Movember Special: Hiding Behind the Beard

It’s November, and that time of year when men all over the world will be donning moustaches to raise money for, and awareness of, prostate cancer, through Movember. Get ready for a raft of valiant efforts, with some maybe even graduating to the moustache wax and twirly ends! Moustache newbies can take advantage of the huge range of products now available to shape, style and otherwise pamper their facial hair.

Not, however, that there’s been much of an extra incentive needed in recent times for men to rediscover the love for their facial hair. As I’ve repeatedly suggested here on the blog, and elsewhere, there is little sign that beards are diminishing in popularity; if anything they seem to be going from strength to strength, with new styles emerging over recent months to replace the ‘Hipster’/Lumberjack beard of 2 or 3 years ago.


Events like ‘Movember’, though, remind us of the prosthetic nature of facial hair – beards and moustaches are easy to adopt…you just have to stop shaving and there they are. And, just as easily as they can be put on, they can be shaved off in a few minutes. Wearing them (or not) can dramatically alter facial features and, as the continuing studies into the supposed attractiveness of beards keep suggesting, this can affect how individual men are viewed by others. This is in fact something that I’ve been exploring in my research recently. One thing that I find particularly interesting is the use of false facial hair by men.

At various points in history, being unable to grow a beard has certainly been severely stigmatised. In Tudor and Stuart Britain, beardlessness was a state connected with either immaturity or effeminacy. A man whose beard was thin and scanty might be insulted with terms such as ‘smock face’, or regarded as a mere ‘beardless boy’. In the eighteenth century, although most men were clean-shaven, the ability to grow a beard was still a vital element of masculinity. Even if you didn’t grow it, you had to at least be able to show that you could! In Victorian Britain, at the height of the beard movement, beardless men were again subject to suspicion.

How d'ye like me?

What, though, could men whose facial hair was somewhat lacking do to avoid the barbs? At least in the nineteenth century some help was available. One easy method was to visit one of the many theatrical suppliers in large towns and cities, from whom a fairly realistic false moustache could be bought.

Author's image from item in Wellcome Collection, ephemera.
Author’s image from item in Wellcome Collection, ephemera.

Theatrical retailers like C.H. Fox in 1893, sold a range of styles to suit every taste. These included ‘Beards and Moustaches on wire, ordinary’, ‘beards best knotted on gauze’, ‘sailors beards’ and ‘moustaches on hair net foundation, the very best made, perfectly natural, suitable for Detective Business’, costing the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence.


(image from ‘The Mysteries of Paris’ by Charles Dillon, available on Google Books)

A number of enterprising artisans began to manufacture false beards, moustaches and whiskers to cater specifically for those whose facial hair steadfastly refused to make an appearance. In 1865 Henry Rushton lodged an application for…


Rushton proposed a set of chemical processes to prepare mohair for various uses which “I apply in imitation of human hair for covering the foundations and forming plain ‘back’ or ‘Brighton Bows’ or any other plain hair head dresses, and apply the same also in manufacture of various kinds of false hair, such as ringlets, coronets, head dresses, whiskers, moustaches, and the like. Another patent from Thomas Bowman in 1800 even proposed a contrivance with a set of mechanical springs and elastic components, to enable wigs and false whiskers to stick closely to the head and face.


So important were moustaches and whiskers to the military that they supplied their own false articles, often made of goat’s hair, to fresh-faced, stubble-free recruits, to ensure that the whole regiment was suitably hirsute, and ready to face the enemy.

But another, often forgotten, group also found the portability and ease of false facial hair vital in their professional lives….criminals! The face-altering properties of facial hair were particularly useful to criminals. In the days before DNA testing, CCTV and fingerprinting, a fleeting glimpse of a criminal’s face was often all a victim had to go on. A thick beard, dramatic whiskers or a droopy moustache were all notable features by which a criminal could be identified and brought to justice. But what happened if they weren’t real?

