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.
(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.
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.
(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.
It’s summer 2016, and beards are still pulling headlines in the news. A report on last week’s Financial Times website suggested that men are spending 20% more year on year, on niche products. One observer notes that the market for men’s grooming products is likely to top £1bn by 2018. The Guardian claim to be able to read personality through different beard styles, while other sites range from calling the end of the Hipster beard, to a report that one man wants to see the return of the beard tax.
There have been some signs of slowdown in recent months; a friend (and owner of a traditional barber shop) tells me that the numbers of men coming in for beard grooming has begun to fall, but also that the style has began to change towards shorter beards. Men who have beards are not removing them altogether, but seemingly cutting them back.
(Image – Wikimedia Commons)
All of this has me thinking back to periods of beard ‘trend’ in history, and questions about actually how many men participate. Over the past few years we have seen an apparently huge rise in the popularity of beards. When a new trend starts it becomes literally remarkable. This certainly happened (and to some extent is still happening) with beards. Media, advertising, imagery all serves to build up a sense of momentum, beards became more noticeable on the high street and they begin to become associated with identity and lifestyle. But at some stage a tipping point is reached. This is essentially the idea behind so-called ‘peak beard’ – the point at which they become so popular that they lose their status as an alternative to what has gone before, and become…well…normal.
But even at their height this time around (probably 2014/5), how many men actually had beards? It’s impossible to quantify, but I’d be surprised if it went much about 25/30%. A study of 6500 European men in 2015 suggested that 52% had some form of facial hair, but such a small sample can hardly be considered bulletproof. (It was in the Daily Mail too by the way!)
I was talking recently to Christopher Oldstone-Moore (author of the recent book ‘Of Beards and Men’) and he argues that, even in times when beards are extremely popular, many (most?) men actually still don’t have them. I’ve been looking recently at Victorian photographic portraits of men across different levels of society, and different regions of the country. The period between 1850 and 1890 was the height of the ‘beard movement’ in Britain; a wide range of contemporary literature goes into great detail about the social, cultural and economic reasons why men should grow beards. As I’ve explored in other posts, these range from arguments that the beard filters out germs, protects the throat, chest and teeth, stops sunburn and even saves the economy millions by restoring the working hours lost in shaving!
But I’ve actually been struck by the amount of clean-shaven portraits that I’ve seen. For all the whiskers, moustaches, chin beards, Dundreary whiskers and all the rest, many men clearly did still prefer to shave. We can’t rule out the possibility that some were shaved specifically for their portrait, but this can’t account for all cases. So were these men freakish? Did their clean-shaven faces make them prominent when all other men were apparently sporting large patriarch beards?
There is certainly evidence to suggest that not all men viewed beards positively. In 1851, for example, just as the beard fashion was beginning to gather pace, a correspondent to the CS Leader and Saturday Analyst, complained at the ill treatment meted out to him by passers by, who took his beard as a sign of ‘foreignness’. As he walked through the streets he was hissed and laughed at, and particularly objected to someone shouting ‘French Dog!’ when, as he pointed out, he was not French and had served his country in the British army for many years. Neither were the jibes from children; his assailants included ‘well dressed and grown-up people, especially by ladies, and shopkeepers’ clerks’.
Those who still preferred the razor were well served by products available for them; in a previous post I mentioned shaving creams like the popular Rowland’s Kalydor, which were marketed throughout the nineteenth century. So were various kinds of razors. In fact, it could be argued that some of the biggest advances in razor technology occurred when beards were at their most popular. Of course some shaving was still necessary for certain styles, especially chin beards and whiskers, but it also suggests a ready market for the clean shave.
