Finding Your Beard Style in the 19th Century

In the previous post I noted the variety of facial hair styles that were worn by men in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, depending on factors including status, location and age. Rather than each age having one particular style of facial hair that was ubiquitous, the decision about what style to go for was, then as now, a matter for the individual man. 

Whatever he chose to do, though, a series of decisions were involved. First was the decision as to whether to shave or whether to let the beard grow full and natural. If the former, then how much of the face was to be shaved, and how often? Would the man shave himself, or visit the barber? If the latter, what was the desired ‘look’, and how could it be achieved.  Fashion was obviously another consideration: if, for example, the prevailing trend was for small, pointy beards, then a choice needed to be made as to whether to follow the fashion or buck the trend. Some men like the idea of using their beard as a statement, and a symbol of individual identity.

But another thing that needs to be considered is what sort of facial hair might suit a man’s face. Just like hairstyles, the suitability – and the effect – of different types of beards and moustaches can vary dramatically according to the size and shape of the face. 

Funny Folks, 28 June 1879, p. 206

An article titled ‘The Hair and Beard’ in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle in 1868 attempted to set out the ground rules for facial hair fashions. On one level, it argued, fashions were essentially arbitrary, and things like which side of the head the hair was parted, or what style of cut, were ‘prompted by no discoverable reason’.

But when a beard was worn it was important that it added to the overall harmony of the face, and emphasised its features, rather than hiding them. The ‘proper way of wearing a beard’ it argued ‘is ascertainable by a simple test. The idea is not that of a great beard attached to the face, but of a face which is ornamented by a beard.’ Proportion was everything. If the beard was too long it risked masking everything underneath. Too short, however, and the beard simply became ‘a covering, such as feathers are to a bird’.

Once a man had decided on what style suited him, the next question was whether he had the wherewithal to grow it. Many factors were argued to affect the quality of beard hair, not least of which was food. Another note in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle in December 1875 suggested that ‘The nature of nourishment causes a great variety in the beard. Wholesome, nutritious and digestible food makes the beard soft”. Rather cheekily it then added that ‘a good wife who provides excellent dinners will soon see the effect on the beard’. By contrast though, ‘poor, dry and indigestible food renders the beard hard and bristly’. 

Title page of ‘The Hair’ by J. Pincus – copyright Wellcome Images

A study of diseases of the hair and beard by Dr J. Pincus in 1882 argued that beards should be left alone during their ‘period of germination’ and that the ‘natural growth of the beard should not be interfered with.’ Rather than shaving off their beard hair, young men would do well to let it grow natural since ‘the irritation of shaving is too powerful and the beard becomes prematurely coarse and brittle.’ By not letting their beards develop unhindered in their formative years, Pincus argued, youths risked a wealth of problems including losing the colour in their facial hair, which would ‘fade into yellowish and reddish brown’ in later years. Only once a man had reached full maturity should he consider shaving.

But there were also a large percentage of men for whom growing a full beard was difficult, if not impossible. Through history, suspicions had been aroused and insults levelled, at men whom nature had not endowed with a fulsome crop of beard hair. Terms such as ‘smock-faced’, ‘spanopogones’ and ‘beardless boy’ were brickbats that stung poor men who wanted to join the ‘beard movement’ but couldn’t. Happily though, there were some options. As well as supplying to the theatrical and party trades, manufacturers of false hairpieces were also beginning to offer facial hair wigs, to allow beardless men to give the lie of a full and healthy beard. Better still, these were increasingly available to suit the latest fashionable styles. 

Advertisements like this one for a theatrical wig suppler in November 1874 offered all manner of different styles to suit all tastes. Here, for example, were ‘Dundreary whiskers’, ‘mutton shop’ sideburns, magisterial-looking full beards and even, rather unusually, a false ‘chin beard’, complete without the moustache! And indeed, for moustache lovers, options ranged from natty small examples to bushier and trendier styles, such as the ‘Imperial’.

Author’s Photograph of detail from Hairdresser’s Chronicle, 1874. Original document copyright British Library

There were even options for attaching them to the face – a serious consideration since few social faux pas could surely equal having your beard fly off in a gust of wind whilst trying to converse with the ladies. At the lower end of the scale these included sticking the contrivance to the face with tape or glue. Next up in efficiency were those that used wire to mould to the shape of the wearer’s face, and looped around the ears, giving a more natural look. But for really high-end models, a system of springs were used to make the beard wig cling to the face even in the most inclement of weathers. 

A whole range of hair-growth products were also available, promising that only a few applications of their miracle preparations would be enough to endow men with effulgent beards, moustaches and whiskers.

