Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Man of Letters Was Clean Shaven

Object: Shaving Stand  c. 1760
Accession#: 1900.0082

Wash stands appeared in the mid-eighteenth century along with a proliferation of other specialized furniture forms created for the comfort and convenience of the user. Though today the proliferation of washstands on display in house museums may lead us to believe they were standard household items, estate inventories of the time reveal washstands were most frequently found in more affluent homes and not always in the bedroom. At Wilton for example the 1815 estate inventory of William Randolph IV's only lists one wash stand and basin and is identified as being located, not in a bedroom as one might expect, but in the study.  From this we may conjecture that William Randolph IV would have done his shaving and washing-up there.

This mahogany swash stand embodies the playful curves and ornamentation characteristic of the mid-eighteenth century. Lightweight washstands could be easily moved about a room as needed, perhaps near a fireplace for warmth or at a window to take advantage of early morning light. When not in use its slender size and three-legged base was perfectly tucked out-of-the-way into a corner. Wash stands often had three levels, the top level holding the basin, the lower platform held the pitcher or chamber pot.  The second level of drawers held washing requisites such as brushes for the teeth and powders for the wig. This example  includes the further embellishment of a spherical compartment fr soap. 

Resting on the top of our washstand is a Japanese Imari style shaving bowl of  the mid-eighteenth century. A shaving bowl can be identified by the notch cut out along the rim of the bowl so as to be placed at the throat of a gentlemen, just under the chin, to catch the removed facial hair and lather. Beards and facial hair in general were un-fashionable for the eighteenth-century gentleman and remained so until the mid-nineteenth century. According to a contemporary “the man of letters was clean shaven.”  

One of the shaving tools found in George Washington’s possessions was a whetstone, which was used to sharpen a razor so that it would not become dull.  Razors and other shaving implements were readily accessible to buy during the mid- to late-18th century. Wallace, Davidson, and Johnson, a mercantile firm formed in 1771, in their first year showed an order that included three and half dozen razors of various grades ranging from “common” to more costly “cast steel” types.  To facilitate shaving, a shaving brush, which was introduced in the mid-18th century, was used to apply lather to the face.  Washington owned one which is described as “appear[ing] to be made of badger bristles.”

John Mason, son of American statesmen George Mason, wrote that his father “always shaved himself—and used to shave his whole head which was covered by the Wig twice a week...”  The Randolph gentleman would no doubt have been involved in this routine—their portraits showing them clean shaven and wigged. 

Further Reading:
Hurst, Ronald C. and Jonathan Prown. Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial
Williamsburg Collection. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: Williamsburg, 1997.
          Withey, Alun, Dr. “Beards, Moustaches and Facial Hair in History”. 21 March 2014. 6                    March 2014.

“Wash Stand and Shaving Mirror”. The Cowper and Newton Museum. 6 March 2014.

“Architecturally Speaking: Room Use Study: Recommended Objects: Personal”. Gunston Hall
Plantation. 6 March 2014.

“Object Spotlight: Washington’s Shaving Gear”. George Washington Wired: A Mt.Vernon Site.
6 March 2014. <>

Papenfuse et. al., Edward C. “Biographies WAL”.
A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland
Legislature 1635-1789. Volume 426. pg.855. Archives of Maryland Online. 10 April 2014. <>