It’s clear from records and reports that many criminals recognised the value of facial hair in hiding their true faces. In 1857 James Saward and James Anderson appeared at the Old Bailey accused of forgery. Part of their disguise was the adoption of a wig and ‘false whiskers’ to ensure that they avoided detection. Part of the defence of Thomas Cuthbert, accused of theft in 1867, was that the false whiskers and moustache he was wearing when arrested were not put on by him, but were applied by another man, when Cuthbert was dead drunk! Many other cases record the discovery of false whiskers, beards or moustaches amongst the possessions of criminals, or their use in trying to defy identification. ‘It can’t have been him your honour, the man who attacked me had a huge beard!’

Beard generator

Perhaps the most sinister case is that of the physician Thomas Neill, indicted for murder in 1892, and known by the alias of Dr Cream. Various witness attested to having known the doctor, some testifying that he sometimes wore a moustache, others that he had dark whiskers, and another that he was clean-shaven. One witness, however, a Canadian traveller named John Mcculloch, noted meeting Neill in his hotel, after he called for a physician when feeling unwell. After supplying Mcculloch with antibilious pills, the two men began to chat about their respective businesses. The doctor showed the man his medical box and pointed to a bottle of poison. “For God’s sake, what do you do with that?” asked the shocked traveller, to which Dr Cream replied “I give that to the women to get them out of the family way”.

By now shocked and suspicious the traveller continued to question the doctor: “he stepped backwards to the trunk and produced a pair of false whiskers, or divided beard without mustaches—I said, “What do you use these for?”—he said, “To prevent identification when operating”—he led me to believe previous to that that he procured abortion”. None of this helped the evil Dr Cream; he was found guilty and sentenced to hang, his false whiskers proving no escape from the law.

So as Movember gets underway it will be interesting to see how many men put on their moustaches and, equally, how many remove them again at the end of the month! Some don’t get on with them, but others are pestered by their partners to lose the fuzz; a common complaint is that it makes a man look older, or otherwise alters their appearance too much. Another recurring themes amongst opponents of beards is that they make men look as though they have something to hide. This is one of the reasons that politicians don’t usually grow them. As the examples shown here suggest though, many bearded men actually did have something to hide.

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 Don Gabriel de la Cueva” by Giovanni Battista Moroni (circa 1525–1578) – 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.



“Edward Bates – Brady-Handy” by Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. CALL NUMBER: LC-BH82- 4097 <P&P>[P&P]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

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.

The New Jersey Beard Tax and Other Strange Beard Facts!


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!

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
Image from

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.

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!

Beards, Whiskers and the History of Pogonotomy – BBC Free Thinking Transcript

This is a transcript of the paper I gave at the BBC ‘Free Thinking’ Festival in Sage Gateshead, November 2014. Enjoy!

Free thinking

Something beardy this way comes! Love them or loathe them it seems that beards are everywhere at the moment. Walk down your local high street and before you’ve gone too far it’s a fair bet that you’ll be met by a veritable sea of hairy faces. In many ways 2014 may well prove to be the year of the beard. After a fairly long period in the wilderness, facial hair has returned. It may well have passed you by but there is actually a World Beard Day, dedicated to the celebration of the hairy chin. In Bath in September was held the British Beard Championships, a virtual X-Factor for beard-wearers, where owners of mighty examples of facial topiary submitted themselves to the scrutiny of a panel of pogonotomists. For whatever reason – and there are potentially many – beards are back.

How long can this last? Questions were beginning to be raised in spring 2013 as to whether ‘peak beard’ had been reached. This is the point at which some theorists think that beards become so ubiquitous as to render them unfashionable again. There are certainly no signs of change at the moment. Only a few weeks ago came the startling revelation that, in the past year, manufacturers of razors and related goods such as shaving foam, have seen a drop in sales of more than £72 million pounds. Market analysts IRI noted that men’s shopping habits were changing and, even though the total market still accounted for 2.2 billion pounds, this was a substantial dent. The cause of this change? Beards.

Not everyone is a fan. In fact, as Jeremy Paxman found out to his bewilderment, beards have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Pogonophobia – the fear of beards – is apparently on the increase. What is it about beards that some people find so apparently distasteful? Some men – and women – just dislike the feel of beards. Most men can probably sympathise with the feeling, usually after the first week or so, that your beard is attacking your face with itching powder. Once that passes and some semblance of dermatological normality resumes there are the social problems to overcome. Small pieces of food lodged in a beard do not present a good look. So obsessed were the heavily-bearded Victorians with this problem that they invented all manner of devices and contrivances to cope. These included ‘moustache spoons’ to stop errant whiskers dipping into the soup course. Some people feel that beards are hiding something. There is, in fact, a long history of distrust. Henry VIII’s beard, for example, was allegedly extremely unpopular with Catherine of Aragon, who pleaded with him to shave it off. In fact, Henry’s emblematic beard was actually the result of a bet with Francis, king of France. Before their famous meeting on the field of the cloth of gold, both men resolved not to shave until the big day.

