A Hidden History of Beard Terms!

2020 will be a milestone for me, as it sees the completion of my research, and the submission of my book Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England, 1650-1900, in many ways bringing an end to my project on the history of facial hair – a huge, and in many ways life-changing undertaking, which has occupied me for the past 7 years. It’s been quite a journey, covering a huge range of source material, archives all over the country, conferences, public lectures and media appearances. It’s been fantastic, both academically, and personally.

One of the absolute joys of researching this topic has been discovering the wealth of gems hidden away in archives, with fantastic stories, anecdotes or even just little insights into the lives of people in the past. As you might have noticed, blog entries have sadly suffered a bit over the past year or two, as I’ve been preoccupied with full-time teaching, research and book writing. It’s time to kick start things again and to use the blog to highlight some of this material that I haven’t been able to use in the book, but which definitely deserves to see the light of day.

So, I thought I’d use today’s post as a little teaser, by revealing some of the most unusual terms I’ve come across for beards, barbers and shaving. This a whistle-stop tour through the lexical history of facial hair.

Screenshot 2020-02-14 at 09.53.17

(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

‘Imperbicke’ – In Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionary or An Interpreter of Hard English Words of 1623, ‘Imperbicke’ was defined as being ‘without a beard’ or ‘beardless’. In the early modern period, as in fact at many other points throughout history, being unable to grow a beard was often viewed negatively. In the seventeenth century, the lack of a beard suggested that a man lacked inner heat. In the humoural system of the body, beard hair was actually a waste product – a sort of exhaust gas left over from the production of sperm deep in a man’s body. Heat caused it to rise upwards, solidifying as it did, to become beard hair. So, a beard was an outward demonstration of a man’s generative power, or even virility. So, if a man could not grow a beard, it was assumed that he was lacking in sexual potency, and potentially effeminate, or at least carried more female than male characteristics. The fact that there was a specific term designated to this, shows its importance in beliefs about the body.

‘Lanuge’ – One of the most important stages in a young man’s life, and one that heralded the transition from boyhood to manhood, was the first appearance of beard hair during puberty. In Cockeram’s dictionary, again, was the word ‘lanuge’, which he defined as ‘downe, or the beard when it appears to grow’. There were other words for the first appearance of beard hair. One was ‘probarbium’, in John Barrow’s 1749, Dictionarium medicum universal. The stage of initial beard growth was also given a name: in Nathaniel Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, the fluffy-faced youngster was ‘impubescent’.

‘Barbigerous’ – various appellations have been attached to the actual wearing of beards, moustaches and whiskers. My favourite of all, again from Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum was ‘barbigerous’, making beard-wearing sound a bit violent. Beard hair itself could sometimes be referred to as ‘barb’, as in Thomas Browne’s Union Dictionary in 1800, and a bearded man could be described as ‘barbed’. These all derive from the Latin term ‘barba’, from which we also supposedly (although there is some debate) get ‘barber’. On the matter of barbers, this is how William Toone described the term in his Glossary and Etymological Dictionary of Obsolete and Uncommon Words (London: Thomas Bennett, 1832), 81-2

Screenshot 2020-02-14 at 09.54.11

(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

Barber to shave or trim the beard. This ornament (for it was so considered when worn) was an object of great attention about three centuries ago, and was fashioned to a variety of shapes. Taylor, called the Water Poet, mentions them as cut to resemble a quickset hedge, a spade, a fork, a stiletto, a hammer &c. Much time was spent “in starching and landering” them, and such care was taken to preserve them in proper shape, that cases were put on to enclose them, which were put on at night, that they might not be disarranged by sleeping. The fashion of wearing beards declined in the reign of Charles II and was gradually discontinued. Barbers were employed to trim and adorn the beard, and so called from barba, a beard, and to barber was to shave or put the beard in order, and not to powder, as Dr Johnson suggests.

All this sounded better than John Wilkins’ rather curt dismissal of barbers in his Alphabetical Dictionary of 1668, describing them as ‘hair cutting mechanics’.

