Beard Sculpting in the 19th Century.

Over the course of the past four or five years or so, one of the biggest growth areas in the personal grooming industry has been in products for cleaning, styling, or beautifying the beard. A whole host of options are now available, including beard oils, moisturisers and styling waxes, specially dedicated beard trimmers, and even templates, offering a myriad of different options for sculpting the preferred look.

As I’ve been studying the history of men’s personal grooming in the past, I was interested to see if beard grooming was just a modern thing, or if there was a historical precedent. The obvious place to start was in the Victorian period, when large numbers of men were sporting prodigious facial hair. Surely, with all these huge beards on show, keeping them pristine must have been important?

As I’ve mentioned many times in other posts, the Victorian beard was a statement of manliness. It spoke of supposed natural male authority, strength and even virility.  It was, as H.W. said in 1855, in his article ‘Beards and their Bearers’, a “cherished ornament”. And this was a case where bigger was regarded as better. Men were extolled to let their beards grow long, full and ‘natural’, an outward symbol of the power that lay within.

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(Unidentified man from a Victorian carte d’visit – author’s own collection)

But therein also lay an important point. The emphasis upon ‘natural’ suggested that, rather than being clipped, shaped, oiled or waxed, beards should be left to do their own thing, as prolix and rampant as possible. In the early 1850s, there were sustained attacks on shaving, which was set up as a potentially dangerous act – one that robbed the body of a key source of protection against dust or germs but, even more importantly, sapped the strength from a man’s body. With shades of the Biblical character Sampson, the American Presbyterian minister and dietary reformer Sylvester Graham argued in 1849 that the “habitual shaving of the beard diminish[ed] the physiological powers of man”.

At the same time as attacks on shaving, came stern warnings to men about the dangers of artifice in appearance. Whilst they should by no means be slovenly, neither should men be too absorbed or finical in their appearance ‘from whence commences vulgarity’. There were also sexual connotations. Victorian men who spent too much time in front of a mirror, or were too keen on cosmetics, risked suspicions of effeminacy.

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(Advertisement for Hovenden and Sons in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle – author’s own image)

But this is not to say that beard care was entirely absent from discussion. Men’s etiquette and conduct manuals did contain some advice about how to manage and care for a beard. Above all things, most authors agreed that beards should be kept clean.

Brushing was important, not only in keeping the beard luxuriant and shiny, but also in rescuing small bits of food that had become trapped in the undergrowth. As the authors of ‘Good Manners’ suggested in 1870, “The beard should be carefully and frequently washed, well-trimmed and well combed, and the hair and whiskers kept scrupulously clean, by the help of clean, stiff hair brushes, and soap and warm water”.

Special ‘whisker brushes’ were available to do the job properly, advertised in newspapers. In one advertisement in the Greenock Advertiser, ‘whisker brushes’ could be bought for the knock-down price of five and a half pence. In Bell’s Weekly Messenger in December 1850, ‘whisker brushes’ were included in a broader advertisement for ‘Christmas Presents this Month’. Clearly the ideal present for the whiskerando who has everything!

A little trimming or clipping was permissible, to keep everything neat and tidy since having a scruffy, unkempt beard suggested slovenliness, and it was considered ‘quite the usual business of a man’s person to trim the beard’. For those who could afford it, a valet or manservant might also do the job. As Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Managementpointed out, a good valet should “brush the hair, beard and moustache, where that appendage is encouraged, arranging the whole simply and gracefully according to the age and style of countenance”.

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(Image Copyright of Wellcome Collection)

Applying any cosmetics to the beard, though, was actively frowned upon, and there were even some suggestions that the products themselves were unpleasant. An article in the Hairdresser’s Journal in July 1868 noted the use of iron dye, containing hydrosulphate of ammonia and hartshorn for colouring beards and moustaches but noted that the ‘abominable odour’ and ‘putrid smell’ of the ingredients meant that ‘any fellow who would apply this hateful thing to his facial hair must be strong of stomach, and not over delicate as to the sense of smelling’.

Indeed, although there were many (often delicately scented) products for shaving available across the nineteenth century, there are only fleeting references to cosmetic products specifically for beards.

Nineteenth-century men, then, didn’t really go in for beard sculpting, in the belief that the beard was best left to grow ‘natural. And whilst today the idea that beards might be dirty still resurfaces from time to time, the Victorians had that covered. As ‘Xerxes’ wrote in the Folly and Evil of Shaving in 1854, “the beard keeps away nearly the whole of the dirt from the face, [and] does not prevent soap and water from penetrating beneath it to remove what dirt may accumulate there”. As such, they reasoned, “it follows that that portion of the face covered by the beard must be cleaner than the part not so covered, as well as cleaner than the head”. So, there you have it. Bearded men are the cleanest around!

Sick Servants in Early Modern Britain

Historians have done lots of work in recent years on health and medical care in the family in early modern Britain. As such we know much more about what life was like for the sick in the early modern home, how patients were cared for and by whom. The family provided ready sources of both physical medicines and care.