But the decision to wear or not wear a beard, moustache, whiskers etc is one that has long been a problem for men. Over time, attitudes to beardedness and, indeed, shaving have constantly shifted. Something so seemingly mundane as facial hair is actually bound up in a complex web of meanings. To paraphrase Karl Marx (a poster boy for the beard if ever there was one!) men don’t just act as they please; instead they behave according to the influences of the society they live in. Growing a beard is a conscious decision and can be for a variety of reasons from cultural to religious. In fact, although we’re concentrating more on other influences today, religion is very closely linked to beard wearing, especially for example in Judaism, Islam and Sikhism, and can even become a cultural stereotype. Some men might protest that they just got fed up with shaving…but the decision not to shave is an equally conscious one. However much we like to think we are all individuals, as a group we behave in predictable patterns. And, to be fair, we can’t blame the coalition for this one.

If we look back through history it is amazing how many periods have their own, immediately identifiable, facial hairstyles. In the Renaissance, for example, beard-wearing was a sign of masculinity and almost a rite of passage. To be able to grow a beard represented the change from boy to man. As the historian Will Fisher put it in his article on beards in Renaissance England,  “the beard made the man”. It is noteworthy, for example, that most portraits of men painted between, say, 1550 and 1650 contain some representation of facial hair – from the Francis Drake-style pointy beard to the Charles I ‘Van Dyke’. The beard was viewed as a basic mark of a man, but this was not just something fanciful. In fact, beards were strongly linked in with theories of medicine and the body. Early modern medicine saw the body as consisting of four fluid humours – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Facial hair was regarded as a form of bodily waste, which resulted from heat in the reins – the areas around the genitals, and the liver. As such, beards were strongly linked to sexual prowess and fecundity. A man’s sexual capabilities were writ large across his face. Nevertheless, beards were still not for everyone. Some prominent figures such as Thomas More and Oliver Cromwell preferred the clean-shaven look in line with austere religious beliefs. Indeed, 17th-century Puritans, never a group in love with display, viewed the beard as an unnecessary bauble on the face. For men in this period, therefore, the beard was not just some frippery; it was closely linked the very essence of manhood, and concepts of health, sexuality and the body.

The eighteenth century had been one where men were almost entirely clean-shaven. Here it was in fact the lack of facial hair that defined the ideal man. The face of the enlightened gentleman was smooth, his face youthful and his countenance clear, suggesting a mind that was also open. This was the age of the fop and the dandy, where the very idea of growing a beard would have been greeted with a furrowing of the be-wigged brow and a few choice words about impropriety and vulgarity. Interestingly, this was also the first period in history when men began to shave themselves, rather than see a barber. New, sharper razors were accompanied by the first signs of anything like an advertising campaign by razor makers. Growing a beard at this point would only have been a deliberate act done purposefully to convey a message. John Wroe, for example, leader of the Christian Israelite group, let his beard grow wild to signify his withdrawal from society. In this sense beards, and their removal, were closely linked to technology and culture, and to the expanding world of enlightened science and innovation.

By the mid-Victorian period, however, the beard made a spectacular return to favour. Sometime around the 1850s, concepts of masculinity itself began to change. Something strange was happening to men in this period and they were under new pressures to reassert their authority and status. This was the age of industrialization which brought with it new challenges, not least in the need to create hierarchies and structures of authority to cope with the sheer numbers of men who could now work within a single company. But men were also increasingly nervous about women. If, as was beginning to happen, women were finding a voice and beginning to agitate for greater levels of independence, this would be a significant threat to the status quo. Men needed to react. And they did.