The Georgian period is renowned as a beardless age – lasting from the slow decline of beards and moustaches around the 1680s, to the start of the ‘beard movement’ in 1850. But was this actually the case? In Georgian Britain the majority of portraits we have are of the upper classes and elites; can we be sure that rural labourers did not hold on to their beards? In fact, part of the reaction against beards was that they made polite gentlemen resemble rustics. This suggests that the rustic look could be bearded. This point is made, for example, in a 1771 portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘A Bearded Man’. The purpose of the painting is unclear, but it is unusual in depicting a beard at a time when being clean-shaven was the norm. According to the Tate Gallery, the sitter was a beggar named George White, perhaps explaining his unkempt appearance.
Another eighteenth-century portrait, by Balthasar Denner, also depicts a bearded man in the eighteenth century. This time the stubbly face represents the ageing man – a common artistic allusion but, again, suggests that clean-shaven may not have been the ubiquitous state it might at first appear from the sources.
(Balthasar Denner, ‘Head of an Old Man’: Image from Wikimedia Commons)
As I delve deeper into the history of facial hair it becomes ever more clear that things are rarely as clear cut (sorry!) as they appear. Periods in history that we associate with certain facial hair styles do not necessarily speak for all men. Just as today, when by no means all men are sporting luxuriant Hipster beards, so not all Tudor men had ‘Stilletto’ beards, not all Victorians had ‘Cathedral’ beards, and not all Georgians were clean shaven. Instead, decisions to wear (or not wear) facial hair are bound up in a complex web of meanings and influences. I’m looking forward to the next stage in the development of beards!
In a recent article in the UK’s Independent newspaper, the cosmetics industry for men in Britain was estimated to be worth over £30 million a year, after growing over 300% in 2014/15. Even so, this is a drop in the ocean, in a global market for male pampering which accounts for an eye-watering 14.8 BILLION pounds per year. The sheer numbers of male aftershaves, scents and colognes are bewildering, and carry the heft of major league celebrity endorsements, from the likes of David Beckham and Johnny Depp.
I’m a child of the 70s, a time when aftershave choices were, shall we say, limited. At Christmas and birthdays my poor father was the regular recipient of a) Brut b) Blue Stratos or C) Old Spice, with a runner’s up prize of ‘Denim’ if Boots had run out of any of them. This was despite the fact that he had (and still has) a beard!
As for celebrity endorsements, these were also fairly limited. In the Brut corner was Former British Heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper, who invited you to ‘splash it all over’, alongside mulleted football star Kevin Keegan and the accident-prone superbike champion, Barry Sheen. None perhaps matched the kitsch glamour of Tabac’s advert with the sartorially elegant, and magnificently coiffured, Peter Wyngarde – star of the ‘Jason King’ series.
How long, though, has aftershave been with us? Have men always slapped on the scent or slathered on the lotion after shaving? In fact, shaving preparations have a surprisingly long history and, more than this, can actually tell us some important things about attitudes to men’s personal grooming.
Before the eighteenth century, the concept of applying ‘product’ as a means to beautify the skin after shaving simply didn’t exist. Shaving was a basic, quotidian activity, done for necessity. It was also probably a painful experience. Rather than shaving themselves, men visited the barber, whose services were available everywhere from large towns and cities to small villages. The quality of the shave available differed dramatically, leading to satires about the clumsy barber whose razors were as blunt as oyster knives. It is possible that some provision might be made to soothe the skin after the shave, or maybe apply a little lavender water, but evidence for individual shaving routines is fairly sparse.
(Image copyright Lewis Walpole Library)
Nevertheless, there were options within domestic medicine, which might allow men to soothe their suppurating skin once the barber had done with it. Even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, remedy collections included recipes for beauty washes and pastes, and ‘washballs’ for the skin. There are some great examples on ‘Madam Gilflurt’s’ blog: http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2016/05/bathing-in-age-of-extravagance-make.html Although usually meant for women, there was nothing in principal preventing men from slathering on some home-made preparation to calm their skin.
The later eighteenth century, however, saw things begin to change. The disappearance of beards meant that shaving was not only more common, but was beginning to be done by individuals, as well as the barber. The appearance of new, sharper types of steel razor made this a more comfortable experience. But it also gave rise to a new market. Whilst razor makers saw opportunities in targeting men who shaved themselves, perfumers and hairdressers jumped on the bandwagon and started to puff their own products for young shavers.
