Romantic Circles Gallery
Shaving by Steam
Dorothy George describes this print:
A complicated piece of machinery fills the centre of a room in a fashionable establishment; an open door (r.) leads into a shop where, in the background, a pretty and extravagantly dressed woman (in the costume of c. 1828) presides at a counter; above the door is a model of the machine, Patent Shavograph!!! Through a window (l.) is seen the Ladies Hair Cutting Room: another machine operates on seated ladies, whose long hair is raised perpendicularly into the mechanism. Above the window is an erection of erect loops of hair, burlesquing the fashion. A dandy, waiting his turn, ogles the ladies through his monocle. Another, sitting on a chair (l.), reads a newspaper, Herald. The ‘Shavograph’ operates from r. to l. upon the customers who sit on a circular bench, each with his head held firm in a wedge cut from a millstone-like disk (B) at the back of his seat. The razor has just sliced off the nose of an officer who stands gesticulating wildly, putting his hand before splashing blood while one dismayed neighbour rises from his seat, and the other shouts Stop! Stop! Four men on the l., waiting their turn for the razor, &c., to reach them, are unconscious of the accident. One is having his head pressed into position by a rod held by a fashionably dressed man (H) who is also working a lever. (86-7)Below the image, the print includes the following text:
EXPLANATION. AAA a circular form on which the shavers sit BBBBBB wheels that govern the position of the head CC the machinery which moves the brush in every required direction D a resevior [sic] of water, boiling hot E a pipe filled with patent double compress’d shaving powder, through which the water is forced to forme [sic] a lather in the brush F GGG the machinery which moves the razor H the Engineer with his directing rod. (Note) it is indispensible that the sitter should be firm and steady, it will be perived [sic] the neglecting this by looking after the shop woman has cost one his nose, but he only pays the penalty of his own imprudence ‘Accidents will occur in the best regulated families . .' (original ellipses)George notes that this quotation appears in Dickens’s David Copperfield; however, the print predates the publication of the novel (1849-50) (87). Seymour’s relationship with Dickens may have some bearing on the source of the quotation.
Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Copyright, 2009.
The lower left-hand corner of the print bears the signature, “Shortshanks fecit,” and the lower right-hand corner reads, “pub. by E. King, Chancery Lane.” Below the print is an explanatory key.
It is probable that Shaving by Steam originally circulated as an independent, inexpensive print.
New steam engine technologies in the early nineteenth century, including the invention of the locomotive, launched rapid technological and industrial change in Britain. Satirists and caricature artists such as Robert Seymour responded immediately to these changes, often highlighting the destructive and dehumanizing potential of these new machines (cf. J. Wosk, Breaking Frame).
Robert Seymour was a successful London caricaturist. He was born in 1789 in Somerset, but he soon moved to London due to his father’s financial troubles. He was apprenticed to a pattern designer but started his career as a portrait and history painter. He began producing caricatures in 1827, closely following the popular style and influence of George Cruikshank. Everitt notes that “to some of his earlier caricatures he affixed the name of ‘Shortshanks,’ a practice which he discontinued upon receiving a remonstrance from the irritable George” (Everitt 208). Some of his more popular series included The March of Intellect (1829) with William Heath, and Humorous Sketches (c. 1833), which satirized Cockney sportsmen. He was also an illustrator for the magazine Figaro—the forerunner to Punch—and for the first two issues of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, though there was apparently much disagreement over who had artistic control. Seymour committed suicide on April 20, 1836 (Everitt 208-234; Bryant and Heneage 45).
Robert Seymour executed a number of caricatures devoted to new technologies in 1828-1830. These include a series of prints entitled Living Made Easy (1830) and The March of Intellect (1829) by Seymour and William Heath. Of particular relevance to this print is The March of Intellect, Mechanical (1829), a print from the latter series, which depicts “a mock identity-changing salon” in which characters submit themselves to various machines meant to violently alter their bodies and appearances, including a “Stretching Machine” and “Amputation by Steam” (Wosk 98; also cf. 88-100 for analysis of Seymour’s technological caricatures.)