One of the ways they did this was to place a new emphasis upon the physical characteristics and strength of men. According to the new view, men should reflect what has been termed ‘muscular Christianity’. In came a new vogue for athleticism, sports and game playing. The underlying theory was, as EM Forster put it that sport encouraged ‘well developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts’. Vigorous, vital and athletic men were exactly the sorts of stout fellows needed to swell the ranks of the army, and defend and expand the Empire. Whilst the connections might not immediately be clear, the beard played a strong part in this process; in fact, it virtually became the emblem of the Victorian man. Central to this was the belief that the beard was simply the ‘outward mark of inward qualities’ of masculinity, such as independence, hardiness and decisiveness. A man’s character and strength was visible upon his face in the form of a large bushy beard. A range of new sources stressed the scientific basis behind men’s ‘natural’ authority, alleging irrefutable proof that women were the weaker sex and should therefore know, and keep, their place. This was the age of Darwin, who argued that man was essentially the result of millions of years of evolution and natural selection. The beard was a God-Given marker of man’s ‘natural’ strength and fitness to be the dominant sex. Not only this, Victorian thinkers called on science to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that man had come to be the masters of the world simply because he was the best equipped to do it. How could women argue against the pure logic of science and nature and the morality of religion when the very emblem of masculinity was literally staring them in the face?

If Victorian men also needed new bearded heroes then they found a ready source amongst the ranks of explorers and hunters. This was the age of exploration, of hunters, climbers and explorers. As rugged adventurers began to tackle the terra incognita of far-flung continents, they would immerse themselves in wild nature, letting their beards run riot. The beard became a symbol of rugged manliness and men began to emulate their bewhiskered heroes. Albert Smith was the Englishman who went up a mountain and came down…with a beard. Smith was an author and entertainer but also a mountaineer who, in 1851, had climbed Mont Blanc. He was also the inspiration for the Victorian craze for mountain climbing. As a new exemplar of the mastery of men over nature, Smith personified the Victorian masculine ideal.

By 1850, however, beards were becoming valued not just for their cosmetic attributes, but their health benefits too – and doctors were beginning to encourage men to grow their facial hair as a means to ward off illness. As Christopher Oldstone-Moore points out, the Victorian obsession with air quality saw the beard promoted as a sort of filter. A thick beard, it was reasoned, would capture the impurities before they could get inside the body. Others saw it as a means of relaxing the throat, especially for those whose work involved public speaking. Some doctors were even recommending that men grew beards to avoid sore throats. Clergymen who shaved, according to one correspondent in the Hampshire Advertiser in 1861, invited all sorts of ‘thoracic and pectoral woes’!

For the Victorians, beards were closely linked not only to new ‘scientific’ ideas of male dominance and ‘natural’ authority; they also drew on age-old themes of the beard as the ultimate symbol of manhood. A Victorian man unable to grow some sort of beard was scarcely a man at all!

The twentieth century brought a variety of styles. In the first decades after 1900, moustaches were definitely in vogue. Part of this was to emulate the rugged masculinity of British military. It was in fact a military regulation that British soldiers must wear a moustache, until General Sir Neville Macready, who hated the moustache, repealed the order in 1916. The 1920s saw Chaplin’s toothbrush moustache achieve notoriety. Some speculate that a certain Austrian corporal Hitler actually took his inspiration from Chaplin, whose work he admired. In the 40s, bushy fighter pilot moustaches were all the rage, but the improved availability and quality of razors was making shaving easier, more comfortable, and increasingly popular. By the 1960s the beard was the ultimate symbol of the tuned in, turned on and dropped out hippy. Everyone from John Lennon to the Joy of Sex man was heavily hirsute and proud of it.

The 80s introduced designer stubble. This was the decade when razor advertising crossed into popular culture. Electric razor advertisements were full of speedboats, motorbikes and parachuting heroes. We also learned from Victor Kyam that the humble razor could be the inspiration to buy a whole company! The 90s gave us the goatee…about which, the less said the better!

