10 min read
My four-year-old brain was absolutely fascinated by this tool - an oddly shaped, fuzzy-looking device called a vintage shaving brush. I would gaze on in wonder during one of my rare forays into my parents' bathroom in my childhood home. Theirs looked so different than the bathroom I shared with my sister - it was much cleaner, to be sure, but it also had a number of different... things. The Aqua fresh was replaced with whitening toothpaste, colorful kiddie dental floss was transformed into a no-nonsense monochrome thread dispenser, and then - the shaving brush. I had no concept of a old fashioned vintage shaving brush no comparison point - it was unlike anything I had ever seen. While my own innocent history with the shave brush starts here, the history of shaving brushes is a far more exotic and dramatic story - one steeped in aristocratic excesses, deadly outbreaks of disease, and over-reliance on a particularly ornery animal: the badger.
The antique shaving brush may not have quite the long and storied past of the razor itself - most of human history has seen men (and women) shave dry without the use of shaving foam or shaving soaps, or shaving cream spread around facial hair with a thick rich lather (or shave with sea sponges when using water or soap).
However, as with any tool that was created for the purposes of grooming, the aristocracy was (unsurprisingly) at the forefront of the invention.
Modern thinking, particularly modern attitudes towards beards and five o'clock shadow, began around the Enlightenment in Europe. While scholars still debate the exact time period of the first shaving brush, it is commonly accepted that shaving brushes began to appear sometime between 1648 and 1750.
While the first written reference to shaving brushes appears in France in the mid-18th century, there is a 1648 Dutch painting that clearly depicts a shaving brush resting on the table of a barber-surgeon.
The beard changed in the Enlightenment - it went from a Medieval conception of being associated with strength and manliness to something that was associated with the lower class. By the Enlightenment, beards were associated with peasants, soldiers, and priests. Aristocrats, they believed, were above such filthiness and set the fashion of having a face withouta beard.
Shaving brushes were created in these circles, with barbers having to invent new tools to ensure that not only were the nobility happy with their daily shaves but that they felt that their skin was not being marred by the scraping of sharp metal over their faces each morning.
Badger shaving brushes were the original vintage shave brush and it remains the most popular today, especially for enthusiasts of wet shaving. Badger hair brushes were first popularized around the same time that the shaving brush was for a few different reasons.
The first was that the badger was a fairly common woodland creature in Europe with a wide diaspora at the time that was not necessarily hunted for anything other than sport by European nobles.
However, badger hair was discovered (presumably when developing the shaving brush) to be excellent at retaining water and creating a good lather for wet shaving. Let's not think too much about what they were doing with badgers in order to figure this out.
The reason why shaving brushes were invented was to do simply that: help take care of the sensitive skin of the nobles who initially used them. Wet shavers have long used shaving creams or shaving soap to loosen facial hair and allow the skin underneath to become moisturized and more pliable for the incoming razor.
However, this was often simply done with one's own hands or a sea sponge- and for anyone who knows anything about 18th-century nobility - dirtying one's hands would simply not do.
Hence, the shaving brush: a hands-free way of applying shaving soap to one's face. However, while the original purpose of shaving brushes is mundane, its usefulness added to its fame.
The reason that shaving brushes are a staple of wet shavers' bathroom cabinets the world over is that it is more than a simple tool for keeping your hands clean - it was also invented to create a fine lather.
The animal hair shaving brushes that were originally used (and still generally used to this day) retain water and allow the cream or soap to mix into a lather - the richer the lather, the less damage there is done to the face underneath.
Over time, the shave brush became a status symbol (as did mostthings with the aristocracy, to be fair) and owning one in the 18th-century was a way to show your contemporaries how rich and important you were.
Shave brushes are made out of two simple parts - the handle and the brush. The brush itself is traditionally made with badger hair, although they have also been made with boar bristle or horse's mane.
The handle has no traditional material, though when shaving brushes were originally invented, it was likely a wooden handle, as it was the most plentiful and malleable substance on hand that would work well with shaving brush knots.
However, once the shave brush skyrocketed in popularity and became a status symbol, the material of the handle became another way in which the nobility could showcase their wealth - there have been historical accounts of handles made of crystal, gold, ivory, horn, or even porcelain.
Badger hair brushes were soon the norm and were classified into four main tiers of badger brushes:
Pure badger hair is seen as the most common type of shaving brush hair - taken from the underbelly of the badger and considered to be a lower grade, dark in color and somewhat stiff.
Best badger brushes are rarer and more expensive than pure badger brushes and makes a finer lather, softer and lighter in color and retain the warmth and hydration of lather better than lower grades.
Increasing in gradient, Super badger or "silvertip"by some brands are the pinnacle of luxury, quality and made to the highest standards. Light and cream color distinguished by dark bands, extremely flexible hairs and hold hydration better than the latter and demand a premium price. Super badger shaving brushes are a finer brush with better performance compared to both pure badger hair and best badger.
And finally, Silvertip badger hair is seen as the top-of-the-line type hair used with the shaving brush. The hair is naturally white, soft, and fluffy, the best kind of hair for water retention and lathering capacity - super badger brushes often color the tips of their brushes white to imitate silvertip.
Boar brushes, horsehair shaving brushes and synthetic shaving brushes make up the remainder of traditional shaving brushes.
Boar bristle brushes- A boar brush is tougher, which can have the added benefit of exfoliating the skin when shaving, but the drawback is boar bristles can be more brittle and prone to damage when compared to badger hair.
Horse hair brushes- well, horse hair has a unique history of its own when it comes to the shaving brush. Let's get into it.