Smock-Faced – Returning to the issue of being beardless, ‘smock faced’ was a common insult term levelled at smooth-chinned men and beardless boys alike. Even after beliefs in the humours had started to decline, a lack of beard hair could raise suspicions about a man’s…manliness. In defining the term ‘beardless’, Thomas Dyche used it for “one that has no hair visible on the chin, as children, women and effeminate men”.

Screenshot 2020-02-14 at 09.54.41

(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

Spanopogones – In the spirit of saving the best till last, this one is perhaps the most unusual term that I’ve come across. It appeared in John Barrow’s 1749 medical dictionary, and was defined as ‘persons whose beards are thin, or whose hairs fall off from their chins’. It again points to the importance of being able to grow a beard, even if you ultimately chose to shave it off. As to how it is pronounced, I am still none the wiser!

So, with the research files bulging, and lots of stuff to share, I will endeavour to be a better boy at updating the blog. Thanks to you all for not deserting me and, as ever, for so many of your kind comments about the blog, and my work.

Halloween Special: Shaving the Dead in Irish Folklore

Shaving the dead in Irish folklore

The Irish Folklore Collection archive in University College Dublin contains a massive volume of documents, sound-recordings and other material collected under the auspices of the Irish Folklore Commission and other bodies since the 1920s. Two of the main elements of the archive are the Schools Folklore, compiled by schoolchildren in the 1930s, and the Main Collection, the work of folklorists working in communities throughout the state. These volumes are in the process of being digitised and transcribed – all of the examples here are from the Schools Collection at www.duchas.ie.

The archive incorporates a huge volume of material on folk medicine, magical cures, care for the dying, and the laying out, waking and burial of the dead. The work of laying out was rarely done by family members. Neighbours or local specialists, usually women, would wash and shroud the remains, and might also be involved in preparing the house for the wake. Great care was taken with the water used to wash the dead. Many accounts suggested it should be disposed of carefully, usually beneath a bush, in a corner, or somewhere where people didn’t normally walk, as it might cause the ground it touched to grow ‘fear gorta’, hungry grass, that would make passers-by feel faint or shaky, or create a ‘stray sod’ that would cause anyone walking over to become lost (‘go astray’). The things used during this time also needed to be treated carefully. Dying people were often placed on a woven straw mat, which would be burned or otherwise disposed of. The soap and towels used might be burned, buried, or placed in the fork of a tree.

Strictly-observed customs also surrounded the shaving of the dead and the things of shaving. In some areas it seems that all dead men were shaved, while elsewhere only those who had been clean-shaven during life were shaved after death. For example,in Carne, Co. Wexfordin the 1930s‘If a man was wearing a moustache or side whiskers it was shaved off’,[1]and in Sraheen, Co Mayo, it was even said ‘that if a man is not shaved before he is buried he will not go to heaven’.[2]  However, in Kilcommon, Co. Tipperary,‘A man who shaved during life is shaved, while those who wore beards are left there just as in life.’[3]The job of shaving the dead seems usually to have been done by a man, even if women did the washing. Most accounts mentioning shaving the dead agree that the razor used should be given to the man who did the job, though in some places, like Shancurry, Co. Leitrim, it was buried‘no matter how good it is’:[4]some add the detail that no payment should be asked for this work. Shaving a dead person seems to have been considered a tricky matter (cuts and nicks would doubtless displease the relatives). It might be said of a person who was good at sharpening tools that ‘He could put an edge on a scythe that would shave a corpse’.[5]

The association of men with shaving the dead is also evidenced in stories concerning encounters between mortals and the ‘Good People’ – the fairies – whose reputation for malevolence and caprice made them widely feared well into the twentieth century. While women might be detained by the fairies to act as midwives or nurses, men were more likely to be roped in to play games or music or, on occasion, to carry corpses or shave the dead – the latter is perhaps understandable in light of the Good People’s alleged aversion to iron. From Shrule, Co. Galway, comes the story of Pat Doherty:

There was once a man coming home from a wake. He had to cross a hill and on the top of the hill there was a little house. When he was near the house he heard a voice saying “Pat Doherty will shave the dead man”. Out ran the fairies from the house and brought him in. Then he shaved the dead man and the fairies gave him tea. When he was going home the fairies struck a weed and it turned into a horse. He got up on the horse and went home. He was putting in the horse into the stable and he disappeared. Then he went in and went to bed.[6]