Shaving by Steam closely resembles an earlier unattributed print, a copy of which is also held by the Lewis Walpole Library: “Representation of the NEW SHAVING MACHINE whereby a number of Persons may be done at the same time with expedition ease and safety, Manufactured and Sold by D. Merry and Son, Birmingham,” dated 1794 by Wosk (97). The machinery appears similar in both prints, though Seymour has replaced the man-powered wheel with state-of-the-art steam technology. Seymour also makes apparent the violence implicit in the earlier print, in which a large-nosed man looks warily at the approaching machine while the text below assures the reader of its “safe, smooth, and efficacious manner” of operation. Wosk, I believe rightly, identifies this earlier print as satiric rather than as an actual advertisement; however, it is more ambivalent about the specter of “portrait-making mechanism[s]” than Seymour’s later version (98).
This detailed print satirizes new steam technologies and social types by depicting an imaginary, steam-generated shaving machine: in the image, customers are groomed by this complicated and dangerous piece of equipment. One unfortunate customer who cannot remain "firm and steady" after being distracted by a fashionable "shop woman," "pays the penalty of his own imprudence"—his nose is chopped off by the machine's blades. Seymour’s print also satirizes social types as well as technological mechanism, and the various figures are stereotyped by their clothing, their expressions, and especially by their hats. The two men waiting their turn on the left side, for example, are identified as dandies by their top-hats and dainty postures.
Robert Seymour (like George Cruikshank, Robert Cruikshank, and Theodore Lane) is a significant figure in Romantic-era British caricature, and his particular fascination with technology reflects Romantic anxieties and ambivalence concerning the meaning of these new industries. Of particular relevance to this gallery is Seymour's concern with the ways in which new technologies radically alter the human body and self-identity.
In Shaving by Steam, Seymour’s “shavograph” is both fascinating and terrifying, not only in its power to maim with just a slip of the blade, but also in the implied, symbolic threat of castration. Unlike the earlier print The Shaving Machine (which this one appears to reference), this print is quite explicit about the dangers of the beauty machine for its large-nosed customers. In the mixed-gender setting, voyeuristic opportunities abound, of which the dandy to the left takes full advantage, leering at the women in the next room through an eye piece. However, it also causes one unfortunate customer who cannot remain “firm and steady” to “[pay] the penalty of his own imprudence.” Caught in the unstoppable mechanism, the men are rendered, at best, impotent and ridiculous (Wosk 96).
Wosk’s discussion of this print follows her discussion of automata in a chapter titled “Art, Technology, and the Human Image” (67-104). In her view, a machine like the “shavograph” threatens to depersonalize its individual subjects, rendering them duplicates and replicates (like clockwork dolls); hybrid, machine-human monsters; or horrifically disembodied. However, I would add that the typology of the print (a significant modification of the earlier print) also suggests that the dandification of fashionable men has already rendered them effeminate, impotent, and identical, a process that the “shavograph” comically expedites. As such, it bears some similarities to Robert Cruikshank’s The English Ladies Dandy Toy. From either perspective, Shaving by Steam exemplifies the conflicted Romantic interest—at once attracted and horrified—in how automated mechanisms double, fracture, and alter individual, gendered bodies and subjectivities.
Bryant, Mark and Simon Heneage. “Robert Seymour.” Dictionary of British Cartoonists and Caricaturists 1730-1980. Aldershot: Scolar P, 1994. 196-197. Print.
Everitt, Graham. “Robert Seymour.” English Caricaturists and Graphic Humourists of the Nineteenth Century. How They Illustrated and Interpreted Their Times. 2nd ed. London: Sonnenschein, 1893. 208-234. Print.
George, M. Dorothy. “15654: SHAVING BY STEAM.” Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Dept. of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. Vol. 11. 1828-1832. London: The British Museum Board of Trustees, 1954. 86-87. Print.
Wosk, Julie. Breaking Frame: Technology and the Visual Arts in the Nineteenth Century. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992. Print.
Shaving By Steam