Handkerchiefs, Ribbon, and Necessity

November is well under way and here in Missouri that means we’ve experienced our first cold snap and snow accumulation event, which we never get this early, except that this is the third year in a row it’s happened. And last week I wrote about how the menfolk are participating in their annual celebration of manliness by growing out their stubble for “No Shave November.”

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Ouch! Image courtesy of Pixabay

This week, for balance, I want to take a moment to recognize the genius of women, particularly one woman—Mary Phelps Jacob. In 1910, at the age of nineteen, Mary was living the American debutante lifestyle, preparing to attend yet another high society ball. Like she’d surely done many times before, she put on her stiff whalebone corset and sucked in while her maid cinched it tight before struggling into her fancy dress.

Then she examined herself in the mirror and didn’t like the way her look all came together. Or maybe it was just that she realized she couldn’t really breathe. Somewhat rashly, she asked her maid to bring her two pocket handkerchiefs, some ribbon, and a sewing kit.

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So much better than a corset. By Mary Phelps Jacob – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That night Mary traded her corset for her homemade hanky contraption and was the easiest, breeziest belle at the ball. Many significantly less comfortable women took notice and, gasping for air, wanted to know her secret. It didn’t take Mary long to realize she was on to something big.

On November 3, 1914, Mary Phelps Jacobs, who would eventually become known as Caresse Crosby, received the first patent for the modern bra. Women everywhere abandoned their restrictive corsets and celebrated with a collective and blissfully deep sigh.

Jacobs wasn’t the first or only person to tackle the terrible problem of women’s undergarments, but I love her story the most because I can just picture it—the moment when comfort and practicality won over fashion.

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I bet she’s not wearing a corset, either. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

I imagine it was a lot like that moment you kick off the ridiculous high heels at the wedding reception so you can actually dance or later when you trade the confining cocktail dress for your trusty old yoga pants. If there are any bewhiskered menfolk still reading at this point, I suspect this feeling is also similar to loosening your necktie.

The story of Mary Phelps Jacob is great because it’s kind of universal. And because as we head through the month of November when we stop shaving, and here in the US, we don our stretchy turkey pants and prepare to tuck in for the long, cold winter ahead, it’s nice to pause and remember that sometimes it’s the necessity of comfort that is the mother of the greatest inventions.

November is a Month for Silly Affectations

It’s finally November, which just means many of us are rethinking our grooming options. That’s right, we’ve reached that one month out of the year when for some inexplicable reason, otherwise clean-cut men (and sometime women, too) decide not to shave.

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Lincoln in 1858, in need of a beard. By T.P. Pearson, Public Domain

And really, do we need a reason not to shave? Sure, smooth skin might be nice, but shaving takes a lot of time—time manly men all over the world could spend washing and combing and stroking thoughtfully the facial hair that is their genetic legacy. They don’t need an excuse.

But at least one famous man did. On October 15, 1860, a little girl from Westfield, New York gave him one when she wrote to then presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln that he would “look a great deal better” if he let his whiskers grow. Lincoln responded to eleven-year-old Grace Bedell within a few days inquiring whether she thought “people would call it a silly affectation” if he were to begin a beard at this point.

There’s no record of whether she wrote to him again of this matter, but like so many men of the last few years, Lincoln stopped shaving that November. By the time he took his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. the new president’s face was sporting some stylish hair. And with it, he’d picked up a pretty adorable story.

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An artist’s best guess. Original portrait by T.P. Pearson, Public Domain. Beard added by my 14-year-old son, used with permission.

Not particularly pleased about the development were the portrait artists working to make a buck off the famous visage of the newly elected leader. Before the days of presidential Twitter feeds and helpful Instagram filters, the rumor of recently sprouted whiskers were all many artists had to go on, and so they had to guess.

But Abraham Lincoln certainly has gone down in history as a bewhiskered gentleman, his signature close-trimmed beard possibly the most recognizable in US history. Still, historians don’t all agree on his motivation for taking Bedell’s advice.

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Bewhiskered Lincoln in 1863. It takes a wise president to embrace criticism about his hair. By Alexander Gardner, Public Domain

He did make a stop along his inaugural journey to show little Miss Bedell his whiskers, which surely won him some favorable press. It’s always possible he could have just reflected on the advice of a concerned citizen and realized that she might have had a point.

It’s also true that in Lincoln’s day, close-trimmed facial hair was common among the highly sophisticated gentlemen of US cities and Honest Abe probably wanted to shed his rep as kind of a country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere in Illinois.

Or it could be that Abraham Lincoln was a man ahead of his time and he just decided November is not for shaving.

“Throw Away Your Razor” November

In 1895, a young man named King Camp Gillette stood in front of his shaving mirror contemplating some recent advice he’d received from work at the Crown Cork and Seal Company, manufacturers of bottle caps. The advice was this: “Invent something people use and throw away.”

King Camp Gillette sporting an impressive mustache for the month of Movember.
King Camp Gillette sporting an impressive mustache for the month of Movember.

That seemed like a sound idea to Gillette who thought about it so long and so hard, he nicked himself with his razor. He grabbed a towel and cursed as he attempted to stem the bleeding and clean himself up. Then he grabbed the strop he used to sharpen the blade so he could get good clean nicks the next time he shaved too. That’s when it hit him. What he’d really like to do instead is just throw the darn thing away.

And maybe, he thought, just maybe, other men, men who were tired of tearing up their skin for the sake of a fashionably close shave, might feel the same way. He wasn’t wrong, because about a hundred years later, men stood up in great droves to throw their razors away for an entire month in an effort to tell the world that men’s health and well-being matters.

Evidently babies don't participate in No Shave November. photo attribution: http://www.flickr.com/people/21309047@N00
Evidently babies don’t participate in No Shave November. photo attribution: http://www.flickr.com/people/21309047@N00

It was in the late 1990’s that “No Shave” November (or “Movember” if you prefer a mustache to a beard) began to emerge. The idea is that for a whole month, men (and sometimes women) agree not to shave in order to raise awareness and, in some cases, research funds for health issues specific to men.

I should say, I certainly have nothing against the beardless, even in
November, but I do like the event. I think it’s a fun way to talk about some serious stuff, because, though I really don’t care whether the men in my life sport whiskers or don’t, I do care very much whether or not they look after their health needs. And I realize that too often, men don’t. So, please, Gentlemen, visit your doctor occasionally (or get a doctor, if that’s where you’re at) and take care of business.

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A great November 1904 leap forward for men’s health.

Now, to be fair, Gillette didn’t think the answer to his problem would be to throw away his razor forever and just stop shaving at all. Instead, he got down to business, found himself a knowledgeable partner (William Nickerson), and applied for a patent for his disposable safety razor in 1904 on the 15th of “Throw away your razor” November.

Though not the first encased blade razor on the market, it was the first with a replaceable head and within a few years, men were sold. Gillette had successfully invented something that people use and throw away and had become a well-shaved millionaire in the process. The company that bears his name, though now owned by Proctor & Gamble, continues to move forward behind the mantra, “There is a better way to shave and we will find it.”

This November, millions of men have come together to declare that at least for a couple more weeks, that better way is not to shave at all. But my hope is that long after November has run its course and a lot of menfolk have returned to their regular shaving routines, they will remember how their manly plight was made better by King Camp Gillette. And I’m hoping that every time they throw away their razor blade, the men in my life, and the men in yours, will remember that it’s important to the people they love that they look after themselves and take care of business.