One Mayo tale told of a man inveigled into both shaving a corpse for some supernatural women and carrying his coffin. Tom Coffey ‘was put astray’ on his way home one night and, exhausted, sought shelter in a house. An old man there died just after Tom arrived, and the two women attending him told Tom ‘he would have to shave him and he said that he never shaved a man in his life. They said that he would have to shave him.’ The women then obliged Tom to make a coffin. ‘They got a rope then and put it around the coffin. They told Tom that he would have to carry it and he [said he] would not be able. They said that he would. They put it on his back. He carried it all night until cock-crow. They told him to leave down the coffin and he did. The two women and the coffin disappeared.’[7]

Image from J. Jacobs, Celtic Folk and Fairy Tales

Another theme of which there are a few examples in the folklore archive concerns the man who braves a haunted house, only to meet a ghostly or otherworldly barber[8]or to be pressed into service as a barber himself. Seamus de Brun of Croom, Co Limerick told the story of a courageous tramp.

There was this great house, and nobody could stay there, because it was haunted. There was a notice on the gate stating that the person that would stay there three nights would get a thousand pounds.

There was a tramp walking the road and he saw the notice on the gate and read it. He went and told the owner that he would stay there. The first night the owner of the house gave him a bottle of whiskey. When he went in, he put down a big fire and sat down on a chair. At twelve o’clock a man dressed in black stood above on the stairs. The tramp said, what are you doing there, but he got no reply. He held on saying that until he fell asleep.

Next morning the owner unlocked the door and left out the tramp. Next night the owner gave him another bottle of whiskey. At about twelve o’clock, four men [came in] and a coffin on their shoulders. They set down the coffin and departed, and a corpse stood up from the coffin and asked him if he would shave him. He said he would, but he had no razor. The man in the coffin said that [it] was all right, as he himself had one. The tramp set to work and shaved him. Thanking him the corpse said that he had been coming here a long time, but had met no man with courage enough to shave him. The corpse told him where there were three crocks of gold and told him keep two for himself, and give one to the owner of the house. Next morning he done as he was told and got the thousand pounds. He was a rich man afterwards.[9]

Clearly prohibitions against payments for shaving the dead did not apply in the case of walking corpses.

Dr Clodagh Tait, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick

[1]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5009243/5001110/5122935

[2]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428066/4374474/4462894?ChapterID=4428066

[3]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922168/4857879/5018873

[4]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4605955/4605645/4644054

[5]The Irish Press, 2 June 1979, p.7.

[6]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5260385/5244869/5261376

[7]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427950/4360421

[8]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5105151/4996451

[9]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922034/4920807

The Singular Case of the Tiverton Barber

We all know the feeling of paying for something that doesn’t match up with our expectations, or not receiving the service or product we expect for our money. Many of us wouldn’t think twice of complaining, and getting a refund. But would we necessarily be prepared to go to court over something so apparently mundane as shaving soap?

In 1887 an unusual case came before the county court at Tiverton in Devon. The case of Stuckey versus Mitchell centred upon whether a barber had used a different brand of shaving soap to his usual one on a regular customer, in the process causing him a serious skin damage and illness. “The question before His Honour was whether Thomas Mitchell (the barber and hairdresser) was liable in damages” from any potential negligence or want of skill. More particularly, if he had not taken particular care to ensure that the materials he used were fit for purpose, could he be held responsible?

The customer, Stuckey, had visited Mitchell’s barbershop together with his friend, a Mr Rabjohn, for their customary shave. Not long afterwards both reported that their faces felt unusually hot and, as the day went on, Stuckey, in particular, was struck by a severe skin condition, likened to eczema, and also reportedly also fell ill. Not only seeking compensation for his suppurating face, Mr Stuckey also attempted to claim for loss of earnings. The case centred upon the soap used by the barber. Had the barber, in an attempt to cut corners, substituted his usual brand for a new type? Mitchell had, years previously, indeed fallen on straitened times before, appearing the London Gazette as an insolvent debtor, where he was described as a ‘hair dresser, perfumer, stationer, stamp distributor and post office keeper’.