Author’s photograph of detail from Hairdresser’s Chronicle, 7 November 1874

Whatever the style, length, colour or amount of beard, therefore, facial hair required choices to be made. Happily, help was at hand in terms of the advice available in popular publications, and perhaps also from barbers and hairdressers, but also the innovative contrivances made by wig makers. With one of these, almost any man could instantly achieve the style he wanted, without risking the thousand shocks that daily lifestyle and diet could apparently visit upon his facial hair.  

And a new feature. This post is also available as a podcast: https://anchor.fm/alun-withey/episodes/Finding-Your-Beard-Style-in-the-19th-Century-esf31g/a-a4u8nbu

Book Launch day! Introducing ‘Concerning Beards’.

After more than seven years of work, hundreds of sources, and a major research research project, I’m very proud to be able to introduce my new book Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England, 1650-1900. It’s a proud day and always a thrill to finally have the first physical copy in my hand…It always seems hard to believe, when writing the very first lines for the first chapter that it will ever add up to a book! In this post I thought it might be nice to say a little about the book, some of its main themes and findings. In the coming weeks I’ll be posting more about some of the fantastic material that I’ve come across through the project. 

At its heart, Concerning Beards is all about the relationship between facial hair, health and medicine between the mid seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries. Why, first, does it have this timespan? First, it spans a period which saw some major changes in fashions and attitudes towards facial hair. In 1650 beards and moustaches were still in fashion, but were in a gradual decline. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, amidst changes in ideas about politeness, sensibility and a more refined model of male appearance, facial hair fell from fashion, and it has been assumed that men were largely clean shaven for the better part of the next 150 years. Then, around 1850, the Victorian ‘beard movement’ saw beards held up as an important, and highly visible, symbol of manliness. The book, therefore, covers a long period in which facial hair was initially in fashion, suffered a long decline, and then came back again with a flourish!

Second, the long timespan covers an interesting period in terms of medicine and the body. In the seventeenth century, and throughout much of the eighteenth, the body was still believed to consist of four humours, which governed health and temperament. Within this system, beard hair was regarded as a type of bodily waste product, or excrement, that was left over from the production of sperm deep within a man’s body. As such, facial hair was seen as internal substance, and one that was firmly linked to male sexuality, virility and physicality. 

Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, beliefs in the humours were being gradually eroded, and older ideas replaced. Facial hair was a part of this and, by the mid eighteenth century, it was more common to find debates about facial hair focussing on things like the structure of beard hairs and how they grew. Increasingly beard hairs were seen as growing on, or just under, the skin, rather than deep in the body. As this happened, the older links between beards and sexual power gradually disappeared.

Over the course of this time period, other things changed. One was certainly who was responsible for shaving. In the early modern period, aside from a few elites who dabbled with wielding a razor, the barber/barber-surgeon was the mainstay of shaving. Barbers were incredibly important figures for men, and their shops were places where men could go to gossip, drink, gamble and play music, as well as have their beards and locks trimmed. 

V0019680 A barber shaving a disgruntled man. Coloured etching after H Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://images.wellcome.ac.uk A barber shaving a disgruntled man. Coloured etching after H.W. Bunbury. By: Henry William BunburyPublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/page/Prices.html

From the later eighteenth century, however, men certainly began to shave themselves more, helped on by the availability of new types of steel razor, and a growing body of advice literature telling them how to do it. In 1745 too, the barbers and surgeons split to form separate companies, which has long been assumed to have sent them into a social spiral. But my book argues that this didn’t actually happen, and that barbers remained hugely important. In fact, even at the height of the ‘beard movement’ when huge numbers of men were wearing full beards, barbers were actually experiencing huge demand from working men, which at times found them having to work through the night to cope with the sea of stubbly faces at their doors.

Another key question that the book addresses is that of the rise of a market for cosmetic shaving products. It argues that, over time, managing facial hair gradually lost its associations with formal medicine and medical practitioners, and became instead part of a new category of personal grooming for men. But even despite this, it still remained (and in fact remains today) closely linked to hygiene and health. 

From the later eighteenth century, a whole new market emerged for shaving soaps, pastes, powders and creams. For the book I surveyed thousands of advertisements, exploring the types of products available, names, prices and also the language used to advertise them. I’ll save the details for a later post, but things like scent, and the language of softness, luxury and sensuousness, raise interesting questions about expectations of manly appearance and behaviours.

