Masculinity and shaving advertisements

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By | The Researcher’s View

To mark Movember, we invited “pogonographer-in-chief” Alun Withey, to commission a month of posts celebrating the history and culture of facial hair. Here’s the fourth in the series, by Justin Bengry.

Having slept little, enjoying only a fitful and restless sleep, Jonathan Harker got up to shave. He was startled by the appearance behind him of the Count Dracula, whose reflection had not appeared in his shaving mirror:

“In starting I had cut myself slightly, but did not notice it at the moment. … [T]he cut had bled a little, and the blood was trickling over my chin. I laid down the razor, turning as I did so half round to look for some sticking plaster. When the Count saw my face, his eyes blazed with a sort of demonic fury, and he suddenly made a grab at my throat.”


Gianni Lunadei as Count Dracula in a 1980 Spanish television programme. Image credit: Alejandro Lunadei on Wikimedia Commons.

It is significant that our first awareness in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) of the danger in which Harker finds himself is realised while he is shaving. Representations of shaving like this offer insights into complex discourses regarding the nature of masculinity, its genuine and perceived threats, and their potential solutions around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries.

Unlike Stoker’s male protagonist, most Victorian men did not find themselves threatened by the malevolent undead. Men did, however, encounter other threats in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Real or perceived, these manifested themselves in beings no less fearful to many than Stoker’s vampires. The New Woman, re-evaluations of domesticity, the changing realities of the Empire, as well as modernity and urban life all destabilised understandings and experiences of masculinity. Further, the risk of genuine injury while shaving, as well as penetration of the body by germs and disease, posed palpable dangers, and makes representations of shaving a fruitful site in which to read understandings of masculinities.

Taming the wild frontier

Tensions surrounding masculine domestication appear in advertising for shaving products that themselves domesticate the body, even as they simultaneously promoted fantasies of escape from that domestication.

Advertisment Williams' Shaving Stick, Shooting the Rapids

“Shooting the Rapids” advertisement for Williams’ Shaving Stick, from The Illustrated London News, 7 January 1899; no. 35. Image credit: Justin Bengry.

One shaving advert promoted the backcountry of Canada as such a site of escape and imperial fantasy. Though largely tamed by the 1840s, the rapids of Canadian wilderness remained a must-see for travellers into the 20th century. By 1900, while the danger was diminished, the fantasy remained. In an 1899 advert for Williams’ Shaving Soaps entitled “Shooting the Rapids”, the male body is equated with the colonial terrain. Patricia Jasen has identified the gendering of the Canadian landscape, arguing that the backcountry was constructed as a wild and dangerous territory where metropolitan men could affirm, even reclaim, masculinity challenged by urban domesticity. As Anne M Windholz similarly argues, “British manhood would bring civilization to the hinterlands of the world; in turn, the hinterlands of the world would save British manhood from civilization”.

The “Shooting the Rapids” advert is populated solely by men actively constructing an imperial fantasy of masculinity. It was “often very risky business”, the advert tells us, to navigate this terrain. The act of shaving “is risky too” and is equated with shooting the rapids because both posed risks of “hidden rocks” threatening men’s safety.

Safety was a recurrent trope in Williams’ advertisements, which promised to mitigate both the dangers of shaving and the empire, and perhaps home as well. The dangers that threaten men in the advert include “disease germs [and] rank poison”. Men are thus warned against the “smarting and burning sensations” they will encounter if they fail to use products (or services) of “known purity and long-established reputation” (emphasis in original), suggesting both physical and sexual health, in the empire and at home.

The threat of germs

The dangers posed by nicks, cuts, and open pores could also be microbial. As understandings of microbial life and the dangers of infection developed, Nancy Tomes argues that a preoccupation with hygiene, what she calls the Gospel of Germs took hold. Men shaved their beards to avoid the danger of carrying infection. In hospitals doctors too sacrificed beards and moustaches “on the altar of asepsis”. The luxurious beard was to be surrendered to “spare loved ones the curse of hairy, germ-laden kisses”. One anti-TB slogan asked men to “Sacrifice Whiskers and Save Children”.

A Dream advertisement for Williams' Shaving Soap

“A Dream” advertisement for Williams’ Shaving Soap, from The Illustrated London News, 8 December 1900; no. 848. Image credit Justin Bengry.

Echoing concerns of safety of various kinds, one advert called ‘A Dream’ shows the customer in a state of vulnerability lying asleep in the barber’s chair. Wielding the cut-throat razor’s blade and stropping strip, the barber has his back both to client and the product fairies’ protective banners. The banner reading “safety [and] security” conspicuously surrounds the head of the barber and promises to mitigate any danger he may offer. The imperial imagery in the “Shooting the Rapids” ad likewise reminds metropolitan men that dangers threaten not only “comfort” but also their and their family’s “safety [and] health.” Promises of safety return repeatedly in the ad, which ends by assuring men, “You can always rely on the absolute purity and safety of WILLIAMS’ SHAVING SOAPS” (emphasis in original).

Masculine domesticity

Besides imperial identities, a man’s place in the home also appears as a valued masculinity in shaving adverts. By embracing exactly those characteristics that imperial masculinities would expunge, such ads offered to re-stabilise uncertain gender dynamics at home. A Williams Co. ad entitled “Feels Good on the Face” shows a couple embracing while the man shaves. Promising “all possible comfort, convenience and safety,” the ad tells men, “You owe it to your face.” Representing “safety,” “comfort,” and convenience” in a scene of domestic fidelity, “Williams’ Shaving Stick guarantees these.” Represented by this and other ads, the threat to masculinity from the domesticating forces of women and the home appear diminished. In fact, it is within the home, where feminine and domestic influences are so clearly illustrated by the active participation of wives and children in the act of shaving, that men can find security and safety from dangers lurking without.

"Feels good on the Face" advertisement for Williams' Shaving Stick

“Feels Good on the Face” advertisement for Williams’ Shaving Stick, from Illustrated London News, 3 March 1906; no. 323. Image credit: Justin Bengry.

Advertisers deployed an array of male identities around the turn of the 20th century. But these identities were never uniform or consistent. Imperial examples of masculinity existed beside promotions of domestic masculinities. Men were exhorted to be both adventurous and familial. Only apparently contradictory, representations of masculinity served to manage social and cultural pressures which were equally inconsistent, contradictory, and vague. This apparent flux, not necessarily a sign of masculinity’s perpetual state of crisis, indicates instead its incredible malleability in the commercial sphere – and continuing power.

Author: Dr Justin Bengry is a writer and researcher and co-founder and managing editor of the history of sexuality blog Notches.

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