Image copyright Wellcome Images)

When he came to the stand, the barber claimed to be a man of habit, and swore that he had used the same particular brand of soap – Millbay – for more than 30 years. Not only this, he had even purchased it every week from the same shop. Millbay was a common enough brand made in Nequay, cheap and often used by penny barbershops and even the poor law unions, who used it in Devon workhouses. His counsel even went so far as to have a sample of Millbay tested, and reported to the court that the results proved that it contained ‘nothing injurious to human skin’.

(1884 Advert for Mill Bay soap – Image from Pinterest)

But the customer and his friend were adamant that they had been duped. In their testimony they claimed to have raised suspicions when they both noticed that the soap in the barber’s bowl looked suspiciously dark, and unlike the usual lather. It appeared, they suggested, to be plain ‘scrubbing soap’, a rough caustic type used for cleaning clothes and other general duties. According to Mr Stuckey, the two men even remarked this to the barber, who allegedly shouted at his son “I told you not to buy that!”. This, the barber vehemently denied.

Things began to unravel when, under cross examination it emerged not only that Stuckey was prone to eczema and had long received treatment for it, but that Mr Rabjohn’s testimony – the only other witness – was, to be blunt, full of holes! When asked if he had mentioned the heat in his face to the barber, he reported that it was “only in a joking way”. When further pressed he admitted that he had never in fact suffered any ill effects from it on the day in question, but was referring to another occasion…which he had never informed the barber of.

The judge remained unconvinced as to either the liability of the barber or the injurious effects of the soap. Whilst he sympathised with Mr Stuckey’s condition, and apparently ‘substantial pecuniary loss’ he felt it could be conclusively proved either that the soap was deficient, or that the barber had neglected his duty of care. The court found in favour of the barber, and Messrs Stuckey and Rabjohn were clearly left to lick their wounds!

The Barber and the Abusive Parrot!

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the chattering barber was a comic stereotype. All sorts of satires and images lampooned the loquacious shaver, more intent on the sound of his own voice than the customer’s comfort. But in 1869 an unusual case came before the Greenwich Magistrates. Here, it wasn’t the barber’s chatter that caused the problem…but another talkative inhabitant of the shop.

barber

(Image from Wellcome Images)

The case centered upon a dispute between Stephen White, and Edwin Fox, a barber. White was accused of using foul language towards the barber and fleeing the shop without paying for his shave. Fox was determined to get his fee and have his day in court. So far, this all sounds fairly mundane – the sort of routine case doubtless heard in magistrates’ courts across the land. But the circumstances surrounding this particular case were anything but routine.

The dispute arose began as White was in the chair in Fox’s shop, with the barber busily removing his stubble, and doubtless chatting away. According to Fox, the defendant ‘suddenly moved from his seat’, causing him to move the razor rapidly away. Remembering that he had once before cut Mr. White quite severely when the man had wriggled around in the chair, he cautioned him to sit still, or risk another painful accident.

Upon this, Mr. White leapt from his seat, and let rip a furious tirade of profanities and oaths, threatening to ruin the barber in his business, before running out into the street, with the angry and bemused barber in hot pursuit. Fearful that the customer would carry out his threats both to his business and person, Fox felt compelled to bring the matter to court. It seemed like an open and shut case.

When he came to the stand, however, Mr. White’s version of events was somewhat different. The cause of his outrage, he argued, was ‘the indelicate conduct’ of the barber’s two pet parrots, one of which he described as ‘irritating and annoying’.

Parrot

(Parrot of Carolina on Cypress Tree, 1731, Wellcome Images)

White claimed to have been feeling out of sorts, due to a recent bout of gout and bronchitis, and was in no mood to be provoked that day. All initially seemed well. But, just as the shave commenced, one of the parrots apparently called out ‘Fox, I shan’t be able to pay for this shave till Saturday night!’.

Notwithstanding the fact that it came from a bird, White took clearly took the remark personally, seeing it as a slur on his creditworthiness. He believed that the barber had primed the parrot with the phrase deliberately for him. It was this, he claimed, that ‘irritated him and caused him to move his seat’.

