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How Shaving Brushes Gave World War I Soldiers Anthrax

A new paper looks back on an old epidemic—and raises fresh questions about antique shaving brushes

During World War I, a critical shaving tool caused critical illness in hundreds of people. (iStock/Gutzemberg)
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During World War I, a clean shave required a brush, a bar of soap and a substantial razor.  But some unlucky souls got an unwelcome extra with that fresh face, reports Rachel Becker for The Verge: anthrax.

A historical review just published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells the tale of how animal hair shaving brushes spread the disease and suggests that modern users of old-school brushes might want to double-check their tools.

The review is focused on over 200 cases of anthrax among British and American soldiers and civilians during World War I. Before the war, shaving brushes that used boar, horse and badger hair were popular—with badger the most desirable of the lot for their water-holding capacity. But during the war, the review notes, badger hair became harder to obtain. Imitation brushes were instead made from imported horsehair.

That put shaving men—especially soldiers—at risk of anthrax. The infectious disease is caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium that can survive and even reproduce for long periods of time in the soil. Livestock then consume the bacteria and humans who come into contact with them can catch the disease.

During World War I, soldiers and other men who got anthrax-infected brushes didn’t come into contact with the horses themselves, but the bacteria hid out in the non-disinfected hair and made its way into cuts and nicks in some shavers. The result is what the authors call a “mini epidemic.”

At the time, military officials thought that gas masks would work better on clean-shaven troops, and chemical warfare was common during the war. So the United States distributed “khaki kits”—shaving sets designed to make it easier for men to shave in the field. It seems that the brushes in some of these sets were made of horsehair and not properly disinfected, leading to the spread of anthrax.

Anthrax itself was used as a weapon during World War I when Germany tried to infect animals slated for shipment to the Allies with the disease. The animal infections even took place on U.S. soil during a German-led sabotage campaign.

Could anthrax still lurk in the old-school shaving brushes that have come back into vogue? Yes—though as Becker notes, due to disinfection laws, brushes made after 1930 present “really, really low” risks. For pre-1930 brushes, it’s a bit sketchier, and the CDC notes that disinfecting vintage brushes at home has risks that “are likely to outweigh possible benefits.”

All in all, the paper notes that using untreated hair brushes poses a “potential, and perhaps hypothetical risk” to modern-day shavers who use vintage brushes. But it’s worth considering—and the forgotten anthrax epidemic of World War I is definitely worth remembering.

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