Beards, Masculinity and History.

The continuing popularity of beards over the past two years or so has surprised many. A mere few months after beards first became apparent, several media articles suggested that ‘peak beard’ had already been reached, and that the decline of facial hair was imminent. That was Summer 2012 and, despite repeated claims of its impending demise (some wrongly attributed to me!), the beard is still apparent as we near 2016. Several interesting things have accompanied this ‘trend’. First, it is the most sustained period of facial for around thirty years. Second, the style – the so-called ‘Hipster’ or ‘Shoreditch’ beard – may well prove to be the defining facial hair style of this generation, in a way, say, that ‘designer stubble’ recalls the rampant consumerism of Thatcher’s 80s. Furthermore, where male grooming products for men have catered for removing facial hair, a new market has emerged for beard care, including oils, moustache waxes and even beard moisturisers.

Aside from the issue of ‘how long will it last’, ‘what do beards mean’ is a common question. Indeed, it is a question that has repeatedly been asked through the centuries. The relationship between men and their facial hair is complex, but is usually closely bound up with prevailing ‘ideals’ of masculinity. At times in history the beard has represented a basic component of masculinity and manliness. Will Fisher’s work has shown how facial hair in the Renaissance formed part of medical understandings of gendered bodies, and the function of the four ‘humours’. Viewed as a waste product (in fact a type of excrement) it was seen as resulting from heat in the ‘reins’ – the area including the genitals. A thick beard thus spoke of virility and sexual potency, since it indicated the fires burning below. Not only was the beard held up as an ensign of manhood, it was a highly visible symbol of his ‘natural’ strength and authority.

Moroni

“Moroni Don Gabriel de la Cueva” by Giovanni Battista Moroni (circa 1525–1578) – http://www.all-art.org/baroque/portrait1.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Remarkably similar claims were made for beards in mid-Victorian Britain, when the beard made a spectacular return to favour as the ‘natural’ symbol of a man. Everyone from writers such as Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, to physicians like Mercer Adams, were enthusiastically extolling the virtues of this “badge of manly strength and beauty”. More than this, as Adams argued, a moustache was “nature’s respirator while the hair covering the jaws and throat is intended to afford warmth and protection to the delicate structures in the vicinity, especially the fauces and the larynx”. (A. Mercer Adams, ‘Is Shaving Favourable to Health?: Edinburgh Medical Journal, Dec 1861). Here again, facial hair was closely bound up with themes of masculinity, health, male appearance and conduct.

800px-Edward_Bates_-_Brady-Handy

 

“Edward Bates – Brady-Handy” by Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.01083. CALL NUMBER: LC-BH82- 4097 <P&P>[P&P]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Bates_-_Brady-Handy.jpg#/media/File:Edward_Bates_-_Brady-Handy.jpg

The eighteenth century, however, represents something of an anomaly in the relationship between man and his beard. While much of the sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries saw men wear at least some sort of facial hair, the eighteenth century has been described as the first truly beardless age in history. The exact reasons for this are unclear but, by 1750 beards, moustaches and whiskers were seriously démodé and, by 1800, the author William Nicholson was able to assert that “the caprice of fashion […] has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards”.

In many important ways, this flight from the beard seems to run counter to what should have represented the masculine ideal. First, humoural understandings of the beard still prevailed. As such it was, at least technically, still an important component of the man. To shave it off, then, was to remove this important ‘signal’ of masculinity. Secondly, the eighteenth century was a period obsessed with the damaging effects of effeminacy in British men, not least in their ability to fight. Importantly this was not effeminacy, with its modern connotations of homosexuality, but literally becoming more feminine. Anxieties surrounded the feminising effects of Frenchified fashions upon young British men. The extreme form of new fashions was the ‘Macaroni’ – the foppish, bewigged and affected dandy. Even wigs were a source of tension in terms of their effect on male appearance. And yet, shaving the face actually rendered it more smooth and feminine.

Philip_Dawe,_The_Macaroni._A_Real_Character_at_the_Late_Masquerade_(1773)_-_02

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the apparent conflict caused by concepts of the ‘natural’. Nature underpinned the enlightenment, and much time and effort was expended in trying to uncover its meanings, and apply this to new ideals. The body was certainly part of this. Straightness in posture and deportment was considered components of the ‘natural body’. The artist Joshua Reynolds lauded the symmetry of perfect nature, suggesting the ‘Serpentine line’ of beauty, and suggesting that nature was the true model. The face was the most public of bodily surfaces, and smoothness, neatness and elegance were prized. But all of this glossed over the fact that the beard was in fact the natural state; shaving was inherently unnatural. Logically, if the beard was natural, why then get rid of it?

