Shaving aboard Ships



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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Tuesday, May 11 2021

This is the sixth 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.

My previous post explored the range of handy personal grooming sets that Victorian travellers could take with them on their travels. Even despite the inconvenience, it seems fair to assume that many men would wish to maintain their appearance, and try to keep to their regular hygiene routines. For men with beards, whiskers or moustaches – as many of our surveyors had – keeping facial hair in trim with scissors, and brushing or combing out the tangles, would have been relatively easy. And, as we have already seen, washing and other tasks could be done in a cabin using a basin of water.

Razors and Shaving Products

Shaving aboard a ship, however, presented a whole different set of particular challenges. Before the invention of the safety razor in the late nineteenth century, the usual type of razor was the open, or cut-throat razor. Shaving with an open razor requires practice and a steady hand, particularly around the neck and throat. In a calm sea it was probably manageable, but imagine trying to swipe a lethally sharp blade around some of the most sensitive and potentially dangerous areas of the throat in a dark cabin aboard ship in a gale!

"Shaving aboard ship isn’t easy work exackly in a sea-way, when she’s a rolling yardarm under, and unless your hands is steady and you lays hold of the end of it, the chance is that you slices a half inch off your nose!"
 Quotation from a comic sailor in an imaginary letter to the Naval and Military Gazette in May 1869.

 The makers of various types of shaving products, however, tried to offer solutions to the peculiar problems of shaving on ships. The design of razors, for example, was one area that saw considerable innovation towards the end of the 19th century. One particular development was the creation of ‘guard razors’, designed with the blade mounted within its own housing, and with thin metal bars to prevent it slicing the skin. These offered a potentially safer alternative for travellers than cut-throats, and makers of guard razors were keen to stress their benefits.

"Nothing could be better adapted to such purposes as those of board-ship shaving. A man may shave safely with such a razor in all weathers, and need not let his beard grow, even in a gale of wind’"
Advertisement for the Patent Plantagenet Guard Razor 

The advertisement listed above even came with an endorsement from the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, stating that “No involuntary phlebotomy can by any possibility occur to disturb the shaver’s equanimity, or the whiteness of his shirt collar’!

Hot water

Another issue addressed by the makers of shaving products was the problem of finding sufficient hot water with which to shave. Some Victorian inventors tried to come up with innovative solutions to the problem, by contriving elaborate apparatus to heat water quickly. In 1883, one Mr Williams lodged a patent application for his device ‘for rapidly heating water for shaving &c - especially for travelling’ – complex set of metal pipes and tubes, water bowl and small burner. The problem was that such machines were rather unwieldy and hard to fit in luggage.

To the rescue came the makers of cosmetic shaving products, who tried various ways to alleviate the shaving sufferings of sea travellers. Some shaving products, for example, promised to do away with the need for water altogether. According to its advertisement, the ‘Patent Metallic Shaving Stone’ for example, offered the opportunity to shave ‘without razor, soap or water, by day or by night, whilst walking, riding or at sea’. Here the beard would be effectively rubbed away using the stone. (This was actually not new: the famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys noted rubbing his beard hair off with a pumice stone!). A similar approach was adopted by ‘Hyman’s Tonsor or Imperial Composition for Shaving without soap or water’, which was ‘perfect for gentlemen at sea’.

Some products, such as shaving oils, were of a different composition,  helping to make the razor glide without water, such as ‘Ogden’s Eukeirogension’ which promised to make shaving delightful, and to ‘impart a glow of health to the skin’.

Other products tried to make a virtue out of necessity. ‘Bryning’s Royal Botanic Shaving Powder’ and ‘Pasta di Castagna’ shaving paste were amongst several products promising to work equally well with either fresh or seawater, helpful in terms of bypassing the limited supply of water for personal use on board ship, but also conveniently ignoring the obvious effects of introducing salty seawater into a fresh shaving cut!

Despite the best intentions of the makers of products, and until safety razors became widespread, shaving at sea remained at best an uncomfortable, and at worst potentially lethal act. In the final analysis, it was probably easier to let the beard grow on the voyage than risk the razor’s edge.

Footnote hovee text

Ships & documents in this story

British Envoy, 1866

Build year: 1866

16 Related objects


Correspondence from Henry Adams, Lloyd's Register surveyor for Hull to Charles Graham regarding Carl Milberg as well as Sarah & Elizabeth, 14 April 1855

Date of document: 14/04/1855

Carl Milberg

  1. British Envoy, 1866
  2. Correspondence from Henry Adams, Lloyd's Register surveyor for Hull to Charles Graham regarding Carl Milberg as well as Sarah & Elizabeth, 14 April 1855

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