Hiding Behind the Beard. Facial hair and Physiognomy.

One of the most consistent arguments made against the beard has long been the sense that bearded men are not to be trusted. It’s actually one of the main reasons that politicians don’t wear beards, (with one notable exception!) since the danger of looking shifty to the voting public is too big a risk to take. The nub of the complaint is that some men grow beards to somehow ‘hide’ behind them – almost like a mask, or disguise.

It’s certainly not a new argument. In fact, in the late eighteenth century, and again in the nineteenth, amidst new ideas about physiognomy and ‘reading’ facial features, beards were an awkward problem. Why? Because they got in the way. In the 1700s this wasn’t so much of a problem since this was largely a beardless age. Whilst old men and derelicts might be seen in public sporting some grey or tatty fronds, the enlightened gentleman was smooth-faced; an open countenance to show an open mind.

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Johan Casper Lavater (Wellcome Images)

But although divining character through look, expression and general mien had been around for centuries, it was the eighteenth century that saw the beginnings of trying to make a science of it. During this periodthe head and face took on new meanings as sites of authority and symbols of inner character. It was supposed that there were links between facial characteristics and personality traits, ranging from intelligence to morality and temper. Some even believed that there was a hidden ‘language’ of facial features and expression waiting to be discovered. Despite the fact that hardly any men had them, beards had a part to play in physiognomic investigation. As Lavater noted in assessing portraits of famous villains, ‘even the[ir] beard bears a character of sternness and inflexibility’.

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From J. Parsons, Human Physiognomy (Wellcome Images)

In a period of increasing interest in the ‘foreign’ bodies of other races, and of systems of classification of man and the natural world, another argument (made by David Ritchie in 1780, was that Europeans chose to shave as a mark of their superiority, giving them ‘a more significant physiognomy to their smooth chins’. Hair and beards were important markers of difference between races. Despite the fact that they shaved, the ability to grow a beard was still important, and bearded Europeans regarded themselves superior to sparsely-bearded, or beardless peoples.

But it was the 19thcentury that saw the beard drawn more purposefully into debates about face and character, amidst a revival of interest (even something of a golden age) in physiognomy. The early 1800s had seen the proliferation of small, cheap and accessible physiognomical texts, most notably reprints and editions of Lavater’s key works. According to Sharona Pearl, physiognomy became so popular in the nineteenth century, across the whole of society, that it became a ‘widely understood visual language’Not only this, it became a popular pastime to ‘read’ the faces of people in the street and try to determine their characters. ‘Look at that man’s eyebrows Mamma…he simply MUST be a poisoner’!

Just as the shape of the eyes, nose, ears, eyebrows and so on were important indicators of character, so the lower face could also reveal much. According to Samuel Well’s 1871 New Physiognomy, the shape, size and movement of the mouth and lips spoke volumes about an individual’s character and temperament. Whilst coarse, irregular lips, for example might suggest strength, small, smooth and delicate lips implied delicacy of character. A narrow, closed mouth could indicate lack of affection and reserve, whilst an open mouth showed a frank, outspoken disposition. The shape, angle and outline of the chin were also principal components in the estimation of character. The chin, as some Physiognomical texts stressed was nothing less the ‘index of love’!

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Socrates, from Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (Wellcome Images)

But, when they returned with a hairy flourish around 1853, beards presented physiognomists with an irritating problem. The practice of popular physiognomy relied on being able to ‘read’ the whole of the face. Since beards obscured virtually the all of the mouth, chin and lips, the ‘book’ was therefore firmly snapped shut. An 1859 article in the American Gazette, (provocatively titled ‘Physiognomy Annihilated by Beards’) moaned about facial hair. If he had only foreseen the extent to which men would once again ‘disfigure’ their chins by growing beards, grumped the author, Lavater would surely have put aside his toils. ‘He whose chin, mouth and lips are rendered invisible, by neglecting the daily use of the razor, wears a mask, which conceals his character from the observer’. Others simply tried to pretend that they didn’t care. As ‘some captious critics’ had stated, argued one article in 1863, ‘whiskers and beards do not, properly speaking, fall under the head of physiognomical features’, since they were entirely under the control of the wearer, and were thus useless as indicators of character. The literary equivalent of going home AND taking your ball.

Supporters of the beard, attempted to fight back, arguing that a beard was actually useful precisely because it allowed a weak physiognomy to be concealed. In 1866 Arnold Cooley argued that a beard could certainly be useful in concealing ‘the defects of an ill-formed or ungraceful chin’. The skill of the diligent amateur physiognomist to see through the disguise and divine the true form underneath. The other problem with the physiognomy craze was the whole issue of actually being open to scrutiny. Some Victorians were actually going to increasing lengths to hide their faces, tiring of the intrusive gawp of strangers. For men, the beard perhaps offered a mask, an opportunity to disguise the face…a chance to hide.

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Fear mingled with wonder, Bell’s Physiognomy (Wellcome Images)

It’s well known that the beard is a ‘prosthetic’, something that can be put on and taken off – a fact that’s been put to use by criminals for centuries! In the records of the Old Bailey online are several examples of criminals putting on ‘false whiskers’ to disguise themselves. It’s clear from records and reports that many criminals recognised the value of facial hair in hiding their true faces. In 1857 James Saward and James Anderson appeared at the Old Bailey accused of forgery. Part of their disguise was the adoption of a wig and ‘false whiskers’ to ensure that they avoided detection. Part of the defence of Thomas Cuthbert, accused of theft in 1867, was that the false whiskers and moustache he was wearing when arrested were not put on by him, but were applied by another man, when Cuthbert was dead drunk!

The relationship between the beard and physiognomy is quite complex. At times it was simply ignored, but at others was central to debates about the face and character. It’s something very much on my mind at the moment as I write my own book on the history of facial hair. But whether the beard hides the face underneath, or instead adds a certain gravity and maturity to the wearer’s countenance, its meanings are seldom uncomplicated.