Friday, March 8, 2013

Silvertips and Other Fine Shaving Brushes

Ad from 1925
The shaving brush is a necessity in traditional men's shaving. Without the brush, hard shaving soap would not lather up properly - and even if it did, you'd have to smear it on your face with your fingers. So the French devised the shaving brush in the mid 18th century. They called it a blaireau - which is French for badger. Badger hairs are the best, most traditional material for shaving brush bristles. In fact, the hairs are graded from most coarse to the best - the finest, most expensive bristles are found on the so-called Silvertip Badger brush.

In the 19th century, badger hair shaving brushes became increasingly popular and they still are today. Why? Because no matter what material the brush handle is made of - whether it's a gold or ivory Victorian heirloom or a modern synthetic handled brush - badger hairs work best at picking up the soap and applying it to the face. They are soft and strong, as well as really absorbent. They are also gentle on the skin, which is important. The hairs come from the badger's underbelly and the quality depends upon the coarseness, color and flexibility of the hairs, which differs according to the area of the belly they come from. Brushes made of "pure badger" are the least expensive, "best badger" denotes medium-quality bristles, and the above-mentioned "super" or "silvertip badger" is the highest quality. Shaving brush bristles may also be made of boar's hair or synthetics, or a combination of natural and synthetic bristles.

Victorian brushmakers were often women, according to American writer Caroline Wells Healey Dall in 1868, because "the delicate, con-like arrangement of the badger's hair, in the modern shaving-brush, can be made only by a woman's hand; and she who has the skill to do it well may ask her own wages."

Mechi and Bazin were mid-19th century English cutlery manufacturers, who also made shaving brushes as well as cutlery, cosmetic cases and jars, and Men's and Ladies' Dressing Cases. You can see an ad for the Mechian Dressing Bag on the right; it dates from 1850. It includes a Badger  Shaving Brush as well as many other interesting items, including a Cigar Case, a Pocket Railway Key, a Pomade Jar and even a Plated Sandwich Box.

Then as now, a good badger's-hair shaving brush was expensive; but it's a good investment if you like shaving in the traditional way. The cheaper Victorian brushes seem to have been made of hog's hair - which must have been quite rough on the skin. In 1835, Louisa Henrietta Sheridan wrote a comic ode "To My Shaving Brush," in which she takes on the persona of a poor young solider forced to shave with one of these:

I was a subaltern when first
I dipp'd thee in my shaving pot,
Brimful of zeal, and all althirst
For deeds of glory: - now I'm not.
And thou, whose maiden hog's-hair rubb'd
A poor Lieutenant's chops, I'll wager
Shall have it yet to say thou'st scrubbed
The wrinkling vidage of a Major:
Nay, some odd day, thy faithful bristle
May mollify a Colonel's gristle!  [from The Comic offering; or Ladies' Melange of Mirth, 1835]

Ideally, of course, anyone who likes to shave in the old-fashioned manner will invest in a good quality badger's hair brush. They are the most effective and most comfortable way to help mollify stubble - or even gristle.


Heather Rojo said...

Great post! My husband uses a shaving brush and mug, and has used it for over 25 years. He's had his badger brush for a long, long time...

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