Finally, although the book is not centrally about fashions, it does discuss questions of facial hair styles and class. As Joanne Begiato’s recent book on 19th-century masculinity has argued, the temptation has too often been to separate broad time periods into different ‘types’ of manliness: e.g. the Georgian polite gentleman, the Victorian ‘muscular Christian’ and so on. But how far do those models of manliness reflect men across society and in different locations? In terms of beard fashions, is it safe to assume that, for example, all men in the Georgian period were clean shaven, or that all Victorian men wore prodigious facial hair. The problem lies in how to access the facial hair fashions of the lower orders. 

Image from Pinterest

For the eighteenth century I turned to ‘wanted’ advertisements in newspapers, where runaway apprentices, servants and criminals were commonly placed. Since facial hair was a distinguishing feature, it offers a glimpse of what men looked like, at least at the point at which they had taken to their heels. This study suggested that beards actually were quite rare throughout the eighteenth century, but that whiskers were perhaps much more common. Rather than all being clean shaven, many lower class eighteenth-century men likely had some sort of facial hair. 

For the nineteenth century, though, I was able to turn to actual photographs of lower-class men, through the increasing practice of taking photographs of prisoners. For the book I surveyed hundreds of photographs from gaols around the country, taking note of the style of facial hair, the age of the men, occupation and location. What this revealed was actually quite surprising. At a time when the ‘beard movement’ was at its height, and it has been supposed that the majority of men were wearing huge, full beards, the study of prisoner photographs suggested not only that around a third of men had no facial hair at all, but that the full beard was not the most popular. In fact, remarkably, the vast majority of men in the sample would have needed to keep shaving at least part of their faces. 

Along the way, Concerning Beards covers a wide range of other questions, and has turned up a great deal of interesting titbits! How did apprentice barbers learn to shave, for example, and who taught individual men? What sorts of things did barbers sell in their shops? Why were some men in institutions physically compelled to shave? And why was Tom Tomlinson the barber, completely unsuited to his calling? For the answers to these, please have a wander through the chapters.

So here it is, and I’ve saved the best until last. Thanks to the generosity of the Wellcome Trust, both in funding the project, and funding Open Access, Concerning Beards is completely free to download. Please click the link below to Bloombsury Collections, where you can find all chapters available to download as PDFs.

https://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/concerning-beards-facial-hair-health-and-practice-in-england-16501900/

The ‘Toilet Arts’: Men’s Personal Grooming and Advice Literature in the 19th Century.

One of the big themes of my research project, and of a large section of the forthcoming book, is the rise, over time, of shaving as part of men’s self-fashioning and personal grooming. One question that has interested me from the start is that of how men learnt to shave? Who told them what equipment to purchase, how to sharpen razors, make lather and avoid injuring themselves? Fraternal networks – dads and brothers, as well as male friends – were all strong potential sources of information about personal grooming in the past, much as they still are today.

Screenshot 2020-04-15 at 08.25.05
Image from British Library Flickr, available under creative commons

But I’ve also been interested in advice literature for men. The eighteenth century saw the rise of polite conduct literature, instructing young ladies and gentlemen in how to look and behave properly in public. This often included general instructions on dress and appearance, manners, speech and deportment, and even posture and how to stand properly. But before the nineteenth century there was generally more conduct literature available for women than men.

The early decades of the nineteenth century, however, saw conduct literature gradually replaced by a more general kind of advice literature, along the lines of ‘How to be a Lady/Gentleman’. I’ve been scouring as many as I could find to see if they offered anything more on what were sometimes referred to as the ‘toilet arts’! In particular, I wondered if there might be any evidence for how to look after beards, particularly at the height of the Victorian ‘beard movement’. What were the expectations surrounding cleaning, fashioning or cutting facial hair, and general expectations of appearance?

In general, over-attention to appearance was regarded with suspicion, and some advice literature cautioned men not to fuss too much in front of the mirror. As The English Gentleman, His Feelings, His Manners, His Pursuits of 1849 cautioned men that ‘directly you begin to be over-careful and elaborate in your dress, and give yourself a finical and effeminate appearance, from that hour do you commence vulgarity”. Although he should never be slovenly, a man should think no more about his appearance once he had left the dressing room and, once in public, should ‘avoid looking in the mirror’ or a window to check appearance!

Sometimes advice on personal cleanliness could appear in gentlemanly advice literature, although the amount and form varied greatly with each publication. The Gentleman’s Manual of Modern Etiquette (1844) for example, instructed men that the “flesh, teeth and nails should be cleansed at regular intervals”, and the nails in particular should “never be permitted to grow to an offensive length”.  Arthur Blenkinsopp’s A Shiling’s Worth of Advice on Manners, Behaviour and Dress (1850) noted also that faces, hair and teeth should be kept scrupulously clean.