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The Servant by Wenceslas Hollar (Copyright Shakespeare Folger Digital Images)

The Servant, by Wenceslas Hollar (Copyright Shakespeare Folger Digital Images)

As Mary Fissell and others have argued, the burden of responsibility for looking after the sick often fell on women, and could involve a great deal of extra work, such as in washing, preparing medicines and so on. Other historians, such as Lisa Smith (and me!) have also noted the important role played by men in domestic medicine, noting that men were important gatherers and collectors of remedies, and were sometimes forced into a caring role when their wives fell sick – something that early modern medical literature didn’t necessarily prepare them for.

There is one group of patients, however, who sometimes slip through the net. What happened when servants fell sick? Who cared for, and looked after them? How far did employers pay for their care or treatment? In some ways the question might seem redundant. Servants were considered part of the family unit. When Pepys opened his diary in 1660, he noted “I lived in Axe Yard, having my wife and servant Jane, and no more family than us three”. It’s easy to miss the significance of this; Jane, their servant, was fully part of the Pepys family. As part of the family, therefore, they could surely expect to be looked after.

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Nicholas Maes, the Idle Servant – image from Wikimedia Commons

In economic terms it certainly made sense to treat a sick servant, if for no other reason than to return them to productivity as quickly as possible. In large houses or estates, for example, a spate of sickness amongst servants and labourers could be potentially disastrous for productivity. But is there evidence to suggest that care went beyond this purely pragmatic view? Through my work on medicine in early modern Wales, I came across a number of examples.

Surviving records from the account book of William Davies of Clytha, Monmouthshire, certainly suggest that he went beyond the call of duty. In May 1718 he took on a boy, William Prosser, to his service at the wage of two pounds and four shillings per year. Davies was diligent in recording a range of entries concerning his servant. It is clear, for example, that he gave Prosser what might today be regarded as pocket money on occasions. In one instance he recorded giving Prosser 6 shillings to visit Usk Fair. On another occasion he provided 2 shillings for the boy to play cards. He paid for new stockings and the mending of shoes, and allowed Prosser time off to go to Monmouth, and also to visit his sister when she was sick.

Davies, however, also noted occasions when Prosser was himself sick, and the duration. One entry reads “You were sick in Aprill 7 dayes”, and another “you were sick and you lost 11 dayes”. On one level this might be seen as an employer monitoring his servant, and keeping a tally of their sick days…an approach that would not feel unfamiliar in a modern workplace! But, also just like a modern employer, it seems that Davies provided sickpay – “June ye 15th I gave you one shilling when you were sick’. Was this the norm, or was Prosser simply lucky in having an apparently benevolent employer?

There is other evidence to suggest that some were prepared to allow sick employees to move into their households for treatment. The probate inventory of the Cardiff labourer William Cozens shows that, during his last sickness, he was living in the house of his employer, and receiving care. Note that Cozens was a labourer, and not a domestic servant, suggesting that he ordinarily did not live with the family.

Gentry household accounts certainly suggest that provision of medicines for sick servants was routine. The accounts of Lord Herbert, the 9th earl of Pembroke, give a running list of the many preparations and remedies ordered from a London apothecary John Jackson. (Between 1744 and 1747 there were a total of 848 different prescriptions!). Amongst the many for Lord Herbert and his wife, were entries for William Colly and Jenny White, both presumably servants, as well as medicines for the ‘coachman’ and ‘housemaid’.

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William Hogarth’s servants (Wikimedia Commons)

The coachman at Chirk Castle was another recipient of treatment, involving a ‘botle of physic from Dr Puleston’, and when the ‘boy Thomas was swoll’n under the chin’, an entry in the accounts paid for a man to fetch the apothecary from nearby Wrexham.

R.C. Richardson’s study of servants in early modern England found similar evidence to suggest that employers were usually keen to look after their charges. Those who failed to do so properly were denounced as ‘cursed and hard-hearted persons’ whose threshold the prospective servant should be wary to cross. Preachers, such as William Perkins, considered it the ‘Christian duty’ to care for a servant who ‘In time of his service be sicke’.

Admittedly some were not so sympathetic. Thomas Ffoulkes of Holywell, Flintshire, kept close tabs on his maid, apparently suspicious of her claims to be ill. In January 1724 he noted “My mayd Margarett Jones fell sick this day, and next day, and did not get out of bed. Munday morning, being the 8th, she went unknown to me to her mother’s and did not returne till Friday”. Ffoulkes’s scathing last line “she went rambling home severall other times” suggested he thought that Margarett was pulling the early modern equivalent of a ‘sickie’!

In general, however, sick servants were the recipients of often quite generous levels of care. On one level, as part of the family this might be expected. But these were also, ultimately, employees, and therefore reliant on the goodwill of their masters and mistresses for this to be provided. It would be interesting to find out more about the changing dynamic, when employees had to provide physical care for their servants. Presuming there were no others available, how must it have felt for the mistress of the house to tend the sickbed of her housemaid? Perhaps the subject for a future post.