In 1752 Richard Barnard of Temple Bar claimed to be the inventor of the ‘True original shaving powder’. A rival powder, advertised the same year by J. Emon, claimed to ‘make razors cut easy and [was] very good for tender faces’. The perfumer Charles Lillie’s 1744 advertisements for ‘Persian (or Naples) soap’ claimed to be extremely useful in soothing smarting skin after shaving, while others like ‘Paris Pearl Water’ was claimed to freshen men’s skin and brighten their complexion. Perhaps the most exotic sounding was “Elenora’s Lavo Cream” advertised in 1801, which was ‘particularly agreeable to Gentlemen after shaving, as it cools and heals the remaining heats’.
There was, however, a delicate balancing act to male toilet. On the one hand was the need to conform to expectations of polite manliness. Neatness of appearance, elegance, a smooth, open countenance and a grasp of etiquette and manners were all expected of the polite gentleman. On the other, there were fears that British men were slipping into effeminacy, too affected by Frenchified fashions and adopted airs. Overuse of cosmetics was satirised in cartoons of the extreme form of eighteenth-century manhood – the Macaroni, or Fop. Interestingly though, shaving was strongly connected with masculinity and manly self-control. It was part of the expected conduct of a gentleman; a little bit of cream to soothe delicate features was perfectly acceptable.
Fast forward to the 1850s, though, and beards were back with a vengeance. Given that Victorian men were sporting huge crops of beard en masse, the concept of aftershave might seem to have been redundant. It is worth remembering though (thinking of the current beard trend) that for all the beard wearers there were probably still many who preferred to shave. In fact, even at the height of the beard movement a number of aftershave lotions and scents were available.
(Glasgow Herald, 7th June 1852)
From the 1820s right through the rest of the century, a popular product was Rowland’s Kalydor, advertised widely in various newspapers and publications. A variety of testimonials accompanied the advertisement. “One of our first physicians, sixty years of age, whose face was in a continual state of inflammation, so as to render shaving impossible, has been entirely cured and is much gratified’. Other types of product were available; an advert in the Literary Digest heralded a particular brand of talcum powder which ‘positively won’t show white on the face’, making you ‘feel cool fresh and clean’.
Some played upon the popularity of science to claim the efficacy of their products. ‘Carter’s Botanic Shaving Soap’ was supposedly the ‘result of many years study and practical experiment’ by its creator, and advertisements played on its neutralisation of alkalis (which ‘made shaving a torture to all who have a delicate and tender skin’).
(More associated with mouthwash today, Listerine was originally used as shaving lotion. Image from WWW.Kilmerhouse.com)
The ingredients in some preparations contained tried and tested ingredients like glycerine to soothe the face. ‘Cherry Laurel lotion’ containing distilled cherry laurel water, rectified spirit, glycerine and distilled water, ‘used to allay irritation of the skin, particularly after shaving’. Others included ‘Lotion Prussic Acid’ and the equally unattractive-sounding ‘essence of bitter almonds’. The problem with these particular substances was the ingredients. Both, according to an 1873 study of cosmetics by Arnold Cooley, contained the deadly potassium cyanide – and made worse by the fact that the liquids apparently tasted very pleasant. Cooley suggested that both products should correctly be labelled ‘Poison’!
By way of conclusion it’s worth mentioning that aftershaves have been blamed for all manner of ills. In 1963, a GP (Dr B.E. Finch from London) wrote to the British Medical Journal, noting that several patients (mostly young men) had reported symptoms of dizziness after shaving, similar to “slight intoxication, similar to that which occurs after imbibing an alcoholic drink”. On further investigation Finch found this to be a common occurrence, and theorized that alcohol-based aftershaves were being absorbed through the shaven skin, causing mild intoxication. A reply in the following month’s edition suggested that, due to the highly volatile nature of those liquids, it was more likely the fumes than the absorption that were causing the problem!
