a barber, and, after an easy shave, asked what he owed, the fellow replied, "Just what you generally give the man who shaves you, sir." "I generally give him two cuts on each cheek," said the historian of England. Shaving requires a combination of qualities which rarely meet in one amateur. You should have plenty of razors, unlike a Prussian ambassador of the stingy Frederick. This ambassador, according to Voltaire, cut his throat with the only razor he possessed. The chin of that diplomatist must have been unworthy alike of the Court to which he was accredited, and of that from which he came. The exquisite shaver who would face the world with a smooth chin requires many razors, many strops, many brushes, odd soaps, a light steady hand, and, perhaps, a certain gaiety of temper which prevents edged weapons from offering unholy temptations. Possibly the shaver is born, not made, like the poet; it is sure that many men are born with an inability to shave. Hence comes the need for the kindly race of barbers, a race dear to literature. Their shops were the earliest clubs, their conversation was all the ancient world knew in the way of society journals. Horace, George Eliot, Beaumarchais, Cervantes, and Scott have appreciated the barber, and celebrated his characteristics. If the wearing of the beard ever became universal, the world, and especially the Spanish and Italian world, would sadly miss the barber and the barber's shop. The energy of the British character, our zeal for individual enterprise, makes us a self-shaving race; the Latin peoples are economical, but they do not grudge paying for an easy shave. Americans in this matter are more Continental than English in their taste. Was it not in Marseilles that his friends induced Mark Twain to be shaved by a barber worthy of the bottle-glass or sea-shell stage of his profession? They pretended that his performances were equal to those of the barber on board the ship that brought them from America.

Englishmen, as a rule, shave themselves when they do not wear beards. The author of the little pamphlet before us gives a dozen curious hints which prove the difficulty of the art. Almost all razors, he seems to think, were "made to sell." He suggests that razors of tried and trusty character, razors whose public form can be depended upon, should be purchased of barbers. But it is not every barber who will part with such possessions. Razors are like Scotch sheep dogs; no one would keep a bad one, or sell, or give away a good one. Coelebs did not find the quest of a wife more arduous than all men find that of a really responsible razor. You may be unlucky in the important matter of lather. For soap our author gives a recipe which reminds one of Walton's quaint prescriptions and queer preparations. Shaving soap should be made at home, it seems, and the mystery of its manufacture is here disclosed. The only way to keep razors "set" is to persevere in sending them to various barbers till the genius who can "set" them to your hand is discovered. Perhaps he lives at Aleppo; perhaps, like the father of a heroine of comic song, at Jerusalem. Till he is discovered the shaver wins no secure happiness, and in the search for the barber who has an elective affinity for the shaver may be found material for an operetta or an epic. The shaver figures as a sort of Alastor, seeking the ideal setter of razors, as Shelley's Alastor sought ideal beauty in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan, and in the very home of the Central Asian Question. No razor should be condemned till it has been "stropped" well and carefully. And this brings us to the great topic of strops. Some say that soldiers' old buff belts make the best strops. The Scotch peasantry use a peculiar hard smooth fungus which grows in decaying elm trees. Our author has heard that "Government now demands the return of" the old buff belts. Government cannot want them all for its own use, and perhaps will see to it that old buff strops once more find an open market. In the lack of old buff belts, you may mix up tallow and the ashes of burnt newspaper, and smear this unctuous compound on the strop. People who neglect these "tips," and who are clumsy, like most of us, may waste a forty-eighth part of their adult years in shaving. This time is worth economizing, and with a little forethought, an ideal razor-setter, tallow, buff belts, burnt newspapers, and the rest, we may shave in five minutes daily.


Andrew Lang