There are several potential reasons for the decline of the eighteenth-century beard, each of which highlights the close relationship between facial hair and contemporary ideals of masculinity. Social status certainly played a part. Whilst neatness and elegance were badges of the refined gentleman, facial hair marked out the uncouth rustic, the hermit, or the elderly derelict. This also raises the important issue of control. Just as enlightened masculinity championed rationality and manners, it also emphasised self-control as a key male feature. According to conduct literature of the time, whilst delicate ladies might blush and swoon, a man should remain in control of his senses and be measured in his emotions. The new vogue for shaving, spurred on by newly invented, sharper razors, fits this well, in terms of mastery and control over one’s own body.

Changing aesthetic ideals also fed into the freshly shorn face. The veneration of ancient sculpture, identified by George Mosse as an important element in the construction of manliness, yielded admiration at the smoothness and tactility of the stone, as well as the subjects. The obvious paradox was that many statues of Greek and Roman heroes were bearded, but this did not seem to have an effect. Coupled with this was the so called ‘cult of youth’. To affect a delicate, fey appearance was highly sought after in the later eighteenth century; shaving the face immediately rendered it more youthful.

400px-Statue_of_a_youth,_semi-nude,_in_heroic_pose_(so-called_Britannicus)_-_Mostra_di_Nerone_-_Palatin_hill

(Image ‘Statue of a youth in heroic repose – Mostra di Nerone, – from Wikimedia Commons)

More broadly, however, the shaven face almost literally reflected enlightened ideals of openness and enquiry. Shaving opened up the countenance to the world, in turn symbolising a mind open to new possibilities. In fact it was even acknowledged that beards were inherently masculine. What mattered, though, was the ability to be able to grow one, rather than the need to actually display it.

Through history, therefore, beards have been a central issue in the construction of masculinity and sexuality, but there is no simple, linear path to how they have been construed. At some points in time the beard has been the very symbol of sexual potency, authority and power. At others, however, the clean-shaven face has prevailed. In more recent times, indeed, shaving has become part of the grooming routines of men, and still strongly linked to health and hygiene.

One of the downsides of researching a topic like facial hair is that it carries perceptions of quirkiness. How, after all, can something as basic and mundane as the beard tell us anything about history? In fact, though, beards, moustaches, whiskers and beardlessness tell us a very great deal about the ways that masculinity, gender and sexuality have all shifted through time.

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The New Jersey Beard Tax and Other Strange Beard Facts!

Rutherford

It’s ‘Decembeard’ and time to get the beard growing to raise money for research into bowel cancer. It’s a fantastic cause and, in its honour, here are some beardy sidenotes from history to get us inspired…and donating!

http://decembeard.org

1) Peter the Great’s tax on beards in the eighteenth century is well known. Few people probably know that New Jersey apparently nearly had its own version in the early twentieth century.

In 1907 a member of the New Jersey State Legislature introduced a bill for the graded taxation of men with beards. The mystery legislator argued that men who grew beards not only had something to hide but, worse still, grew their beards for ‘ulterior and often base motives’. The preamble to the bill pointed out that such evil ‘celebrities’ as ‘Holmes the Trunk Murderer’ and ‘Palmer the Poisoner’ were amongst prominent whisker-wearers. As far as the legislator was concerned this was prima facie evidence that beardy men were a criminal class. His proposal was for a tax on facial hair that ran along a sort of scale of what he clearly considered levels of nastiness.

For an ‘ordinary beard’ the tax was levied at $1 per year. This was fairly straightforward. But, from then on, things got a bit strange. For those men whose whiskers exceeded six inches long the charge was $2…per inch. A bald man with whiskers was punished to the tune of $5, while goatee beards were clearly high on the undesirable list, coming in at a hefty $10 levy. The final (and rather inexplicable) stipulation was that, if any man sported a ‘red beard’ (i.e. ginger), an extra 20% was chargeable. What happened to the bill (and indeed whether it was ever meant to be a serious piece of legislation) is unclear. I’m on the case and will report back in a later post! (Thanks to Dr Martin Johnes of Swansea University for alerting me to this)

2) 19th-century industrial life could even have an impact upon facial hair. In 1833, a report on workers in the cotton mills of England painted a black picture of the effects that factory life could have on the human body. Any man, stated the author of the report, who stood at noon at the exit of one of the mills and watched the denizens of the looms pour out, would be greeted by mere shadows of humanity.

