When Did Women Start Shaving? The History of Female Hair Removal

Updated on August 10, 2018
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia loves researching and writing on historical topics.

A flapper poses for a picture with her arms and legs exposed. (1920)
A flapper poses for a picture with her arms and legs exposed. (1920) | Source

When Did Women Start Shaving?

In the U.S., women started to shave in 1915, specifically during the period between World War I and World War II. Before the 20th century, women were only socially required to remove unsightly hair from the face and neck (virtually the only parts of their bodies not covered by clothes) but they would do this using homemade or industrial depilatory creams, not with razors.

Before the invention of the T-shaped safety razor in 1903, implements for shaving were aptly nicknamed “cut-throat” razors. Shaving was a service provided to men and by men in public spaces, and it required significant skill. Even after the first T-shaped razor was introduced to market, it took years for advertisers to challenge the connection of shaving and masculinity.

Self-shaving was introduced to the private space for men after the invention and popularization of safety razors. It was then gradually adopted by women as a painless and cheap alternative to other hair removal methods.

Private Bathrooms, Gillette’s Safety Razor, and the First World War

The very first safety razors hit the market at the end of the 19th century, but they enjoyed only moderate success since the upkeep of the blade was so time-consuming. Everything changed when King Camp Gillette created a safety razor with disposable blades in 1903.

The advent of private bathrooms and indoor plumbing in U.S. cities also set the groundwork for self-shaving. In 1880, five out of six Americans washed themselves using a bowl and a pitcher. In the 1930s, nearly all apartments in New York City had private baths or showers. This went hand-in-hand with changing attitudes towards hygiene. People began to bathe daily as a way to prevent and protect the population from contagious disease. With indoor plumbing, the backbreaking work of supplying the house with water was gone.

World War I was also seen by Gillette as an opportunity to launch an aggressive marketing campaign targeting soldiers. Shaving was construed as a necessary way to prevent lice and other vermin from nesting in one's hair. It was also sold as a way making sure one's gas mask made an air-tight seal. The Gillette Safety Razor Company began producing safety razors with the insignias of the U.S. Navy and Army printed on them.

An Gillette neon sign capitalizing on the new phenomenon of self-shaving. (c. 1915)
An Gillette neon sign capitalizing on the new phenomenon of self-shaving. (c. 1915) | Source

Why Did Women Start Shaving?

During World War I in 1915, the Gillette Safety Razor Company introduced the first safety razor for women: the Milady Decolletée. But the product didn’t really catch on, as shaving was still firmly associated with masculinity. Women didn’t want to risk being seen purchasing a razor.

At the same time, shaving was a relatively cheap and painless alternative compared to other depilation methods, such as abrasive or even lethal industrial depilatory creams or x-ray hair removal. After the war, many women would surreptitiously use their husbands’ safety razors.

The transition from depilatory creams to razors was complete when, during World War II, the need for women to remove hair from their legs emerged. Before that, women would conceal their hairy legs with thick stockings. But during the war, stockings were in short supply as nylon and silk were repurposed for military use. For a while, women resorted to liquid stockings, which were simply cosmetics that emulated the real thing. These only worked on hairless legs, though, and when the supply of liquid stockings began to dwindle, women were finally content with simply shaving their legs and leaving it at that.

According to surveys, by 1964, 98% of all American women aged 15-44 shaved their legs regularly.

What Is a Depilatory?

Used as an adjective, a depilatory is anything used to remove unwanted hair. However, most know the word as a noun used to define a cream or lotion for removing unwanted hair.

How Did Women Remove Hair Before They Began Shaving?

Before the 20th century, women’s clothes were much less revealing. Only the face and neck were targets for depilation, which they would use to get rid of peach fuzz or unsightly tufts of hair.

In the 18th century, “porcelain” complexions were considered beautiful, and a woman’s face was said to reflect her inner character. Thus, removing unwanted facial hair was not only a matter of aesthetics but also of morality. Hair on the upper lip or a the lower forehead were a cause for particular concern.

18th century manuals and etiquette guides contained depilatory recipes for women, which merged European practices with that of Native American and African cultures. Other options included shoemakers’ waxes or tree resins, which were both extremely painful.

Industrial Depilatories

At the turn of the 19th century, homemade depilatories were being gradually replaced with industrial ones produced mainly by men.

