Let’s face it, spotting that first grey hair can be a slightly depressing experience. Whatever age it chooses to arrive at, it signifies a step change in the body; a reminder of the ticking clock. For men, the first grey beard hairs are sometimes a shock. In the nineteenth century things were no different. This was the age of the beard, when having a luxuriant crop of facial hair demonstrated manly vigour and strength. Grey hair could be a sign of the wisdom accumulated with age, to be sure, but it also potentially portended the onset of bodily decline.
Even in the early modern period grey hair and beards bore strong connections with the beginnings of bodily decay. In humoural terms, grey hair was an outward sign of the loss of bodily heat. The beard, in Galenic medicine, was traditionally regarded as a type of excrement, the result of heat rising up through the body as a sort of exhaust gas from the production of sperm deep down in the ‘reins’ – the area around the kidneys. It was this heat that determined the colour of men’s beards. The deeper the colour, the hotter and more virile the man. As bodies aged, though, they got naturally colder and drier, and, as this occurred, the colour began to disappear from their hair, beards and whiskers.
By the time of the ‘beard movement’ beliefs in the humours had largely been abandoned but, in an age that championed youth, ‘muscular Christianity’, virility and athleticism, going grey, especially at a young age, was not necessarily to be embraced.
Even from the early decades of the nineteenth century, a host of products were becoming available to dye the hair, beard, whiskers and moustache. These were part of a broader market for cosmetic products that had begun in the late 1700s, and which included men as consumers, as well as women. The stated aim of the vast majority of these products was to return the hair to shades of brown or black. Alexander Rowlands’ advertisements for ‘Melacomia’ dye, suggested that brown and black were the ‘natural shade of the hair’. W.H. Cockell’s beard dye was ‘Instantaneous’, returning hair to a ‘natural’ colour and shine, with the added benefit of perfume, and ‘not a particle of poison’…always a good sign.
The use of the word ‘natural’ here was problematic though. On one level advertisers were suggesting that all they were doing was restoring facial hair to its proper ‘look’. But this process was of course inherently ‘unnatural’!
Something else was at play though, and there were also perhaps some more sinister undertones in the privileging of certain colours over others. There were certainly expectations of what represented solid British colours: as the record of a meeting held in Newcastle to discuss the ‘beard movement’ suggested, ‘beards of all hues attended, from the sandy and light hue of the Saxon to the ebony ferocity of the Celt’!
But as Sarah Cheang has argued, the characteristics of hair, including its texture and length, as well as colour, formed an important part of nineteenth century debates about race and racial identities. In an era of concerns over racial classification and hierarchies of race, black or brown hair was considered characteristic of the Caucasian type, and therefore considered preferable over other shades. In advertising their products, some makers actively singled ‘red’ facial hair, setting it up as an undesirable cultural other against the presumably more ‘British’ shades.
Perhaps the main issue that the makers of dyeing products were addressing, however, was ageing. Many makers stressed the utility of their products in masking the effects of age on a once effulgent beard. As early as 1807, perfumer John Chasson of Cornhill, London, advertised his ‘Incomparable Fluid’, for changing hair, whiskers and eyebrows from grey to ‘beautiful and natural shades of brown and black’. The London perfumer JT Rigge sold his ‘Princes Russia Dye’ which would immediately make grey whiskers dark or black. In beard terms, this was the equivalent of the elixir of youth!
For all that they promised, however, using certain dyeing products was not necessarily a straightforward process. An article in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle in July 1868 warned of the potential issues that could arise from the unpalatable odour of certain products. In the article, titled ‘Cosmetics for the Hair’, the correspondent noted the drawbacks to using preparations based on ammonia. The “abominable odour of hydrosulphate of ammonia, compounded of the putrid smell of hartshorn would, I should think, make the application of this sort of dye to a full head of hair intolerable; and a fellow who could complacently apply this hateful thing to his moustache must be strong of stomach, and not over delicate as to the sense of smelling.’ There were clearly some occasions when having a few grey hairs was preferable to having a beard that reeked of something between a wet nappy and a stink bomb!
But it wasn’t all bad news for older men whose beards had lost their colour. With age was believed to come wisdom, and the long, flowing white beard could symbolised long life, and experience. ‘The white beard’s venerable grace’ could therefore be seen as the mark of the patriarch. As the proud owner of a lockdown beard which has now gone snow white on the chin, I’m happy to endorse this view!