Screenshot 2020-04-15 at 08.15.30
(Author’s own image – original document copyright British Library)

One of my favourites is the ominously-titled ‘Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes and Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech’ which, as the name suggests, was all about how NOT to do it. Personal grooming was singled out for a barricade of ‘DON’Ts’! These included not using hair dye, since ‘the colour is not like nature, and deceives no one.’ The use of hair oil by men was ‘considered vulgar, and it is certainly not cleanly’. But, perhaps more importantly:

“DON’T neglect personal cleanliness – which is more neglected than careless       observers suppose.

DON’T neglect the details of the toilet. Many persons, neat in other particulars, carry blackened fingernails. This is disgusting. DON’T neglect the small hairs that project from the nostrils and grow around the apertures of the ears…”

If men had beards or whiskers they should be careful to wash them after smoking, and should not get into the habit of “pulling your whiskers, adjusting your hair, or otherwise fingering yourself’!

Others contained useful titbits about shaving kit. L.P. Lamont’s Mirror of Beauty (1830) contained a useful recipe for the ‘Genuine Windsor Shaving Soap’, along with instructions as to how to put the melted soap into a shaving box, to use while travelling, or for convenience, whilst Charles Gilman Currier’s The Art of Preserving Health reminded men that the beard ought to be washed very often and should be kept clean.

Specific advice about shaving beards and whiskers was more likely to be found in specific publications dedicated to the task. These came in many forms: in the eighteenth century the first shaving manuals were published by cutlers and razor makers such as Jean-Jacques Perret and Benjamin Kingsbury. Over time these began to proliferate, and included everything from instructions given out with shaving products to manuals dedicated to shaving and personal grooming more generally. There are too many to include here in detail, but a few examples will illustrate the themes.

Screenshot 2020-04-15 at 08.16.00
(Author’s own image – original document copyright British Library)

The alluringly titled Gentleman’s Companion to the Toilet of 1844, for example, by the anonymous ‘London Hair Dresser’, contained a raft of useful information for shavers, from how to choose, strop and sharpen a razor, and the proper way to use it. Debates raged around whether shaving with hot or cold water was better: the author of the Gentleman’s Companion was in no doubt that hot water was the only way to ‘soften the beard or improve the edge of the razor’. Another useful section dealt with which shaving soap to pick. The best strategy, argued the author, was to ignored the advertising puffs (“There are many soaps which are ‘puffed off’ as “the best article manufactured for shaving”…but some of them are utterly worthless”). He also advised sticking to the widely available Naples soap, and avoiding alkali soaps, with their light and frothy lather, which would “much annoy you by [causing] those irritating pains which are frequently felt after shaving with a bad razor”.

Screenshot 2020-04-15 at 08.16.30
(Author’s own image – original document copyright British Library)

Edwin Creer’s Popular Treatise on the Hair argued that men risked their health if they neglected cleanliness of their beards, since facial hair “collects dirt, smoke and dust from the atmosphere…and were it not that the beard intercepts those particles, they might otherwise find their way to some internal organ”. Creer also argued that occasional shaving could be useful in strengthening the beard, but preferred to let nature run its course.

Nevertheless, styling, brushing and trimming the beard and whiskers was also recommended. As Creer noted, the ‘cut’ of the beard was everything: it should neither be ‘short and scrubby’ nor long and unkempt. Equally important in preserving the lustre and appearance of a full beard was that it should be well kept. Dedicated ‘whisker brushes’ were available to comb out the tangles and remove errant particles of food. It was, after all, hard to look like a gentleman with bits of dinner lodged in the prolix fronds!

Throughout the nineteenth century, then, gentlemanly grooming was seen as important, and facial hair, whether shaving it off or beautifying the beard, was an important part of this. Perhaps the final word belongs to The Hairdresser’s Chronicle in October 1871, which contained the following, under the title ‘How to Begin the Day:

“Be very careful to attire yourself neatly; ourselves, like our salads, are always the better for a good dressing. Shave unmistakeably before you descend from your room; chins, like oysters, should have their beards taken off before being permitted to go down…”!

Barbers and Shaving in the Eighteenth Century

“It is the business of the barber to cut and dress hair, to make wigs and false curls, and to shave the beards of other men. In ancient times he used, also, to trim the nails; and even in the present day, in Turkey, this is a part of his employment”. So wrote the author of an 1841 survey of professions and trades.

