Finding Your Beard Style in the 19th Century

In the previous post I noted the variety of facial hair styles that were worn by men in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, depending on factors including status, location and age. Rather than each age having one particular style of facial hair that was ubiquitous, the decision about what style to go for was, then as now, a matter for the individual man. 

Whatever he chose to do, though, a series of decisions were involved. First was the decision as to whether to shave or whether to let the beard grow full and natural. If the former, then how much of the face was to be shaved, and how often? Would the man shave himself, or visit the barber? If the latter, what was the desired ‘look’, and how could it be achieved.  Fashion was obviously another consideration: if, for example, the prevailing trend was for small, pointy beards, then a choice needed to be made as to whether to follow the fashion or buck the trend. Some men like the idea of using their beard as a statement, and a symbol of individual identity.

But another thing that needs to be considered is what sort of facial hair might suit a man’s face. Just like hairstyles, the suitability – and the effect – of different types of beards and moustaches can vary dramatically according to the size and shape of the face. 

Funny Folks, 28 June 1879, p. 206

An article titled ‘The Hair and Beard’ in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle in 1868 attempted to set out the ground rules for facial hair fashions. On one level, it argued, fashions were essentially arbitrary, and things like which side of the head the hair was parted, or what style of cut, were ‘prompted by no discoverable reason’.

But when a beard was worn it was important that it added to the overall harmony of the face, and emphasised its features, rather than hiding them. The ‘proper way of wearing a beard’ it argued ‘is ascertainable by a simple test. The idea is not that of a great beard attached to the face, but of a face which is ornamented by a beard.’ Proportion was everything. If the beard was too long it risked masking everything underneath. Too short, however, and the beard simply became ‘a covering, such as feathers are to a bird’.

Once a man had decided on what style suited him, the next question was whether he had the wherewithal to grow it. Many factors were argued to affect the quality of beard hair, not least of which was food. Another note in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle in December 1875 suggested that ‘The nature of nourishment causes a great variety in the beard. Wholesome, nutritious and digestible food makes the beard soft”. Rather cheekily it then added that ‘a good wife who provides excellent dinners will soon see the effect on the beard’. By contrast though, ‘poor, dry and indigestible food renders the beard hard and bristly’. 

Title page of ‘The Hair’ by J. Pincus – copyright Wellcome Images

A study of diseases of the hair and beard by Dr J. Pincus in 1882 argued that beards should be left alone during their ‘period of germination’ and that the ‘natural growth of the beard should not be interfered with.’ Rather than shaving off their beard hair, young men would do well to let it grow natural since ‘the irritation of shaving is too powerful and the beard becomes prematurely coarse and brittle.’ By not letting their beards develop unhindered in their formative years, Pincus argued, youths risked a wealth of problems including losing the colour in their facial hair, which would ‘fade into yellowish and reddish brown’ in later years. Only once a man had reached full maturity should he consider shaving.

But there were also a large percentage of men for whom growing a full beard was difficult, if not impossible. Through history, suspicions had been aroused and insults levelled, at men whom nature had not endowed with a fulsome crop of beard hair. Terms such as ‘smock-faced’, ‘spanopogones’ and ‘beardless boy’ were brickbats that stung poor men who wanted to join the ‘beard movement’ but couldn’t. Happily though, there were some options. As well as supplying to the theatrical and party trades, manufacturers of false hairpieces were also beginning to offer facial hair wigs, to allow beardless men to give the lie of a full and healthy beard. Better still, these were increasingly available to suit the latest fashionable styles. 

Advertisements like this one for a theatrical wig suppler in November 1874 offered all manner of different styles to suit all tastes. Here, for example, were ‘Dundreary whiskers’, ‘mutton shop’ sideburns, magisterial-looking full beards and even, rather unusually, a false ‘chin beard’, complete without the moustache! And indeed, for moustache lovers, options ranged from natty small examples to bushier and trendier styles, such as the ‘Imperial’.

Author’s Photograph of detail from Hairdresser’s Chronicle, 1874. Original document copyright British Library

There were even options for attaching them to the face – a serious consideration since few social faux pas could surely equal having your beard fly off in a gust of wind whilst trying to converse with the ladies. At the lower end of the scale these included sticking the contrivance to the face with tape or glue. Next up in efficiency were those that used wire to mould to the shape of the wearer’s face, and looped around the ears, giving a more natural look. But for really high-end models, a system of springs were used to make the beard wig cling to the face even in the most inclement of weathers. 

A whole range of hair-growth products were also available, promising that only a few applications of their miracle preparations would be enough to endow men with effulgent beards, moustaches and whiskers.

Author’s photograph of detail from Hairdresser’s Chronicle, 7 November 1874

Whatever the style, length, colour or amount of beard, therefore, facial hair required choices to be made. Happily, help was at hand in terms of the advice available in popular publications, and perhaps also from barbers and hairdressers, but also the innovative contrivances made by wig makers. With one of these, almost any man could instantly achieve the style he wanted, without risking the thousand shocks that daily lifestyle and diet could apparently visit upon his facial hair.  

And a new feature. This post is also available as a podcast: https://anchor.fm/alun-withey/episodes/Finding-Your-Beard-Style-in-the-19th-Century-esf31g/a-a4u8nbu

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