Techniques used in the meat production industry were applied to toiletries, and chemicals used for separating leather from dead animals were advertised as beauty products for women.

With the rise of cities, the problem of the quickly processed and distributed meat to urban populations became critical. Mechanization and division of labour on disassembly lines were introduced to speed up the process, and the removal of animals’ hair was improved with the use of appropriate, caustic chemicals.

These new, more powerful chemicals were sold to women as depilatories. Since there was no oversight of the depilatory market, industrial “beauty” products permanently maimed, disfigured, and killed thousands of women. As social anxieties around these concoctions grew, popular newspapers and magazines became arbiters on the matter of depilation safety.

Electrolysis

Depilatory creams and concoctions continued to be popular despite a great number of women being killed or permanently maimed by muscular atrophy, blindness, or limb damage, but there were also new techniques, which were a welcome alternative to industrial depilatories.

One of them was electrolysis, which involved inserting a needle powered by a galvanic battery straight into the hair follicle. The electrical current blenched the hair root and surrounding tissues. This was a painful process, especially if the depilated area was large, and each hair shaft required a separate needle.

X-Ray Hair Removal

X-ray hair removal was advertised as safe and painless. American physicians gave up removing body hair with X-rays before World War I due to the radiation risk and the fact that depilation was considered too trivial for medical treatment. In their absence, commercial X-ray salons were quick to fill the void. popping up in urban centers around 1910.

Most X-ray salon clients were working-class women and members of the lower or middle class. They frequented X-ray salons despite the prohibitive cost of the treatment because they hoped that an improved, hairless appearance would open up new economic opportunities.

The practice was abandoned in the late 1940s due to wider recognition of radiation risk. Also, many clients who sustained injuries from X-ray treatment took legal action against the owners of these salons.

Waxing

The history of waxing goes all the way back to Ancient Egypt. The women of Ancient Egypt removed all of their body hair, including the hair on their heads. To do this, they sometimes used shells as tweezers, but they are largely known to be the first people to use waxing to remove hair. They would wax themselves using beeswax or a sugar-based concoction.

In modern times, women were known to use shoemakers' waxes or tree resin to remove hair before waxes were sold for the sole purpose of hair removal.

Alice Joyce in 1926. Her arms and part of her legs are revealed.
Alice Joyce in 1926. Her arms and part of her legs are revealed. | Source

Women’s Body Hair in the Twentieth Century

Both the woman’s position in society and fashion changed in the 20th century. Hemlines started to rise around 1910, and by 1915 they had reached mid-calf. By 1927, they were just below the knee. Sleeve length also shortened. As a result, more and more of the woman's body was revealed. With more areas exposed, such as the chest, arms, legs, and armpits, more areas were targeted for hair removal.

The hygiene movement of the time also stressed the importance of removing unwanted hair as a matter of disease prevention. This factor especially contributed to the social repulsion most felt when they encountered a woman with a hairy body.

At the same time, women started to gain visibility in the economic and political realm. Anxieties about women’s emancipation were articulated, and, among other ways, flaunting female body hair was a method of protest.

In the 1960s and 70s, some feminists advocated for the end of depilation as a way for women to reclaim control over their bodies. This trend became part of wider counterculture phenomena. Still, the cessation of shaving was considered by some to be dangerous political extremism, and to others an issue too trivial for feminists.

At the time, hair was a symbol of rebellion for other groups too. Blacks advocated against conforming to beauty standards set by white people, letting their hair grow in a natural way. Male students wore their hair long as an act of rebellion against the ongoing war in Vietnam. The body, once private, became a site of political struggle.

