A Close Shave (or the gentle art of Pogonomotomy)

Life is getting difficult for writers of Georgian and Regency romance

Shave? Our Regency heroes have traditionally been clean shaven. In fact a quick flick through Mills & Boon’s book of cover designs, The Art of Romance, has  only one cover with any facial hair on a man. It is a small, neat  moustache. I confess I haven’t read the book, but I am not convinced that he is the hero. However, a quick look in any street or on social media will tell you that beards are now becoming fashionable. Designer stubble is already creeping in, will full beards follow?cartoon shave for a penny

My latest Harlequin/Mills & Boon release is set in the Highlands in 1746, so I think we can get away with a small amount of facial hair…

but how about designer stubble? It is definitely considered sexy now, isn’t it?

Bridgerton character without a shaveIt  certainly  didn’t  put  off the  fans  of  Bridgerton!

To be fair, stubble isn’t as inappropriate as we might think, in some circumstances. Read on…..


In the 18th century, clean shaven faces were the order of the day for a gentleman. Many had clean shaven heads, too, but one never saw that, because everyone who was anyone wore a wig.

Sir Walter Raleigh with beardBack in the days of Good Queen Bess, neatly trimmed beards were de rigeur for men like Sir Walter Raleigh, who wanted to cut a dash (painted in an excess of finery here by Nicholas  Hillyard). By the end of the 17th century, Peter the Great was slapping a beard tax on his people. He ordered courtiers to shave off their facial hair, to bring his court into line with the (supposedly) more sophisticated courts of Western Europe.

Middle and upper class men could pay barbers to visit their homes, while for the poor, penny shaves were available in barber shops (often weekly, on a Saturday, in time for church).

Some preferred to employ a man who was proficient in the use of a razor. Imagine taking someone’s word for that!

cartoon the shaver and the shavee

In the beginning were the Barber Surgeons

Steel and bone razor for Lord Nelson to shave

Lord Nelson’s razor. Steel and bone

Traditionally barber-surgeons performed tooth drawing and bloodletting as well as shaving but this changed as barbering became its own trade. And in 1745 the Company of Barbers officially split from the Barber-Surgeons Company.

The 18th century brought improvements in steelmaking and master cutlers were producing fine surgical instruments as well as razors.

Suddenly, it was possible not only to have a closer shave, but to shave oneself!

The French had a name for it

Of course they did.

In 1770 Jean-Jacques Perret, a Parisian master cutler whose shop was at the romantically named “sign of the Golden Blade” in Paris,  wrote “Pogonomotomie or the art of shaving oneself”. Basically, a guide to shaving. Perret designed what we would today call a “cut throat razor”. He called it a guarded razor, a folding razor with a guard that fitted over the blade. Apparently, he did not patent his idea, but offered to teach other cutlers how to make it.

Harwood & Co razor with green velvet boxHarwood & Co, Sheffield, began to manufacture such a razor. The illustration shows one such razor acquired  by Museums Victoria. It came in its own green velvet lined box together with a pair of leather strops, one red, one green, and the whole was supplied inside a red leather case.

Safety razors were developed in the 19th century.

The shave was becoming big business

Razor makers were targeting individuals now with their advertising, and master cutlers moved into producing razors and fine surgical instruments. Perfumers, too, offered soaps, creams and pomatums to aid the shaver. Some still do, like Floris, in Jermyn Street.

Window of Floris, Jermyn Street, London

William NicholsonBut shaving was moving beyond mere fashion. Satirists were drawing cartoons and writing poems about the dangers of cheap razors, and facial hair was discussed in philosophical journals.

In 1802, William Nicholson (that’s him on the left, a fine, clean-shaven chemist) wrote in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Literature and the Arts. He said “the caprice of fashion, or the modern improvements in personal neatness has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards!” However, far from criticising, he advised against buying a cheap razor, which would never sharpen satisfactorily and give a good, clean shave.

Tastes and Ideas were changing

cartoon of Lord George Gordon

By the end of the 18th century, beards were associated with “wildness”, i.e. hermits or eccentrics.

In 1787 Lord George Gordon (he of the 1780 Gordon Riots) converted to Judaism. However, the beard he grew for his faith was considered by the general public (in England, that is) as confirmation that the man was unhinged.

He became the target of the cruel humour of the 18th century cartoonists.

Hair on the head (or lack of it)

Beethoven in need of a hairdresserNow that was quite another matter – it still required the touch of an artist.

After the Lockdown of the last twelve months most of us can empathise with the problems of hairdressing and the disasters that can occur when cutting one’s own hair, so I think we can see why barbers still had an important role to play.

(Maybe someone should have told Beethoven?)