Flying Barber

(Bob Foster, the Cambridge Flying Barber (!), Wellcome Images)

But worse was to come. Just as Mr. White ‘felt the razor passing across his flesh under the chin’, the parrot delivered its perfectly-timed coup de grace: “Fox…cut his throat!’ White ‘felt naturally alarmed at the recommendation of the bird and hastened his exit’.

Struggling to keep a straight face, the chief clerk of the court asked Mr. Fox if he kept parrots, and whether they were capable of such language. If so, said the clerk, it might be necessary to bind the barber over in sureties for the birds’ good behaviour. [general merriment in court]

With his feathers clearly ruffled, Mr Fox indignantly admitted that he did indeed own two parrots but was unable to explain their linguistic capacity.

The judge had heard enough and sent the two men on their way, telling them to settle their squabbles themselves, leaving ‘the whole court convulsed with laughter’. The parrots, it seems, escaped being brought before the beak!

 

Uncovered: The First ever Beard and Moustache Competition?!

Last week, hordes of hirsute men descended upon Antwerp in hopes of securing a prize at the World Beard and Moustache Championships. This has become a major event, attracting thousands of entrants, and headlines all across the world. It has also spawned a whole host of smaller versions which, again, prove extremely popular. (I can speak from experience here, having been lucky enough to be a guest judge in the Devon and Cornwall beard and moustache competition a couple of years ago!) The first world championship was held in 1990.

Screenshot 2019-05-20 at 16.16.11.png

(Image my copyright)

But, quite by accident, whilst trawling through Victorian journals in the British Library, I’ve chanced upon an earlier example than that. In fact, quite a lot earlier. Actually… nearly 150 years ago!

In 1873, advertisements began to appear in newspapers around the country for “The First Beard and Moustache Show” to be held at North Woolwich Gardens in London on 30 July. The idea came from its proprietor – William Holland – theatre owner, impresario, and regular organiser of public entertainments for working class East Londoners. With thanks to Lee Jackson, (owner of the fab Victorian London site, and author of ‘Palaces of Pleasure’) for sharing some of his gems, amongst Holland’s other recent events had been a ‘beautiful baby’ show and even a ‘Barmaid show’, which involved being served drinks by different barmaids and voting for whichever you thought was the best!

Screenshot 2019-05-20 at 16.25.17.png

(A Victorian pleasure garden, c. 1850 – image from Wikimedia Commons)

The advertisements advised suitably bearded men (and the public) of the date and venue, and Holland clearly had hopes of attracting a big audience. Prize medals were promised for all winners, and the event was to be judged by a “jury of ladies”, drawn at random from the expected crowds, who were to determine the “best cultivated hirsute appendage”!

Generally, the idea seemed to be quite well received. A journalist in the Sporting Times wrote of his disappointment at not being able to attend the event, fully supporting the need for such a show, and even offering advice for the judges. It was not necessarily the biggest, longest or thickest beard or moustache that should win, he suggested, but whichever’s “colour, form and cut” was most aesthetically pleasing. But, noting the comments of a female friend who pointed out that, as a rule, ladies preferred “plenty of hair on the male subject”, he seemed resigned to the fact that the “shaggiest monster” would likely win the prize!

A hack in the East London Observer was less impressed. “The novelty of the thing will no doubt make it a profitable speculation, but what about those who go to show themselves and, still more, who are they who will go to look at them? Beards and moustaches, disgusting”.

According to one report there were around thirty entrants. Unable to attend on the day, one hairy hopeful, apparently a “Mr Charles Chaplin, resident somewhere in Essex” (but unlikely to be THAT Charles Chaplin!) even sent a “specimen of his beard” by post, which was over forty inches long. Another entrant claimed to have a moustache that dangled down sixteen inches on either side of his face…an impressive 32 inches from end to end!

Despite this promising start, however, it seems that things didn’t necessarily go so well on the day. First, it seemed that the event had not attracted the large audience that it probably merited, and reports suggested that it was quite thinly attended.