Last month saw the publication of my new book, Technology, Self-Fashioning and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Refined Bodies (London: Palgrave, 2015). By way of introducing it, I thought I’d write a post to introduce some of its main themes.
The eighteenth century saw dramatic changes in attitudes towards bodily alteration. Once, impaired bodies were viewed as a fait accompli, their owners condemned forever to endure whatever vagaries God or Nature had seen fit to send. In the early part of the century, debates raged about the dangers of pride and vanity, as well as the morality of trying to interfere with God’s work. But by the mid 1750s there were changes in attitudes. Where once managing appearance, including treating deformities and visible impairments, symbolised vanity and pride, new enlightened themes like ‘improvement’, self-control and mastery made conquering the body a noble and justifiable endeavour.
At the same time as these broader social and cultural changes, new technologies in metallurgy opened up a range of possibilities for products aimed at shaping the body. What might be termed ‘technologies of the body’ proliferated. These encompassed everything from large apparatus for altering bodily shape, posture and gait, as well the smallest, quotidian items of personal grooming such as tweezers and nail nippers. In some cases new technologies transformed the design of instruments; in others, it was the instruments themselves that took on important new meanings as vectors through which individuals could aspire to changing ideals of the body.
This was the age of ‘politeness’, where ‘polite’ manners and behaviours were entwined with the ownership of the right goods, wearing of the right clothes and attendance of the right social events. Whilst conversation, education and manners were essential to early conceptions of polite behaviours, appearance and form were also important. In this sense dress, appearance and adornment acted as vectors to project politeness onto the body. Could, however, politeness extend to the bodily fabric itself?
(‘The Art of Dancing, 1724)
Some like the Swiss physician Samuel Tissot thought so, and he dedicated an entire chapter to ‘disorders most frequent in people of fashion’ and drew a distinction between the hardy body of the labourer, through its constant exposure to the harsh elements, versus the somewhat slight, fey body of the gentleman. If this latter was physically slighter, however, it was also delicate and refined.
While contemporaries never directly referred directly to bodies as being polite, they did acknowledge the role and importance of the body in articulating it. An essay on the characteristics of politeness in the Universal Magazine in 1775 argued that it was a holistic concept governing not only ‘temper of mind and tenour of conduct’ but bodily appearance, posture and mien. A polite gentleman (the essay was addressed to men) should embody the posture of a fencer, the gait of a dancer, the ear of a musician and the mind of a philosopher. Such a person ‘walks by rules of art, dictated by nature’.
But as well as being informed by politeness, other characteristics were prized. Neatness, elegance and harmony of appearance, were central in conveying inner character and sensibility. The body’s surfaces should be kept neat, clean, plucked and shaved. For both sexes the removal of facial hair and management of facial features such as eyebrows showed fastidiousness and a desire to create a body that was socially pleasing. As attitudes towards the smile changed, management of the teeth became important. Likewise, as the appearance of hands was held to imply character and breeding, the care of hands, especially fingernails, was vital.
But Nature was also at the heart of debates about bodily form. Some saw it as a body closest to the state of nature, in the bodies of the poor, or inhabitants or far-flung nations whose bodies had been untouched by artificial devices. Indeed, some even saw viewed interference with, or alteration of, the body as inherently unnatural. This was reinforced by the twisted and bent bodies caused through over zealous use of trusses, bandages and stays. On the other hand, much effort was expended in attempting to ‘correct’, conceal or otherwise give the illusion of a ‘natural’ form – a claim made by the makers of many postural devices. Paradoxically, therefore, a ‘natural’ body often required unnatural means to achieve.
Central to the question of technologies is the role of steel. Technological innovations between the 1680s and 1740s made steel an increasingly abundant and important good, but also a component in the fashioning of a new, refined self. While crucible (or cast) steel is understood as an innovative industrial process, its uses are rarely considered. Yet steel was vital for some of the most personal rituals of everyday life. It was the metal with which people had the closest, even the most intimate, physical contact.