Timeline of Hair Removal

Historical Period
Description
Ancient Egypt (3150 B.C.–525 B.C.)
Egyptian women removed all the hair from their bodies using beeswax, sugar-based wax, and shells used as tweezers. Cooper razors from 3000 B.C. have also been found in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Ancient Greece (900 B.C–600 A.D.)
In Ancient Greece, having pubic hair was considered "uncivilized." Women would pluck or singe off all of their hair.
Roman Empire (27 B.C.–395 A.D.)
During the Roman Empire, the lack of body hair was consider a sign of class. Wealthy men and women used razors made from flint, tweezers, creams, and stones to remove hair.
Middle Ages (476 A.D.–1492)
Queen Elizabeth I set a trend of hair removal when she removed her eyebrows and pulled back her hairline using walnut oil or ammonia and vinegar.
1700s
During the 18th century, a French barber created the first razor. It was primarily used by men and some women, but European and American women alike mostly ignored the invention, since most of their bodies were covered according to the fashion of the time.
1800s
In 1844, Dr. Gouraud created one of the first depilatory creams and Gillette created the first version of his safety razor. It would be another three decades until razors were specifically marketed for women.
1900s
Gillette created the first safety razor marketed for women and ads for depilatory creams began to be widespread. Now that women were exposing more of their bodies, hair removal became normal. As for the method of hair removal, shaving was the least favored. That is, until the 1940s.
While the U.S. contains its own hair removal saga, hair removal has been happening since the earliest civilizations. Below is a table outlining hair removal throughout history.

Hairiness and Hormones

Studies on glands in the 1940s led to the discovery that “masculine” hormones could be found in women and “feminine” hormones could be found in men. This revolutionized the concept of sex. Once a stable, immutable entity, now every organism was understood to have different ratios of femaleness and maleness.

What Is Hirusutism?

Hirusutism, which is unwanted, male-patterned hair growth on the face of a woman, was discovered in the 1940s to be caused by a glandular disturbance. But where exactly the line was drawn between “normal” and “abnormal” hair growth was disputed, especially as the amount of acceptable hair differed from person-to-person and culture-to-culture.

Hairiness was linked to sexual inversion (non-normative gender behaviour), and glandular science translated old prejudices against hairy women into scientific language. Hormonal imbalances, of which a visible sign was hairiness, was linked to political extremism and anti-social behaviour.

Glandular science provided a way of controlling women’s bodies by regulating their hormonal secretion. Unwanted hair and what it symbolized to society could be got rid of in the 1950s and 1960s by prescribing hormonal drugs to women.

The practice was soon discontinued because of its potential side effects, which included cancer, stroke, heart attack, and more.

Hirusutism. Annie Jones, a bearded lady.
Hirusutism. Annie Jones, a bearded lady. | Source

What Is the Hair Removal Norm Today?

In a study performed by Toerien and Wilkinson, researchers concluded that female depilation is highly normative in western culture. The study was based on an open-question survey administered to 678 women.

Participants described hairiness in overwhelmingly negative terms (some described being hairy as being masculine and unhygienic). Hairlessness, on the other hand, was viewed as positive, clean, and feminine. A small group of participants felt forced to keep up with hair removal by social conventions.

The fact that hairiness and hairlessness are not valued equally indicates that depilation is not a matter of personal choice, but rather a social norm.

Failure to comply with this norm, moreover, carries a heavy social price. Participants reported that relatives, partners, friends, work colleagues, and even strangers told them on occasion that they should shave or joked about their unshaven legs or armpits.

Arvida Byström, a model who posed in a recent Adidas ad campaign, revealed her unshaven legs publicly. In response, she received lots of hate via social media, including some rape threats. This is perhaps the biggest indication of how normative the practice of depilation has become.

Throughout history, women’s bodies have been influenced by beauty standards. Women have endured pain, humiliation, and financial hardship in pursuit of sometimes dangerous depilation technologies. Even today, many women still meet with punishment for failing to conform to the depilation norm.

Arvida Byström Adidas Ad (Video)

How Often Do Women Shave Their Legs?

According to a 2009 study released by American Laser Centers, the average woman shaves 12 times per month and spends about $15.95 on the process. According to their research, the majority of women shave 1-2 times each week, but 11 percent of women shave every day.

The study also included more interesting stats, such as that, over the course of their lifetime, a woman will shave 7,718.4 times and spend $10,00 dollars on related products. They also claim that the average time it takes a woman to shave is 10.9 minutes.

Women: How Often Do You Shave?

See results

Bibliography

  • Herzig, Rebecca M, Plucked : a history of hair removal (New York: New York University Press, 2015).
  • Toerien, Merran , Wilkinson, Sue (2004) ‘Exploring the depilation norm: a qualitative questionnaire study of women's body hair removal’, Qualitative Research in Psychology, 1, no. 1 (2004), pp. 69-92.

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    © 2017 Virginia Matteo

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