IMG_0540.jpg

(A late 19th-century ‘carte d’visit of an unknown gentleman – image my copyright)

But worse still, sniffy reports also appeared in the press suggesting that the show itself hadn’t exactly been a rip-roaring success. According to Reynolds’ Newspaperon the 3rdAugust, there were only six competitors; five who showed up on the night, plus the man entering by post. The winner was one “Mr Gordon, blessed with a fine, glossy, flowing beard”. But in the moustache category there was only one entrant – a moustachioed man with a wooden leg, forcing Mr Holland to stand in order to at least make a contest of it. Holland was apparently renowned for his own trademark moustache, and “Holland’s points [were] known all over London”. According to the report, “the prize was generously conceded to the gentleman short of a limb”.

It was also reported in The Era, quoting Mr Holland himself, that some of the competitors proved nervous and reluctant to submit themselves to judgement. Candidate number one took the stage “looking very foolish and trembling at the knees”. Number four had “nothing worth calling a beard”, and the facial hair of another was “scrubbiest among the scrubby”. Only Mr Gordon, the eventual winner, stood out, “proudly conscious of his hairy superiority”. It was noted that, rather than staying to enjoy the approbation of the ‘crowd’, the entrants were keen to make their exit as swiftly and expediently as possible.

Screenshot 2019-05-20 at 16.59.10.png

(detail from ‘A Bearded Dandy Admiring the Ladies through his Monocle – from Wellcome Images)

Neither, it seems, were the jury of 12 ladies entirely enamored of their new role, appearing reluctant to touch the entrants’ hairy appendages, and generally seeming embarrassed to be there. All in all, as reports in several newspapers attested in similar terms –  “it wasn’t much of a success”.

If all this is true, it begs the question as to why? Why in what was, after all, a golden age for the beard, did Mr Holland’s innovative event not capture the public’s imagination and become a celebrated and regular event? The answer, I think, is simply that his timing was out.

By 1873, the great Victorian ‘beard movement’ was in its third decade – a long time for any fashion. The young bucks who formed its vanguard in 1853 were, by now, hurtling headlong into middle age. Some of the arguments made in support of the beard, once so compelling, had now began to lose their potency. As I’ve discovered in the process of my project on the history of facial hair too, by the last quarter of the 19th century, younger men were beginning to return to the shorter, neater styles of facial hair and, indeed, to the shaved face.

Sadly, it is likely that Mr Holland’s groundbreaking Beard and Moustache Show was probably around 15 years too late. To be fair, it doesn’t seem to have dampened his spirits, and he continued to put on all sorts of weird and wonderful entertainments for the discerning folk of London. So, out of respect to him and his innovative ideas, let’s instead say that William Holland was ahead of his time, and that it took the rest of the world 117 years to catch up!

 

 

Banning the Beard.

Last month it was reported that an officer in the Belfast Police was taking the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to an industrial tribunal over a matter of personal appearance. More specifically, the tribunal will consider the legality of a rule stipulating that officers cannot wear beards or moustaches.

The PSNI argue that the rule is based on practical concerns for the safety of its members. In some circumstances, officers may need to wear respiratory protective equipment to avoid them accidentally inhaling dangerous substances. As has been argued in cases of the banning of facial hair in the modern military, facial hair can prevent masks, inhalators and respirators from functioning properly, by acting as a barrier to a close fit. It’s not clear yet what the outcome of the case will be.

But this is certainly not the first time that Irish police officers have come out in support of the beard. In the mid nineteenth century, a group were also actively petitioning against a ban and, remarkably, their grounds for complaint were also based on health. On that occasion, however, rather than beards potentially damaging health, they were in fact seen as protecting officers against dust and disease.

Liverpool Police

(Image from http://liverpoolcitypolice.co.uk/photo-galleries/4551684190)

In February 1854, a small article appeared in the Leader newspaper, reporting an appeal by members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police to the commissioners. More than 400 officers signed this statement:

“We, the undersigned, believing that almost all, if not all, diseases of the respiratory organs are in great part, if not altogether, caused by the practice which obtains of shaving off the beard; that the discontinuance of the practice would greatly conduce to their comfort, exposed as they are to the clemency of the weather, as well as save a great deal of trouble and sometimes considerable difficulty; that Nature having supplied man with such an adornment manifestly never intended that he should disfigure himself by the use of a razor, respectfully and earnestly request the Commissioners of Police to permit them entirely to discard it, and henceforth to wear their beards’.