Cast steel’s physical properties allowed people, for example, to fashion their bodies in new ways, to reflect changing ideals of bodily shape and form. A range of corrective devices was available to correct posture, utilising the tensile strength of steel. Visible deformity and disability were not only uncomfortable to the sufferer, but carried pejorative connotations that left the ‘crooked’ open to ridicule. If there was an ideal human form it was generally straight, erect and symmetrical. Whilst the treatment of hernias had brought about the introduction of a range of elastic and steel trusses, the period also witnessed a burgeoning market for devices to improve posture. These included items worn within or underneath clothing, such as back ‘monitors’, large metal plates inserted into clothing. Steel collars thrust the chin upwards to give the illusion of a straight posture. But there were other more radical treatment, such as ‘neck swings’. These involved locking the patient’s head into a steel apparatus, and suspending them off the ground, where they would remain dangling for hours at a time. These were even available for people to use in their own homes.
One of the primary audiences for such devices was children whose parents, recognising the social limitations arising from deformity, were keen to mould the bodies of their offspring into an acceptable form. In the name of fashion, children’s bodies were trussed, bandaged, bound, calipered and twisted. Adults were also prepared to take steps to intervene in the shaping of their own bodies. As advertisements from the manufacturers of postural devices attest, a new domestic market was emerging, which targeted individuals who sought to ‘treat’ themselves without recourse to a medical practitioner.
Neatness and elegance of appearance were exemplified in the face and, in particular the vogue for shaving, and the almost total disappearance of facial hair from men’s faces. New types of steel razors were instrumental in this process. Where once the barber had been the sole provider of shaving services, the period saw men beginning to shave themselves. Razor makers took advantage of newspaper advertising space to puff their new products, using both the language and imagery of polite consumption, but also foregrounding their metallurgical expertise in manufacturing. The use of cast steel in razors became a selling point, along with references to the scientific and philosophical credentials of the manufacturer.
(Trade card of Holmes and Laurie, London Truss Makers, author’s image)
Personal grooming was growing in importance in the broader context of the eighteenth century obsession with the body beautiful. As increasing attention was paid to the minutiae of appearance, so different parts and surfaces of the body came to prominence, as did the instruments used to transform them. Regarded by the orthopaedic specialist Nicholas Andry as the ‘Principal organs of touch’, hands and fingernails were seen as important symbols of beauty and virtue. Mangled and bitten nails were hardly aesthetically pleasing. The old fashioned way was to pare nails with a penknife – a process that could be dangerous, and caused several deaths!
New types of nail nippers were safer, and began to carry more ornate designs, belying their quotidian function. On the face, the most public of bodily surfaces, eyebrows were seen as barometers of character, and tweezers to maintain them were important items of toilette. It is interesting to note that 18th-century tweezers often included ear spoons for digging out unsightly wax, combining two grooming routines into one. As changing attitudes towards the smile rendered the teeth more visible, toothpicks and brushes were also essential pieces of kit. All could be purchased in kit form and could be hung on elaborate and delicate chatelaines about the person, making them at once public and private goods.
Spectacles offer a different outlook on the public projection of the polite self. Steel-framed spectacles, for example, began to appear around the mid eighteenth century, makers such as Benjamin Martin and James Ayscough utilised the springy strength of steel to transform the design of spectacles from their traditional armless Pince Nez design, to a new form with side arms that used pressure to stay tightly adhered to the wearer’s temples. Martin’s new ‘Martin’s Margins’ spectacles, introduced around 1760, could be highly polished to give a pleasing appearance, whilst other sorts of ‘wig spectacles’ were designed to help myopic macaronis attend society functions in comfort and safety. As spectacles became more decorous they also became more public. The growth of reading and coffee house culture placed spectacles at the heart of intellectual debate. Vision and sight exemplified the quest for knowledge. Once a symbol of deficiency, whilst never becoming desirable items of fashion, spectacles shook off pejorative connections and became connected with learning, sagacity and the enlightened search for knowledge through reading and ‘seeing’ the world.
