The recorded history of armpit shaving is a spotty one indeed. The earliest reference we have found was that the ancient Babylonians, more than one thousand years before the birth of Christ, developed depilatories to remove unwanted body hairs.
Julius Caesar reported that early Britons "had long flowing hairs and shaved every part of their bodies except the head and upper lip", but this quotation may refer only to men. We do know that barbers removed superfluous hair from the eyebrows, nostrils, arms, and legs from male customers around this time.
The first direct reference to the specific topic at hand is contained in Ovid's Art of Love, written just before the birth of Christ: "Shall I warn you to keep the rank goat out of your armpits? Warn you to keep your legs free of coarse bristling hair?"
In Chaucer's day (the fourteenth century), the mere sight of any hair was considered erotic. Women were required to wear head coverings; caps were worn indoors and out by woman of all ages.
These ancient antecedents predict our current duality about body hair on women. On the one hand, underarm hair is considered unsightly and unhygienic, and yet on the other, sexy and natural.
None of many razor companies or cosmetic historians we contacted could pinpoint when woman first started shaving their armpits. The earliest reports concerned prostitutes during the gold rush days in California. Terri Tongco, among other readers, posited the theory that prostitutes shaved their underarms to prove that they have no body lice, which were rampant in the old West.
Many older readers able to pinpoint when their mothers and grandmothers started shaving their armpits. Not-so-old historian C.F. "Charley" Eckhardt of Seguin, Texas, is the only person we have found who was actually studied this Frustable:
My paternal grandmother, born in 1873, and my maternal grandmother, born in 1882, did not shave their armpits. My wife's maternal grandmother (1898), my mother (1914), and my mother-in-law (1921) all did or do.
Eadweard Muybridge's photographic studies of the nude human figure in motion and Hillaire Belloc's photographs of New Orleans prostitutes, all taken before or immediately after the turn of the century, show hairy armpits, as do nude photos of prostitutes known to have been taken in El Paso, Texas, prior to 1915. In addition, still photographs taken from pornographic photographs of the "French postcard" variety which are documented as having been made in the United States prior to 1915.
Theatrical motion pictures released about and after 1915, including Cleopatra (starring Theda Bara), the biblical sequences from D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, and several others, shown shaven armpits. Something, then, happened about 1915 that would cause not merely stars but impressionable teenagers (as my wife's grandfather was) but not necessarily older family woman (like my grandmothers) to start shaving their armpits.
So what caused these women to start shaving their armpits around 1915? Many readers, including Charley Eckhardt, give the "credit" to Mack Sennett:
The first moviemaker to show the feminine armpit extensively in non-pornographic films was Mack Sennett, in his Bathing Beauty shorts… Sennett's Bathing Beauties had shaven armpits, and they are the first direct evidence we have of the armpit-shaving phenomemon. Whether or not Mack actually said "That look like hell - have 'em shave' is a moot point, though the statement is completely in character with what we know about Sennett.
We do know that flappers of the Roaring Twenties adopted the leeveless clothing that seemed o daring in the Sennett shorts.
We heard from several women who were more concerned about why the custom persists rather than how and when it started. Typical was this letter from Kathy Johnson of Madison, Wisconsin:
I am one of the apparently few U.S. women who has never shaved her armpits or legs. It never made logical sense to me, so why do it? I've heard the argument that shaving those regions is more sanitary. Then why, I volley back, don't men shave their armpits? Why, in fact, doesn't everyone shave their heads if lack of hair is so sanitary? Stunned silence…
Several psychologists and feminists have speculated that men like the shaven look because it makes women look prepubescent - young, innocent, and unthreatening. Diana Grunig Catalan of Rangely, Colorado, who subscribes to the prepubescent theory, speculate that "American woman, unlike their European counterparts, were not supposed to do anything with all those men they attracted with their revealing clothing. A childlike, helpless look can be a protection as well as an attraction".
In defense of men, it has been our experience that many women have visceral reactions to the presence or lack of body hair in men. Why does the same woman who like hair on the front of the torso (the chest) not like it on the back? Why is hair on the arms compulsory but excess hair on the hands considered repugnant? Are women, as well as men, afraid to face the animal part of our nature? Hairy questions, indeed.