7d747d80794ef06d5ff81a1d12a497cd--old-photos-vintage-photos

(Image copyright Tyne and Wear Archives)

The arguments made in the statement neatly encapsulate virtually all of the supposed benefits ascribed to the wearing of beards, just as they began to reach the height of their popularity during the Victorian ‘beard movement’. First was an emphasis upon the dangers of shaving. To scrape off facial hair was, it was argued, was a dangerous, if not outright foolhardy act. Shaving was argued to weaken a man’s body, ridding it of vital spirits and strength. Not only this, cuts caused by shaving could act as ‘little doors’, into which infection could enter, and demise swiftly follow. Hard medical evidence was brought to bear, citing scientific studies of groups of men who had apparently shaved off their beards as an experiment, and swiftly fallen prey to a whole range of ‘thoracic and pectoral woes’.

One of the key arguments made by a wide variety of medical and lay commentators alike, was that men had been endowed with a beard by God and Nature. It had a specific purpose,  to protect men from the vicissitudes of weather, climate and environment. Victorian men were told that beards were nature’s filter against all manner of dust, disease and germs. A thick crop of facial hair would, they were assured, protect the face, teeth, neck and throat from extremes of temperature. In summer, the beard was said to keep the face cool, by wicking away the sweat; in winter, it protected from the numbing cold and biting wind.  As if all this wasn’t enough, the beard was set up as the most manly of all attributes; the ‘hairy honours of the chin’, as one writer colourfully put it. To wear a beard was to reflect physicality and rugged manliness.

With all this going on amongst their civilian counterparts, small wonder then that the Dublin police officers sought permission to start cultivating their own manly tufts. One issue was that of the health protection afforded by beards. Out in all weathers, and at all hours of the day and night, surely the beard was a vital part of the uniform? What’s more, it would cost the commission nothing, whilst preserving the health of the men. How could the Commissioners argue with Nature?

Around this time too, police forces across Britain and Ireland were keen to promote the physicality and athleticism of their officers. A report in the late 1830s had noted that the Dublin City Police in particular derived great power from the size and muscular strength of their men, believing it to be a great advantage in subduing suspects – who were more likely to come quietly to a powerful, beefy constable than a 7-stone weakling – and controlling disturbances. Muscular, athletic bodies were more intimidating. So, implied the Dublin officers in 1854, were beards.

bobbies_with_horse

(Image from Old Police Cells Museum – http://www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk/content/history/police_history/life_in_the_19th_century_england-2)

What happened next is unclear; I’ve yet to find an article stating what the outcome was. Given the overwhelming support for beards across the rest of society, though, and the recommendations on medical grounds that men who worked outside, or in difficult environments should grow them, it seems unlikely that the Dublin Commissioners would not have relented. If anyone can shed light on the outcome, I’d be pleased to hear.

(The story doesn’t quite end there though. As I was finishing this post, I was made aware of another protest in support of facial hair. In France in the early 20th century, Parisian waiters went on strike, demanding the right to wear moustaches – a right usually denied to those in low paid, domestic or manual occupations. For the full story on the ‘Great French Moustache Strike’, click here

The killer socks of 1868.

In the mid nineteenth century, a spate of poisonings began to raise alarm in the newspapers. Almost anybody was at risk, and the culprit was, as yet, unclear. But the source of the poison was no Victorian arch criminal; it was a far subtler, domestic killer, hidden in plain sight.

Victorian street

(Image from wikimedia commons)

In May 1869, an article appeared in the St James’ Magazine, provocatively titled ‘Poisonous Hosiery’. ‘Poison, Poison everywhere’, exclaimed the author. ‘Poison in the food we eat, poison in the liquors we drink, poison in the air we breathe’. Now, it seemed, not even clothes were sacred. With the inherent danger in almost every facet of life, it was a wonder, they went on, that civilised people were not poisoned off the face of the earth! The matter was reported in newspapers from Dundee to Essex.