At all points, objects were playing a significant part in the purposeful management of the body. Some important questions must be raised, however. First, if there was some understanding of a polite body ideal, then how widespread was it? Was it an elite, metropolitan phenomenon? The problem with nearly all of the routines discussed here is that individuals seldom discuss them. In the normal run of things there would be little need to write down how well you shaved, plucked your eyebrows or how comfy your brand new Martin’s Margins specs were. The limited evidence available suggests that devices were available across Britain – and not just in major towns. Second, though, to what social depth did it apply? Again, evidence is lacking, but if we consider debates about emulation, there is little to suggest that bodily refinement was merely the preserve of elites. What may be different are the social and public contexts of the body across different levels of society.
The eighteenth century was an age when bodily technologies proliferated. But cultural and religious shifts also meant that intervening to alter the shape of the bodily characteristics that God had bestowed on a person was no longer taboo. As new corporeal ideals were defined, people had both the motivation and the means to transform their own bodies, through the introduction of cast steel. If this was the age of the body beautiful, however, it was also a time when the body was a site of transformation.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
(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.
Men with moustaches were persona non grata in the city. At first glance, this seems a strange matter for the council to concern itself with. Most of Dublin’s civic ordinances from this period dealt with the regulation of commerce, the city’s economic life-blood, or more patently dangerous problems like fuel storage, always a concern in medieval cities due to the fire risk, the disposal of sewage, or controlling pigs, which might dig up gardens and cemeteries and even attack unattended children.
However, it seems that moustaches were considered similarly dangerous, and in 1523 Galway’s council jumped on the anti-moustache bandwagon, and ruled no man should be made a citizen ‘unlesse he can speche the Englishe tonge and shave[s] his upper lipe wickly (weekly)’.
This detail in the Galway ordinance about speaking English, and further anti-moustache enactments passed by the Irish parliament provide context for these curious moustache bans. The central problem with moustaches was that they were worn by, and associated with, the Irish. In particular, the Irish favoured a luxuriant long moustache called the crommeal. Sixteenth-century renderings show Irishmen with these moustaches, like this image by the German artist Albrecht Dürer.
By Альбрехт Дюрер [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
For the Irish moustache, see the three men on the right, who are, supposedly, Irish soldiers. They also wear the Irish ‘glibbs’ hairstyle, with a long fringe over the eyes.
Moustaches were banned alongside other visual signals of Irishness, like yellow saffron-dyed shirts or tunics and the hairstyle known as a cúlán. This elite Irish-warrior style entailed long-hair on the back of the head and short or shaved hair around the top and side, rather like an extreme mullet!
[Saffron tunics, Lucas de Heere, ‘Irish as they stand accoutred being at the service of the late King Henry’, circa 1575. Public Domain (http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/12/16th-century-images-of-irish-people/, after Théâtre de tous les peuples et nations de la terre avec leurs habits et ornemens divers, tant anciens que modernes, diligemment depeints au naturel par Luc Dheere peintre et sculpteur Gantois)]
The Irish parliament provided practical reasons for these bans on Irish attire and hairstyles. In 1447, for example, it banned moustaches for the English of Ireland and complained that ‘there is no difference in apparel between the English marchers and Irish enemies’. This allowed Irishmen to enter the colony as ‘marchers’ (settlers who lived on the extensive unsettled borderlands of the colony) and ‘rob and pillage by the high roads’. Moustaches threatened the very safety of the colony, and Englishmen who disobeyed the moustache ban suffered a harsh penalty. They lost the protection of English law, and could be captured along with their possessions and ransomed ‘as Irish enemies’. Essentially, if you looked Irish, you were treated that way.