Illustration, Mr and Mrs BennetWigs were already fashionable at the dawn of the 18th century. A gentleman could choose between the Comet, the Cauliflower or the Rose. Or perhaps he might prefer the She Dragon or the Snail. Some of course, preferred to keep their own hair, curled and powdered to look like a wig. By the end of the  century, however, wigs were becoming old hat, if you see what I mean, as was the use of hair powder.

You might refer me to Mr Bennet’s famous line in Pride & Prejudice “I will sit in my library, in my night cap and powdering gown, and give as much trouble as I can – “ but although this was published in 1813, Jane Austen began work on this novel in 1797, when hair powder was still being worn, especially by the older generation.

Men were wearing their own hair, and it was cut short!

Joseph Chinard, painted 1801

Joseph Chinard, painted 1801

I admit that as a sculptor, and French, this guy was perhaps a little ahead of the English Bon Ton.

But I thought he was rather dashing so was glad of an excuse to put him in.

But this is the look we like, isn’t it?

Beau BrummellBeau Brummell was a hit in the Regency and the short haired, clean shaven look still sets hearts a-beating. Even when we know Brummell spent the whole morning at his dressing table. But we have to face it, dear reader, bearded men are “in” at the moment.

In the 1820’s facial hair in the form of whiskers and moustaches began to creep back in, but for most of the Georgian period, a clean shaven face was a sign of refinement, of breeding and good taste. And I, for one, shall continue to write my clean shaven heroes…

Colin Firth as Darcy

…except, of course, when they haven’t had access to a razor for a day or two…Chris Hemsworth

OK, Ok, I admit this whole post has been an excuse to add these last three pictures!  I am off now to work on creating my next hero. Wish me luck!

Sarah Mallory guest blogs on romantic series


PS… If you want to read more, Dr Alun Withy from Exeter University has produced “Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England 1650-1900”, published by Bloomsbury

14 thoughts on “A Close Shave (or the gentle art of Pogonomotomy)

  1. lesley2cats

    I enjoyed that, Sarah! As the owner of two very modern young men with occasional beards. And I still can’t bring myself to watch Bridgerton.

    1. Sarah Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it, Lesley. I have twins, one with stubble, the other close shaven, so I see both sides of the argument all the time!

  2. Sophie

    Fascinating stuff, Sarah. I remember the lawyer father of one of my friends telling me that when he started work, he’d been told that beards were unprofessional. I wonder if that’s still true in some businesses.

    As for heroes – when reading, I’m always suspicious that a beard will turn out to hide a weak jaw. So the full Elijah is definitely out of the question when it comes to my own writing.

    1. Joanna

      When I was in the RAF, Sophie, blokes were not allowed to have beards unless they had a bona fide medical reason not to shave. I only ever saw one RAF chap with a beard and his was pretty scraggy. Moustaches were permissible but I never saw any, since they were out of fashion. In the Royal Navy, on the other hand, it was perfectly permissible to have a beard but it had to be a full set (no goatees allowed) because what you had was “permission to cease shaving”. In theory, that could lead to the Full Elijah 😉

  3. Sarah Post author

    Glad you enjoyed it, Sophie. I am with you on bearded heroes, I worry they might not look so good beneath all that disguise. However, in real life, my memories of kissing men with stubble is that it can give a girl quite a rash. However, that was a long time ago. Maybe there is now an optimum length recommended to provide “soft” stubble. Anyone know?

    1. Joanna

      I think (not sure) that beards get softer as they get older, Sarah. So a neatish beard, regularly trimmed, could end up quite soft. I think that’s less likely with designer stubble since it’s usually so short and some stubbled chaps occasionally shave their chins clean and start again. But really we need to ask a chap, don’t we? Or alternatively a female allied to a stubbled chap?

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    Oh, no! Please don’t say designer beards are back. It’s a nightmare. I have to keep asking my cover designer to eliminate the stubble on photos from Period Images. Otherwise you are stuck with only the clean shaven and they are few. There seem to be more these days, but the choice is limiting.
    Great post. I love all that history about facial hair on men. Fashions come and go. It’s quite useful with a married couple so you can bring in the need to shave at appropriate moments.

    1. Sarah Post author

      Thank you, Liz. From the responses to this blog on my FB page, most of us prefer clean shaven heroes. I haven’t had one person yet tell me they prefer beards or stubble.

  5. Liz Fielding

    My dh had one that came and went as the mood took him. It was always neat, but on the tough side, but it was always kept neat. I did know one man – not a kissing man, but a great dancer and a lot of fun – whose beard was very soft. Maybe he used conditioner…

    1. Sarah Post author

      Confession time: my dh has always had a beard and I wouldn’t have him any other way! However, for my fantasy heroes I prefer them clean shaven. Best of both worlds, perhaps?

    2. Joanna

      My late brother-in-law had a very soft beard. But he also had soft hair. I very much doubt he used conditioner on his beard. Maybe wiry beards go with wiry head hair?

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