Robert Koch Virologist who discovered anthrax
No history of shaving brushes would be complete without discussing the outbreak of anthrax related to shaving brushes in the early 20th-century.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the sanitary conditions of the First World War were potentially the worst in modern history. Soldiers had to deal with the 1918 Spanish Flu, typhus, malaria, encephalitis, and, it turns out, anthrax. However, the anthrax outbreak didn't come from the terrible conditions in the trenches, but from the shaving brushes given to the soldiers.
The clean-shaven face became an important facet of 20th-century Europe - a far cry from the exclusive affectation of the stuffy nobles of the Enlightenment era. By the 1900s, it was the norm for the young men of Great Britain, France, and Germany to start off their days by lathering up shaving cream in mugs with their government-issued brushes and having a morning shave before the horrors of the Great War began anew. The higher-ups of each army also said that the potentially life-saving gas masks that were ubiquitously used in the trenches would give an air-tight fit on a clean-shaven man as opposed to a bearded one.
In 1914, the biggest supplier of badger hair for making shaving brushes in Europe was Russia, whose trade to their Triple Entente partners had been cut off by Germany's iron wall through central Europe and their liberal use of the newly-invented U-boat to disrupt shipping lanes. With the normal supply badger hair thus cut off, the British and French armies were susceptible to deception.
The so-called badger hair shaving brush that was given to each soldier as part of his shaving kit in World War I was actually made of knock-off horse hair from dubious markets. While horse hair is usually not necessarily risky (in all fairness, horses do carry a higher chance of carrying anthrax, as they are herbivores when compared to the omnivorous badger or boar), the badger hair counterfeiters didn't necessarily make the brushes from their best stock.
As an aside, you may remember anthrax (as I do) as that very scary substance that was found in envelopes sent to members of Congress a week after 9/11. Anthrax, quite simply, is a bacteria-based infection that manifests on the skin and in the lungs. It is a highly dangerous disease, with a mortality rate of 20-80% if left untreated (and it most certainly was left untreated in World War I).
When the men in the British trenches saw the horrific infections on the faces of their soldiers, they were convinced of some devious plot by the Jerries. Public health officials traced the anthrax outbreak to the hastily-acquired brushes and, slowly but surely, the complaints about a new German biological weapon disappeared.
However, humanity being humanity, some despot potentially took inspiration from this incident and developed anthrax into the biological weapon it is today.
These days, there is zero chance of contracting anthrax from tainted shaving brushes - so you really don't have to worry about that unless you decide to use one that was made a hundred years ago. In that case, it's really on you.
In the early days of shaving brushes, badger hair was usually acquired by hunting. As it was an invention by the aristocracy, badger hair was usually harvested through this favored pastime of the elite in Europe during this era. A badger brush was a by-product of these hunts, with their pelts and furs being used for a number of fashionable garments, including the highland Scottish sporran.
A modern badger brush will indeed be made from a badger whose hair has been harvested during a cull. Most badger hair comes from China, which has a rampant badger population that has a dire effect on their agriculture. From time to time, badger culls are done and the badger brush is the end result.
One thing that has not significantly altered over time is the way in which shaving brushes are created. While the materials for the brush and the handle may have gone through phases over time, the connecting of the materials for the two parts has always been the same.
This is where you'll find technical terms like 'knot' and 'loft'. While there are shaving brush guides that go into greater detail, the brush maker will tie off bundles of pure badger hairs (or synthetic fibers) into the traditional concave design of the brush and cut off the bottom, using a strong epoxy glue to combine the bristles with the handle.
Based on the specifications of the specific brush or material used, the brush maker will also adjust how wide the spread is (the knot) as well as the vertical length of the brush (the loft).
TWhile there are many fine brushes available today the modern shaving brush is still made with badger hair, and silvertip badger hair and remains the gold standard when it comes to shaving brushes. Wet shavers prefer Synthetic brushes over a badger hair shaving brush partially as a way to curb animal use in human grooming (synthetic brushes are a vegan solution to badger brushes), but also as a way to harness technology to the benefit of wet shavers. Some wet shaving brands are producing synthetic materials with such high quality you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the highest quality grades of badger hair synthetic fibers. Sometimes they are actually preferred for their ability to produce suction when creating thick creamy lather, for their softness and ability to dry faster then natural hair
A modern shaving brush using synthetic materials is very durable, especially when the brush is being used every day, compared to badger hair. Synthetic shaving brushes also have bristles that dry faster than badger hair or other animal hair, meaning there is less chance of water damage to the brush itself.
However, just because synthetic shaving brushes are available doesn't mean that you can't find badger hair or boar brushes around for the same reasons that you will always be able to find straight razors along with an electric razor - the traditional will always be in style.
You may just have a more difficult time finding gold-plated handles.
While the shaving brush has never reallygone away, it has certainly been given a run for its money in terms of popularity in the era of safety razors, electric razors, and the science going into shaving cream.
The need for a high-end brush dipped in the latter half of the 20th-century, much to the detriment of men's faces everywhere. However, as my four-year-old discovery of shaving brushes points out - the shaving brush has always remained in the periphery of men's grooming, even if it does not take the place of pride that it used to in the perfumed salons and bathing chambers of 18th-century France.
However, the last few years has seen a huge jump in popularity in traditional shaving paraphernalia - straight razors have come back in vogue, the shaving process has been refurbished into a fine art, and men's grooming has slowly but surely been integrated as an accepted form of self-care where it had been seen as a chore.
So whether it is natural hair or synthetic bristles that you prefer, the history of shaving brushes is a story that continues to this day. And hey, the next time a four-year-old asks you what that weird, bristly thing is sitting in your bathroom cabinet, you have got a hell of a story for him.
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