This 1447 enactment provided an admirably clear definition of what precisely a moustache is (and all without using the word ‘moustache’ (!), which was not in English parlance in the fifteenth century). It stated that ‘no manner of man who will be accounted for an Englishman have any beard above the mouth, that is to say, that he have no hair upon his upper lip, so that the said lip be at least shaven within two weeks, or of equal growth with the nether lip’.
Mistaken identity was identified as a major problem with both moustaches and cúláns in a 1297 parliamentary enactment. It stated that colonists mistakenly killed other colonists wearing these Irish styles, assuming they were Irishmen. This was problematic because ‘the killing of Englishmen and of Irishmen requires different forms of punishment’. Englishmen faced capital punishment for killing fellow Englishman, but not Irishmen. If any restitution was provided for the deaths of Irishmen it was normally by payment of a fine. Therefore, an understandable mistake about someone’s ethnic identity could be deadly. These homicides within the colonial community also caused feuding and ‘rancor’ between settler families. All Englishmen in Ireland, therefore, were instructed to wear the ‘custom and tonsure of the English’.
The problem of mistaken identity and consequent threats to the property and even lives of English colonists was perhaps the most pressing reason for moustache bans (which continued into the sixteenth century), but it was not the only one. Enactments regulating appearance and visual display were passed alongside those regulating the use of the Irish language, intermarriage between the English and Irish, and other practices frowned on by the colonial administration. English outward appearance was part and parcel of English identity, which colonists feared was increasingly under threat in the later middle ages, as cultural exchange between the colonists and the Irish continued apace. The moustache was, for colonial authorities, an ominous marker of the erosion of ‘Englishness’ in Ireland.
Dr Sparky Booker is a postdoctoral researcher at Swansea University on the AHRC funded project ‘Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice, Britain and Ireland 1100-1750’. Her research for this project examines the legal capabilities, strategies and successes of Irish and English women in the English colony in Ireland from 1300-1500. Other research interests include relations between the English and Irish in late medieval Ireland; the Irish church; sumptuary law; and medieval understandings of race and ethnicity. Her monograph on cultural exchange and identity in ‘the four obedient shires’ of Ireland from 1399-1534 is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.
This month sees the beginning of my three-year project ‘Do Beards Matter? Facial Hair, Health and Hygiene in Britain, c. 1700-1918’. Around September 2014 I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship from the Wellcome Trust, and was hugely lucky and privileged to have been granted the award in January of this year. It’s been a long wait to get to this point, but it’s finally here, and the next few years will see me delving into the archives to see what delights lay in store. But why should facial hair interest us? Surely something so prosaic as a beard can’t tell us much about the grand sweep of history? I thought it might be an idea to say a bit about why it is important and, in fact, takes us to the heart of a number of key issues in the history of the body, health and hygiene and masculinity.
The project starts in 1700, a period when the bodily humours still dominated, and older ideas about the body prevailed. As it moves through the Georgian period, it charts a period of almost complete ‘beardlessnes’, which was to be the norm until at least the 1820s. Covering the Victorian ‘beard and moustache movement’ of the mid nineteenth century it culminates at the end of the First World War – a time when moustaches remained popular, while the military motivations for wearing them had declined.
Over time, changing views of masculinity, self-fashioning, the body, gender, sexuality and culture have all strongly influenced men’s decisions to wear, or not wear, facial hair. For Tudor men, beards were a symbol of sexual maturity and prowess. Throughout the early modern period, debates also raged about the place of facial hair within the medical framework of the humours. The eighteenth century, by contrast, saw beards as unrefined and uncouth; clean-shaven faces reflected enlightened values of neatness and elegance, and razors were linked to new technologies. Victorians conceived of facial hair in terms of Darwinian ideas of the natural primacy of men, and new models of hirsute manliness. The early twentieth-century moustache closely followed military styles; over the past 60 years the duration of beard fashions has shortened, influenced by everything from celebrity culture and the Internet to shaving technologies and marketing. At all points the decision to wear facial hair, or not, and its managements and style, involved not only personal decisions, but social, cultural and medical influences, as well as a range of practitioners. Also, from light beards to stubble, and whiskers and moustaches, there are questions about degrees of ‘beardedness’ and the significance of the beard as a binary to the shaven face.