Image from bbc.co.uk
Image from bbc.co.uk

Underfed and overworked, factory inmates had sallow complexions, bowlegs and poor posture, raised chests and ungraceful limbs. Perhaps most interestingly, though, it was noted that their ‘hair was thin and straight – many of the men having but little beard, and that in patches of a few hairs, much resembling its growth amongst the red men of America.

3) Bearded ladies have often been the subjects of attention. In the early modern period they might be regarded as ‘wonders’, perhaps a judgement from God relating to immoral behaviour on the part of parents. In fact, at a time when men’s and women’s bodies were viewed as being essentially the same – a woman’s body was effectively the same as a man’s…but inside out! – it was viewed as entirely possible that a woman could have facial hair as a form of extreme femininity.

Image from Wikipedia commons
Image from Wikipedia commons

By the nineteenth century, though, bearded ladies were more likely to end up making a meagre living as part of a travelling ‘freak’ show. But it wasn’t just bearded ladies; there were even bearded children!

In 1866, a traveling exhibition of ‘Living Wonders’ included the ‘Swiss bearded lady and here son the BEARDED BOY’, along with another mystery performer called ‘the Swiss Warbler’. The boy was reputedly 12 years old with a beard over an inch long. This may be the same boy, named as Albert Ghio, described as ‘one of the greatest curiosities of the world’ who was initiated into that most august of institutions, the Sunderland ‘Loyal Antediluvian Buffaloes’ in 1867.

It wasn’t only boys either. In 1877, visitors to the Hotel Province in London’s Leicester Square, could feast their eyes upon the ‘most extraordinary freak of nature in the world’ in the form of ‘PASTRANA – the Mexican bearded girl’.

4) In the eighteenth century, men were only just beginning to shave themselves. Far more common was to visit the barber to be shaved. The problem with this was the discomfort that the poor ‘patient’ often had to suffer at the hands of sometimes-clumsy and cack-handed barbers. Before the introduction around the 1760s of newer, sharper types of cast steel razors, examples before then were made of steel that was brittle, easily blunted and more difficult to achieve an extremely keen edge. As such, customers complained about being shaved with blades as blunt as oyster knives, which left them with stubbly faces as well as a prodigious shaving rash! Cartoonists and satirists had a field day with country barbers.

Image from Wellcome Images
Image from Wellcome Images

5) Moustaches have had a long history and connection with the military. Eighteenth-century French soldiers in some regiments grew large, bushy moustaches to represent their rugged masculinity. It was no accident that burly, moustachioed recruits were often at the head of a marching column, their mighty facial hair used to strike fear into the heart of potential attackers.

Another reason for adopting moustaches was inspired by the British Empire. Indian men were proud of their moustaches and were apt to mock their shaven-faced British invaders as fresh-faced adolescents. As a reaction British soldiers began to adopt moustaches as a means of enforcing authority. In 1854 the East India Company’s Bombay army made moustache-wearing compulsory and, in the 1860s, moustaches became compulsory across the British army. In fact, the order was not repealed until 1916. There was some initial resistance on the home front to the wearing of facial hair by men. For some, the adoption of facial hair was a sign that the British were “going native” and adopting foreign customs. By the 1850s, however, the ‘beard and moustache movement’ was in full flower.

6) In history pulling another man’s beard has been a serious insult. More than this, it could actually incite violence! Persian warriors were apparently renowned for their skill in pulling enemy soldiers off their horses by their beards. http://thehistoryofthehairsworld.com/barbers_history.html

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries beard pulling was an insult as well as a common source of aggravation. In Tudor times, tweaking another man’s beard carried a fine of two shillings.

Part of the problem was that, like the Persians, assailants recognised the usefulness of the beard as a beard as a useful grip. In 1896 a gang of robbers whilst shopping in Bermondsey set upon the unfortunate James Walkenden. As the man struggled to prevent his assailants from grabbing his watch and other valuables, one of the robbers spotted an opportunity and grabbed Walkenden’s beard, using it to hold his head steady while he punched the man in the face.

Mountebank of Old London

At this point it’s also worth mentioning Edward Wingfield of the James Fort, Virginia, involved in a firefight with local Indians in 1607. Overwhelmed by ‘over 200 savages’ Wingfield was part of a cadre of eleven men trapped in the fort, whose situation looked precarious. Sporting a large beard he made a seemingly easy target for a sharpshooter. But he was lucky. The Indian gunman aimed too low, missing Wingfield’s face, but shooting straight through his beard. This left him with a round hole in his beard and, no doubt, a story to tell his grandchildren!