I don’t think about slaughterhouses much, having been vegetarian my entire adult life. I certainly didn’t expect to think about them in reviewing a study of the history of hair removal. But the first of many things I learned from Rebecca Herzig’s wonderful Plucked: A History of Hair Removal was that depilation and meat production, improbable though it sounds, share a hirsute history.
In early 19th-century America and Europe, the industrialisation of meat production necessitated an ever-quicker, better organised transformation of sentient piggy to slab of meat. This streamlining of piggy’s demise in an era before reliable mechanical refrigeration was financially driven. However, and I confess to this being a problem to which I’d previously given very little thought, Herzig tells us that “to the goal of efficient, uninterrupted disassembly, the task of stripping hair from hides presented a vexing bottleneck”.
Noxious depilatory chemicals would prove the most efficient way of “unhairing” piggy and her pals, and the manufacture of these unguents boomed in the first few decades of the 19th century. Women’s toiletry manufacturers were watching these depilatory developments with a keen eye. They saw the opportunity for product diversification, and worked hard to promote as utterly beyond doubt the necessity of eliminating “any hair growth below the scalp line”.
But while quicklime and arsenic stripped pig carcasses splendidly, they performed less well in the bathrooms of America. Herzig tells some hair-raising tales of hair-razing gone awry, as caustic chemicals removed users’ flesh along with what was, by the early 20th century, being hyped as “unwanted” or “excess” hair. Reading Plucked made me remember fondly the first time I read Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. I recalled the Damascene feeling I experienced as an undergraduate; that moment of realising that history could be fun, even salacious, and instantly readable, without any diminishment of its scholarly rigour or value.
The pressures of hair-free conformity grew as the 20th century progressed. Hairlessness became an emblem not only of femininity but of racial purity, and evolutionary success, too. As the women’s suffrage movement gained traction, so more and more stories were reported of women whose social participation was stopped in its tracks because they were too ashamed of their facial hair even to leave the house.
The brutal methods of depilation Herzig records are as fascinating as they are horrific. The technique called “punching”, for example, involved “a cylindrical knife…jammed through the skin around the hair shaft and immediately withdrawn, leaving a severed column of skin containing the hair-root”. With her customary dry wit and mastery of understatement, Herzig delivers her own punchline: “Punching was never a particularly popular method of hair removal.” Descriptions of the horrors that ensued from deploying X-rays to remove hair – a method in use until the 1940s – are shared in the same compelling way.
Herzig unites anthropology, sociology, history and psychology in this gripping study. Although she might have dealt with issues of race in more depth, ultimately Plucked is an important work, not least because it is so very readable. What’s more, Herzig is angry, and anger is the first step towards social change. “Plucked”, she writes, “is, first and foremost, a call to remember those excluded others: the staggering volumes of sweat and blood and imagination and fear expended to produce a single hairless chin.”
Plucked: A History of Hair Removal
By Rebecca M. Herzig
New York University Press, 280pp, £20.99
ISBN 9781479840823 and 830657 (e-book)
Published 9 February 2015