But what was behind these changes? Despite recent media and popular interest in the cultural significance of beards (on which point a further blog post is to follow!), historians haven’t really taken up the baton. Works by Will Fisher, Christopher Oldstone-Moore and Susan Walton have explored the cultural and sexual significance of beards in the Renaissance and Victorians periods respectively, while my own article on eighteenth-century shaving charted its relationship with masculinity and emergent steel technology. So far the focus has been on broad changes in attitudes towards beards, elite fashions and concepts of masculinity at given points in history, rather than across time.
This project will be framed around a number of key research questions:
To what extent are beards a symbol of masculinity and what key attributes of masculinity do they represent?
• To what extent did the ‘barbering trades influence beard styles and the management of facial hair? How far did they shape trends that were then replicated in personal shaving rituals? How far did the ‘barbering’ trades cater to wider male health requirements before, during and after the high point of the ‘barber surgeon’ as a medical figure in the long eighteenth century?
• To what extent were beard trends led by the elite and by metropolitan fashion? How far and how quickly did these spread elsewhere? Did the distinct regions of the British Isles have distinct cultures of facial hair? How far did provincial trends influence metropolitan trends through migration?
• What impact did changing shaving technologies have on beard fashions/trends?
Firstly, I want to chart the changing nature of facial hair in men’s views of their bodies and masculinity over a longer period than hitherto attempted. The aim is to recover the series of cultural, scientific and intellectual changes that have affected views of facial hair, and to raise questions about the extent to which beards are indeed a symbol of masculinity, and indicate changing conceptualisations of masculinity.
Secondly, the role of medical practitioners, and in particular barbers, in shaping both conceptions of, and the management of, facial hair has yet to be fully elucidated. How far, for example, were barbers responsible for shaving and how did the relationship alter over time? This period witnessed both the ascendancy and decline of the barbering profession, but the often-close link between barbering and medicine has yet to be fully explored. Margaret Pelling has demonstrated a close correlation between the two in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but we know far less about how that relationship changed over the course of the 18th century as the role of the barber surgeon disappeared, or of the health and medical functions performed by barbers, say, in the nineteenth century.
Thirdly, (and as you might expect from a Welsh/regional historian!) this project moves away from a London-centred and elite-focussed study, instead addressing different regions of the British Isles, and also the question of ‘beardedness’ at different social levels. What, for example, was barbering provision like across both time and location in Britain?
A final key question for me, one close to my heart after recently finishing my book on eighteenth-century technologies of the body, is that of the impact and nature of technologies of shaving upon facial hair over time. New technologies, from cast steel to safety razors and scissors, all had an impact upon men’s ability to fashion their own appearance, but the nature of the relationship between the propensity and ability to self-shave requires exploration. How far were new technologies directly responsible for changes in facial-hair styles?
And so, after all this, it’s time to deliver, and to do that will require a large and diverse body of source material. Amongst the things I’ll be looking at will be popular and religious texts relating to beards, self-help books such as Jean-Jacques Perret’s 1770 book Pogonotomia, instructing men how to shave, all of which serve to reveal the cultural context of beards. Medical texts from the 17th to the 19th centuries show everything from conceptions of facial hair to preparations to stimulate beard growth. A variety of personal sources, including letters and diaries from Parson Woodforde to the oral testimony of soldiers in First World War trenches are there to be mined for their gems. Portrait collections show the changing depictions of beards over time, while the records and advertisements of razor manufacturers and sellers offer a glimpse of the marketing of shaving technologies. A huge new database of medical practitioners in early-modern Britain will form the basis for discussion of barbers, along with references to the figure of the barber in popular culture, from literature to satires.
And so, let’s get started! I’ll be tweeting regular updates from the archives using #beardsproject, and a project website will hopefully be in place soon.