Personal Grooming in the Nineteenth Century



Dr Alun Withey

Alun Withey is a Senior Lecturer at Exeter University, specialising in the history of medicine between the 17th and 19th centuries. He has published several books, including a study of medicine in 17th century Wales and technologies for the body in the 18th century. He has recently completed a major study of the history of facial hair in Britain, and his new book Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England, 1650-1900.

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Thursday, April 29 2021
Personal Grooming & Travel

This is the fifth installment of a six part serial about Lloyd's Register and the Victorian Beard Movement written by Dr. Alun Withey. To find out about all upcoming releases, sign up to the Heritage & Education Centre's mailing list.


For a gentleman in the 19th century, attending to personal appearance was of paramount importance. Time and care taken in personal grooming was considered well spent, not least because it suggested attention to detail, which in turn spoke volumes about the meticulousness of the individual man.  Advice literature for men (with alluring titles such as The Gentleman’s Companion to the Toilet) reinforced the need to take care of the hair, face, and any surface of the body that was visible to the public.

As the author of the Gentleman’s Manual of Modern Etiquette noted in 1849, ‘of the importance of personal cleanliness on the score of health, as well as decency, we presume that it is unnecessary to dilate. The flesh, teeth and nails should be cleansed at regular and fixed intervals the nails should never be permitted to attain to an offensive length’. 

Ideally, a gentleman should have his own space at home, perhaps a dressing room, in which he could attend to his ablutions before beginning the day. 

"But the surveyors of Lloyd's Register spent a great deal of time in travelling, sometimes for weeks at a time on longer voyages. Although these were likely to have been larger steam ships and paddle steamers, conditions aboard could vary widely, and were sometimes rather less than luxurious. How did men attend to their appearance whilst travelling, and particularly on sea voyages?"

Some idea of the problems involved in maintaining levels of hygiene and appearance at sea, can be gleaned from books such as the Gentleman’s Manual of Politeness, which give a good idea of the processes involved in daily toilette. First was to wash down with a sponge, using as much water as possible in a basin. Rather worryingly the author noted that ‘on protracted sea voyages the ration is often reduced to half a pint a day for all purposes’! Hopefully this was not an event that ever befell any of the Lloyd's Register's surveyors. After a good wash down with a rough sponge, and a towel dry, it was time to pay attention to other important areas, such as teeth, nails and beard. How often men took the time to do this whilst actually on their journey is harder to tell.

Gentleman's Goods & Luggage

As with many other areas of life, where there was need came a market. From the eighteenth century, instrument makers, perfumers and all manner of other retailers began to sell ready-made dressing cases and kits containing everything that the discerning gentleman traveller might need on his journey. The rising popularity of travel, both for business and pleasure in the Victorian period, meant that there was a steady demand for these sorts of goods. 

What sorts of items could be purchased? Specialists such as Ross and Co. advertised their ‘Travelling Requisites’ which included dressing cases, writing cases, travelling bags, umbrellas and walking sticks, as well as items for personalised grooming. Rodrigues of Piccadilly sold elegant travelling dressing bags, with silver or plated fittings, whilst ‘Allen’s of London included their dressing bags in their catalogue of more than ‘500 Articles for Continental travelling’.  

For British travellers to India, Treacher and Company in Bombay specialised in ‘solid leather dressing cases, specially suitable for Travellers and Gentlemen travelling in our districts’. The contents of their cases give a useful idea of the sorts of things which were considered useful. Typical in such sets, for example, were brushes to cover every eventuality, including hair brushes, to maintain shine and shape in a gentleman’s locks, tooth brushes to remove particles of food, and nail brushes, since dirty nails were considered a sign of slovenliness. Nail trimmers or clippers were often included, again to maintain a neat and refined appearance. Razors, were another common inclusion, sometimes in sets of two or three to cut down on the need for sharpening, as well as a small mirror…everything necessary to make a man of business presentable.  

Such was the importance of this corner of the market that the International Exhibition held in London in 1862 even contained an entire gallery dedicated to ‘Toilet, Travelling and Miscellaneous Articles’. Here visitors could wander around stalls from some of the most prominent companies, including Aspreys, Mappin and Sons and Mechi’s, each of whom advertised their products widely in Victorian newspapers.   

In providing all the necessary instruments for daily toilette, and keeping them together in a handy place, traveller’s products were doubtless an important part of a gentleman’s luggage. What the makers of these sets could not help with, however, was how to do all of this in a cramped cabin on a rolling sea! 

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