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Shakespeare's World in 100 Objects: An Elizabethan Razor

The history of an Elizabethan barber-surgeon

Elizabethan blade

“Bottom: I must to the barber’s, monsieur, for methinks I am marvellous hairy about the face; and I am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me I must scratch.”

— A Midsummer Night's Dream, 4.1.22-24.

This humorous quote comes from one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), and it invites us to laugh at the ‘mechanical’ Bottom, who – at this moment unaware that his head is no longer that of a human but of a donkey – feels his hairy face and decides that it must be time for a shave. But in Shakespeare’s era it is unlikely that most men would have picked up their own razor and shaved themselves in the morning. Instead, they would have been regular visitors to their local barber-surgeon.

As the name suggests, barber-surgeons offered two different kinds of services: the first, the usual hair-cutting, beard-trimming or shaving; the second, the more medically-inclined procedures such as blood-letting [see my previous post on cupping, here], teeth-pulling or treating of wounds. This combination of occupations may seem odd to us today, when we would just go straight to a doctor (or indeed dentist) for treatment, but in Elizabethan England doctors (known as physicians) did not perform surgery. Physicians, who had been academically trained at university, disdained such manual work, so surgical procedures fell to the barber-surgeons, who had learnt their trade via apprenticeships. And this is where the traditional red and white striped barbers’ poles which we still see today are thought to have originated: the blood-stained and clean bandages which were hung up to dry outside barber-surgeons’ establishments became such a potent symbol of the trade that they were adopted in permanent form as the barber’s pole. Such an easily-identifiable sign was also key at a time when most of the general population was illiterate.

This particular razor is housed in the museum collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and dates to the early seventeenth century. The blade itself is made of steel and it has a bone handle with the date ‘1604’, the name ‘Josh Cols’ and the number ‘2’ scratched into it (although unfortunately these details are not visible in this photo!) It was apparently found between the joist and wall of a front bedroom in a property adjoining the old theatre in Stratford: could this have been a deliberate concealment along the lines of the shoes described in Peter Hewitt’s blog [here], and could this property have been the premises of a Stratford barber-surgeon? The fact that the razor has its own leather case and has been marked with what was presumably the owner’s name might suggest that it was the property of a professional, although it is possible that it could have been a gift for a man of means. But what about the number ‘2’ also scratched onto the handle? Could this be further proof of the razor’s having belonged to a barber-surgeon, who wished to identify that it was his second best out of a set? It is unlikely we’ll ever know for sure, but if you have any theories about the razor’s ownership then we’d love to hear them!