But where once beard styles could last decades, the pattern in the past 10 years or so has been more towards months. That is why the endurance of the current crop of beards is actually quite interesting. Whatever the current, vogue for facial hair tells us about men today it is clear that beards, moustaches and whiskers are not just a quirky sidenote; in many ways they are in fact central to a range of important themes in history. One of the most constant of these has been emulation. In the early modern period monarchs provided a bearded (or indeed clean-shaven) ideal. By the Victorian period powerful and fashionable figures, and new types of industrial and military heroes, offered men something to aspire to. Now, with almost unlimited access to the lives of celebrities through the voracious media and internet, the opportunities to find ‘heroes’ to emulate are almost limitless. If history tells us anything it is that nothing stays the same for long. How long this current trend will last is difficult to say. What is more certain is that men’s relationship with their facial hair will continue to change and evolve, and provide us with a unique way to access the thoughts and feelings of men through time.


“MOVEMBER” Special: J.H. Savigny and innovation in eighteenth-century shaving

It’s ‘Movember’. Like many others I’m currently sporting a handlebar moustache for charity. Unlike many others, mine is ginger, and white at the tips. I can’t decide if it makes me look distinguished or like a third-rate drug peddler. Here’s the link to my ‘Mospace’ – you decide (and please feel free to make a donation – it’s for a very worthy cause).

If I was to be sporting this particular piece of facial topiary in eighteenth-century polite society, it is highly likely that I would be frowned upon. As I’ve detailed in a previous post, facial hair of any sort fell dramatically from favour sometime around the mid eighteenth century. The reasons for this are complex, and by no means mutually exclusive. One strong possibility is a shift in concepts of masculinity. As ‘polite’ society became refined, so fashions for men became increasingly feminised. This was the era of the bag wig, silk hose and face powder – at least for those in the upper levels of society. Facial hair connoted rough, earthy types and was not a feature of the polite gentleman’s visage.

Medicine, too, might have played a part. In the early modern period, facial hair was viewed as a form of excreta resulting from too much heat in the liver. Like any other form of bodily waste, it was being expelled and so to remove it was to rid the body of a potentially harmful substance. But another interesting point is that this period also witnessed an astonishing shift in the technologies available for shaving, mostly made possible by the potential of new types of steel – most notably cast steel, often referred to as crucible steel because of its manufacturing process. Unlike its predecessor shear steel, which could be brittle and of uneven quality, cast steel had perfect properties for the manufacture of razors. It was capable of being sharpened to an extremely keen edge and, more than this, could be polished to a mirror-like shine, meaning that cast steel razors could look beautiful, as well as being functional. But the availability of new materials was not, on their own, enough; what was needed was a new breed of technologically-savvy makers to develop new products. In fact, this was exactly what happened.

London, in the mid-eighteenth century, was a hub of technological and manufacturing expertise. But, we should not think of this in modern terms of factories or large-scale production lines. Instead, there were hundreds of individual small artisanal workshops involved in a multiplicity of trades, many of which required metallurgical expertise. Watch and clock makers, for example, required steel for their tiny components, but also in the tools needed to manufacture them. Makers of scientific instruments likewise needed precision tools to make their highly specialised products, as did surgical instrument manufacturers. It is important to note that many carried out their own experiments with metals tailored to their own individual needs, and this made London a centre for metallurgical innovation. Many trades became concentrated into certain parts of London making mini clusters of expertise.  Into this milieu we can place razor makers and some notable names in particular.

Typical of this new breed of metallurgical innovators was John Horatio Savigny of Pall Mall in London. Savigny was likely of Huguenot descent, his family coming to London in the seventeenth century. The ancestral trade of the Savignys was surgical instrument manufacture, and several others of the family were engaged in similar manufacturing trades. But John Henry, or JH, Savigny as he was often referred to was perhaps the most prominent and widely esteemed.

From his base at number 129 Pall Mall, Savigny was continually involved in the manufacture of a range of metallic goods. In 1778, for example, he advertised his new type of lancet which, he informed “Gentlemen of the Faculty” were made using “a method […] lately contrived whereby these instruments are brought to such a degree of accuracy as will greatly lessen the pain of the patient and totally remove all apprehension of disappointment in the operator”.  Notice the emphasis upon his “new method”, referring to his experimentation with steel.

In 1776, Savigny referred directly to his new methods of manufacture in another advertisement for lancets. Again addressed to “Gentlemen of the Faculty” – i.e. London Physicians, he laid special emphasis upon the fact that “he has invented a new Vertical Machine, particularly calculated for the perfection of Lancets”.  His “Cast Steel Convex Penknives”, according to a 1775 advertisement, had “received the Approbation of the most eminent Writing Masters”, and could be bought in person from Savigny at his shop near the Haymarket.