The story began when a London surgeon, one ‘Dr Webber’ approached the London Guildhall, after detecting what he described as ‘a probable source of much injury to the public health’. The source of this danger was neither poor sanitation nor contagion. It was socks. According to Webber, certain pairs of coloured socks (including fashionable mauve and magenta!) were then on sale, which contained dye obtained from the poisonous substance aniline ‘the cause of much constitutional and local complaint to many people’.

Webber claimed that the poison caused swelling and irritation. In one case, the boots of one of his patients had to be cut off because the feet had swollen so much. Youths in London, Oxford and Cambridge, reportedly suffered ulcers and sores on their feet.

The presiding alderman, Mr Dakin, sat and listened with some bemusement. ‘He himself had never felt any ill effects from the wearing of coloured socks’, nor from any other coloured garments, so it simply could not be true. Going further, he chided the surgeon for potentially disconcerting the public, or ‘interfering with honest intentioned tradesmen’, unless he could provide hard evidence of the danger.

But Webber was not finished, and sent samples to eminent chemists, who carried out tests.  These investigations proved the surgeon’s fears were not unfounded. Experiments by a prominent chemist proved that the offending dyes did indeed contain compounds of arsenic.

Poison bottle.jpg

A committee was swiftly formed to investigate the subject, and advertisements placed in the Times newspaper, calling for all those who suspected they might have been affected by poisonous hosiery to come forward. Something of the scepticism of Alderman Dakin lingered in the advertisement. The potential list of suggested ‘persons who may have suffered’ included ‘the dandy whose delicately tinted foot coverings have irritated and erupted his skin [and] the girl…whose flaming stockings have given rise to pimply outbursts’. All were called upon not only to describe their symptoms for the betterment of their fellow creatures, but to ‘sacrifice their favoured chausettes upon the hygienic altar’…i.e. send their underwear in for examination!

But reports continued to emerge from other sources. The Lancet reported the case of a ballet dancer appearing in The Doge of Venice who had suffered a ‘cutaneous eruption’ on one foot. Further investigation suggested that the heat of her foot had acted upon the dye to affect the skin. Crucially, the shoe of the affected foot was bright red, whilst the other foot, wearing a white shoe, had ‘absolute immunity. A Coventry physician, Dr McVeagh, noted that a patient suffered almost unbearable pain and discomfort from his feet, after buying a pair of socks in Birmingham “in the Marquis of Hastings colours’. Even despite efforts to remove them from sale, ‘some of the mischievous goods’ were clearly still at large.

A battery of further tests was commissioned on a wider range of hosiery, and soon the Victorian fixation with hygiene gradually overtook scepticism about the possibility that socks could be deadly. A well-known French chemist, M.L. Roussin, and a physician Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, subjected suspect socks and hose to a barrage of experiments, extracting the dye, before evaporating it and extracting a substance that proved to be a poison ‘of not insignificant power’. The author of the St James article noted with distaste the effects of the poison on unfortunate animals, including dogs, rabbits and frogs (‘Alas! Poor brutes – tortured for an idea’), which included stomach disorders, fevers, weakness and, in some cases death.

Late_19th_century_Chemist's_shop_Wellcome_M0019040.jpg

(Image from Wellcome Images)

On humans, the French chemists asserted that, although no deaths had actually occurred, the substance within the socks was certainly capable of doing so. More than this, they used their experiments to caution about the dangers of ‘progress’ in ‘which the incessant progress of the chemical arts’ could lead to increasing risks to the human race and health of mankind. The College of Physicians was entreated to swiftly come up with a name for the condition.

Some enterprising retailers leapt upon the opportunity offered by potentially deadly underwear, and took out their own advertisements for alternative ‘safe’ products. One advert in 1879 (with the un-alluring headline ‘Poisonous Stockings’) argued that while ‘medical testimony’ had proved that coloured stockings were injurious to health, all risk could be avoided by simply purchasing “Balbriggan silk embroidered’ socks or half-hose, which were coloured by harmless vegetable dyes.

Once the offending substances had been identified and isolated, steps were taken to ensure that hosiery was no longer potentially fatal, and the crisis gradually abated. But the next time you hear yourself saying ‘my feet are killing me’, spare a thought for the diligent Dr Webber and be grateful it isn’t literal.