One of the main subjects of my forthcoming book is the history of barbers, and their place as providers of shaving, and also as practitioners of the male face and head. I’ve been looking at some of the important questions that have sometimes been overlooked: how well equipped were barbers’ shops?; how did barbers learn to shave, and who taught them?; what happened to the barbers when men began to shave themselves around the mid eighteenth century, and also when beards came hugely back into fashion in the mid nineteenth century? But I’ve also been interested in a much more basic question: what was it like to be shaved in an early modern barbershop?

V0019646 A barber's shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua
V0019646 A barber’s shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A barber’s shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aquatint. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Barbers have (very unfairly, in my opinion!) long been the whipping boys of the haircutting trades. In the eighteenth century the chattering barber was a comic staple. Many satirical cartoons lampooned the clumsy barber, engrossed in his own conversation and paying no attention to the safety of the customer in the chair. Country barbers, affecting airs and graces, were another favourite target of cartoonists. Worse still, the rise of hairdressing as a distinct occupation in the eighteenth century caused further tensions, as hairdressers sought to establish themselves as polite practitioners to the elites, and experts in tonsorial practice! In the process, they took every opportunity to barbers were relegated to the status of ‘mere’ shavers.

For an occupation like barbering/barber-surgery, with its long and proud tradition, not to mention considerable status in early modern towns, this must have been hard to take. Complaints from barbers about their diminished status were still rumbling on in trade journals late into the nineteenth century.

The problem was that a shave in an early modern barbershop varied considerably in quality. First was the question of how well equipped the barbershop was. Some high-end establishments had cases of razors, strops and hones for sharpening, bowls, basins, towels and some sweet-smelling creams or pomatums to apply afterwards. Other shops were much more basic, though, with only the minimum of equipment, and no fripperies. Perhaps the most important factor was the quality of the razor. Before the mid 18th century, the type of steel used in razor manufacture made them sometimes brittle, and difficult to sharpen. Once cast steel was introduced around 1750, things did begin to improve, although cast steel razors were expensive and beyond the reach of poorer barbers.

Being shaved with a blunted or poorly maintained razor was an ordeal for the customer. Rather than slicing off the beard hairs cleanly, a blunt razor rasped and bit, taking off layers of skin as well as stubble. Some barbers were more diligent than others in ensuring that their razors were up to the task. One account, from J. Torbuck’s Collection of Welsh travels, and memoirs of Wales (1749) gives us an interesting (if slightly tongue-in-cheek), insight into what could happen when things went wrong!

“I next sent out for a barber (resolving to see the best face upon matters I could) and, in about half an hour’s time, in comes a greasy fellow, swift to shed innocent blood, who, in a trice, from a protable cup-board call’d his cod-piece, pulls out a woollen night-cap that smelt very much of human sweat and candle-grease, and about two ells of towelling, of so coarse a thread, that they might well have serv’d a zealous catholick instead of a penitential hair-cloth.

After some fumbling, he pulls out a thing he call’d a razor, but both by the looks of effects, on would easily have mistaken it for a chopping-knife; and with pure strength of hand, in a short time, he shav’d me so clean, that not only the hairs of my face, but my very skin become invisible; and he left me not sufficient to make a patch for an Aethiopian lady of pleasure:

I gave him a small piece, bearing Caesar’s image and superscription; at which, he doffed me so low a bow, that the very clay floor was indented with his knuckles, and so he reverendly took his leave.”

V0019680 A barber shaving a disgruntled man. Coloured etching after H

(Image Copyright Wellcome Trust)

Images such as ‘Damn the Barber’ drew on what must have been a fairly common trope, of the painful shave, highlighting the lack of care and attention by some ‘Professors of the Tonsorial Arts’, or the damage done to customers. ‘Zounds! How you scrape’ cries the unfortunate victim of one blunt razor!

V0019687 A barber shaving a man in his shop. Etching, 1804.

(Image copyright Wellcome Trust)

But for all this, barbers remained hugely important in the lives of men throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The barbershop, as Margaret Pelling, Sandra Cavallo, Jess Clark and others have shown, was an important social space for men, as well as being a site for shaving, and also the purchase of cosmetic goods. Even when men did begin to shave themselves in greater numbers, they often did this in conjunction with visiting the barber. For many (perhaps even most) men too, it was simply cheaper and easier to go to the barber’s shop than to purchase and maintain shaving goods.

Halloween Special: Shaving the Dead in Irish Folklore

Shaving the dead in Irish folklore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from J. Jacobs, Celtic Folk and Fairy Tales

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Clodagh Tait, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Singular Case of the Tiverton Barber

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

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

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

Image copyright Wellcome Images)

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

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

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

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

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