But it was razor manufacture that really made Savigny’s name and, once again, his experimentation with steel lay at the heart of his advertising pitch. By 1764, his “Razors tempered by means of a new discovered process” could also be bought from his shop. Tempering suggests the remelting and refinement of steel, a difficult and intricate process requiring specialist equipment and knowledge. These new razors were functional and attractive. More than this, they appealed to a new market of male toilette, one in which polite gentlemen were increasingly beginning to shave themselves, rather than visit a barber. A range of new products was becoming available to them, from shaving powders to soothe the face, to travelling kits and even beautifully carved and constructed shaving tables.

Shaving table from 18th-century furniture catalogue

A raft of advertisements followed, with razors often prominent among the products listed. By 1800, Savigny could boast an entire printed catalogue of products, aimed at enticing customers to browse, and hopefully to buy.

Image from Savigny’s instrument catalogue, 1800

But Savigny was keen to diversify beyond instruments, and evidence from patent records shows that he introduced a range of other products. In 1800, Savigny proposed a steel tourniquet to stop bleeding “more effectually than has hitherto been done”. In 1784, he proposed “  A METHOD OF MAKING OF SKAITS, AND PARTICULARLY FOR FIXING THEM ON WITH MORE EASE, SAFETY AND EXPEDITION THAN HATH HITHERTO BEEN DISCOVERED.

Savigny was rapidly becoming an authority on steel, so much so that his expertise was sought by the Birmingham manufacturer and luminary Matthew Boulton, of the Boulton and Watt company. Boulton sought Savigny’s advice on the quality of some new types of steel that he was purchasing from India. Indeed, it was not only in metallurgy that Savigny was seemingly making a name for himself. These adverts suggest that he was an amateur actor, perhaps of less talent than his main business!

John Horation Savigny as Selim

All this adds up to a picture of a man who was typical of the new enlightened breed of manufacturers, interested not only in their own businesses, but in the possibilities and opportunities of their age.

In 1789 he attempted to patent his own steel razor. This is an extract from the patent (BL Patent 1716):


…In the manner following:- Of the purest steel that can be procured, which is to be forged (with very moderate and often repeated immersions in the fire, so that its substance may receive no injury from a separation of its particles by excess of heat, but on the contrary be rendered as dense as possible), into the form of a razor, differing in form from all other razors heretofore made in the cutting part of the blade”.

The problem with innovation is that it can be copied. Whether Savigny ‘invented’ the cast steel razor is unclear, but he certainly had competitors.  Amongst these was John Stodart another London razor maker. In 1788, Stodart himself was forced into some measure of quality control:

“STODART begs gentlemen who send for the above articles, will be so obliging as to observe that his name is stamped on the Blade. This caution is made necessary, by his having had Repeatedly razors sent to be exchanged which never were purchased at his shop. It is with infinite satisfaction, he is able to add, that since the above method of tempering, he finds no difficulty in supplying Gentlemen with Razors, which with the assistance of a good strap, perform at all times agreeable to their wishes. “

The razor market was becoming highly competitive by the late eighteenth century, and many other makers rose to prominence, such as James Stodart, Benjamin Kingsbury and Daniel Riccard, all of whom used the ubiquitous newspaper advertisement columns to push their products. Others, like Edward Greaves of Sheffield in 1804, continued to develop the razor, this time suggesting springs to create three lockable positions, making the razor more functional and adaptable.

But the salient point here is how far facial hair, and specifically its removal, carried significance in the eighteenth century. Much time, energy, money and advertising space was expended by manufacturers keen to make their products most prominent. The process of shaving was loaded with social significance; to be facially hirsuite, as I have said, was undesirable. It could therefore be argued that the humble moustache or beard played a central role in spurring metallurgical innovation in Georgian Britain. Far from being a mundane everyday experience, the history of shaving can actually reveal much more about past societies than we might usually think.

If you enjoyed this post, a pre-publication draft of my new academic article on the history of shaving and masculinity during the Enlightenment can be viewed in the papers section of my page here: