Two Folger exhibitions in this anniversary year have explored Shakespeare’s far-reaching effect on consumer culture: first, America’s Shakespeare considered how the United States has made the Bard our own, and now Will & Jane examines the celebrity status of literary superstars William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. This month’s Folger Find is another example of how deeply Shakespeare has saturated Western culture: a set of “Gentlemen’s shaving paper with quotations from Shakespeare.”
Shaving papers were small scraps of paper used to clean a straight razor after one had finished shaving with it (or in between strokes). Obviously any stray piece of paper could serve this purpose, and several magazines published humorous anecdotes of book pages being used, but this depended on one’s available paper products or ambivalence toward their personal library.
Ideas for shaving papers and shaving paper cases appeared frequently in domestic and arts magazines well into the twentieth century, from woven mats and embroidery to painted cardboard and tissue paper supernovas. (You may notice that these craft ideas were generally marketed towards wives and children to make for their husbands and fathers. Though both men and women have employed various methods of hair removal throughout the centuries—a history stretching back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians—men were the main consumer base for the modern mass-produced razor industry until the mid-1910s, when the first razor marketed to women was produced.)
If you had no books to spare, or no one interested in crafting you a homemade set as a gift, you could also buy ready-made pads of shaving papers, such as the one featured in this post. These were mass-manufactured and bound with string or glue for the convenience of the shaver.
Right away, business spotted the promotional opportunity. Several publications, such as 350 Dollar Ideas for Druggists and the Shoe and Leather Journal, recommended to their readers that they provide shaving papers printed with advertisements to their local barbershops so that customers would be faced with reminders about dentistry or footwear.
Consumers who preferred to shave at home could purchase plain papers, or sets printed with quips and quotations. Who wouldn’t want to be reminded that they were “a gentleman, and well derived” during their morning ablutions?
It’s a little difficult to determine who produced this particular set of shaving papers, or when. The set is missing a back cover, and the manufacturer didn’t bother printing their name or a date on the front (not surprising, since they’re meant to be very ephemeral items).
Catalogers can sometimes track down the source of an object anyway when creating records for items, using bibliographies and censuses (mostly for books and manuscripts), or historical advertisements, but sometimes this tactic only provides us with information about similar objects.
For instance, I found through a blurb in an 1884 issue of Publisher’s Weekly that James D. Sloan of Philadelphia had produced “The Gentleman’s Shaving Paper, with Quotations from Shakespeare.” The advertisement specifies that “the tablets will have each sheet illustrated, and quotations from Shakespeare.” As our tablet is notably lacking in illustration, either the manufacturer changed their mind after that initial advertisement, or our set of shaving papers is from a different source than Sloan. Regardless, this does suggest a time frame in which they may have been manufactured.
As useful and inspiring as they are, you’re not likely to find Shakespearean shaving papers—or any shaving papers—in your local drugstore today. With the advent of the safety razor, and later electric razors and cartridge razors, straight razors began to go out of fashion, and thus so did shaving paper.