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Fashions come in and out, and beards alternate between trendy and passe. By the introduction of the safety razor, shaving had obviously become so common that even the poorest farmer could afford to walk around with smooth cheeks.

But who was the first culture to say "this stuff growing out of our faces is rubbish" and what was the reason? I know that Alexander ordered his soldiers to shave their beards, but an army is not a society, so that doesn't really count unless the folks back home emulated this shaving.

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    Weil, the Romans liked it, then they didn't. Then the Normans did, and then didn't. The tudors didn't, but the Victorians did, and then didn't. And we did and now didn't. Does that answer your question? – Ne Mo Jan 12 '17 at 22:58
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    I'm sorry, but when did clean shaving become the norm? My father sports a beard and always has, I do as well, at least since leaving the Army. At my work, there are 24 men in close proximity to me and perhaps half of them have facial hair of some amount. – CGCampbell Jan 12 '17 at 22:58
  • @CGCampbell 50% sounds pretty normal to me. But I think your office if preceded by at least a couple millennium, some Egyptian art looks to me to have styled facial hair. – user22111 Jan 12 '17 at 23:39
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    At a guess, early bronze age. Shaving with an obsidian flake is a bit tricky; shaving with a longer bronze blade is easier. – Mark Jan 13 '17 at 3:31
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    There is a great chapter in "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" on "Influence of Politics and Religion on the Hair and Beard", detailing how it went in and out of fashion across Europe. – pjc50 Jan 13 '17 at 15:18
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Shaving was hard before the invention of metal knives.

I regret I do not now recall the name of the book but I read in one book about Ancient Egypt, which had pictures to prove it, that in very early times, I think before 3,000 BC, when pre-literate Ancient Egyptians scratched or coloured pictures, as they sometimes did, they showed their men, who were not naturally as hairy as other races, with unimpressive small beards, which are probably all that grew naturally for them.

From the Bronze Age, which roughly coincided with the appearance of literacy, Egyptian men were portrayed clean shaven. Men of some foreign nations, often also distinguished by their style of dress and other features, may be shown with beards, sometimes probably to conform to a stereotype to identify the picture as being of a Syrian or whatever.

It seems the Ancient Egyptians therefore adopted shaving around 5,000 years ago, almost as soon as it was easily possible once they had sharp enough metal implements. Thereafter, they stayed clean-shaven pretty well as long as their civilization lasted, so for the next 3 thousand years. That would be remarkable for other societies but less so for the Ancient Egyptians, who once they found a style that suited them tended to stay with it for an amazingly long time.

A sketch survives from Deir el-Medina, the village of the workers on the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings in the New Kingdom (c 1550 - 1080 BC), probably made by one of the workmen in his spare time, of a man wearing the an Egyptian Royal Crown, looking slightly overdue for a shave, with bristles ('five O'clock shadow' we may now call it) showing on his chin and cheeks.

In other words one of the workmen was probably being slightly naughty in showing the King caught not looking at his best, and differently from the formal and invariably respectful portraits that the painters and sculptors of the Royal tombs had to produce in their day-jobs.

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    Do you have a link for this sketch from Deir el-Medina? – axsvl77 Jan 13 '17 at 20:04
  • try reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/partytime/carousing.htm strangely in the section headed 'drink' although the connection is not obvious. The crown worn is the slightly less common khepresh or blue crown. – Timothy Jan 17 '17 at 17:11
  • Looks like pencil on paper. Sure this is ancient? – axsvl77 Jan 17 '17 at 17:51
  • axsvl77 - The picture was shown in larger form in a slide illustrating an Oxford University Extension course I attended some years ago, given by an academic Egyptologist, which is how I knew about it, so I assume it is genuine. The link I posted is all I can now find of it by internet search, but I was not sure what key words to search under. As for 'Looks like pencil on paper': paper, if it is the material, is not necessarily surprising as the Egyptians invented it, from papyrus. They certainly had black ink made from carbon. I do not know if they also had more pencil-like carbon crayons. – Timothy Jan 24 '17 at 13:50
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As you said fashion for beards comes in and out, periodically. One of the earliest available detailed records is indeed Alexander. He not only introduced shaving in the army but also introduced this fashion in the society. As you can see from many surviving statues, depictions on the coins, mosaics and paintings of Hellenistic period. The Greeks of the earlier period usually wear beards, as we can also see from many pictures and statues. In some periods, Babylonians and Egyptians probably shaved but wore artificial decorative beards (like in 17 century Europeans cut their hair short and wore enormous wigs).

This general pattern (fashion in and out) probably continues so far in prehistory, that it is impossible to discover any early detail.

The related question is why at all the hair on some parts of the body on a human of certain races grows almost unrestricted, to any length. (No animal has this feature). How could such a strange feature evolve? Imagine the beards of some men, if they NEVER shave or cut them. This would make life difficult. The only plausible explanation is that people started shaving and cutting their beards before the modern human races evolved. That's why this story stretches so far in the past that it is impossible to trace. Another related question (once addressed on this site) is how did our ancestors managed to shave with stone tools:-) The only thing which seems clear enough that they did somehow.

And the last remark: the fashion shows little dependence on available tools. Safe razors were already available in the end of 19th century, but this was the brief period when the fashion for enormous beards returned. See the portraits of men of 1890s.

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    Well, I guess with only a 50% chance of reaching adulthood and a life expectancy somewhere around the twenties, razors in the stoneage had a reduced demand ;) – nvoigt Jan 13 '17 at 15:28
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    Essentially all stone tools are disposable razors. Small blades, very sharp and dull relatively quickly. – user22111 Jan 13 '17 at 17:22
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    Stone tools are disposable razors:-) Have you ever tried to shave with a stone tool? Or at least to trim you hair? – Alex Jan 13 '17 at 22:52
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    @Alex: Obsidian works fairy well actualy – Pieter Geerkens Jan 18 '17 at 0:53
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    @nvoigt: The life expectancy myth. Those "twenties" are on average, at birth. That average number was severely impacted by the high mortality of infants and children. Once they reached adulthood, even stone-age humans could conceivably reach quite an old age. – DevSolar Jan 18 '17 at 12:44
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I've read, a long time ago, that the current trend for men to be clean shaven started during WW1 when troops in the trenches had to wear gasmasks a lot. As these don't get a proper fit on a bearded face, the soldiers had to shave or risk death by gas. Later of course pilots wearing oxygen masks to be able to fly high altitude aircraft in WW2 (and the interbellum to a degree) would also need to be shaven for the same reason.

It sounds plausible, but I've not been able to independently verify it.

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I recall that when doctors/surgeons started to do this as part of hygiene for them I guess some time after Semmelweis and Lister that other men started to do so also. It is striking how common facial hair was among men in, say, the mid 19th century.

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