Are Beards Over? A Historical Perspective.

Recently I spoke with the Guardian journalist Tim Dowling for an excellent article he was writing (published last week) about whether beards are finally ‘over’, and I thought it would be interesting to reflect on some of this. Since re-emerging around 2014, gaining popularity through celebrity endorsement and a new market for cosmetic beard products and, at least for a time, being celebrated (as well as debated) beards have seldom so popular since the 1960s and 70s. And just when it seemed that facial hair was becoming passé, the pandemic brought a late flourish in the form of the ‘lockdown beard’, with homeworking affording previous beard deniers a chance to try a new look. 

Throughout my research on beards, two questions have repeatedly come up, both in media interviews the media, and in questions from audiences at my talks: first has the fashion for beards truly finished, and second what might the next style be? I’ll come on to my answers later, but it’s worth first exploring a bit of context.

It is important to recognise that facial hair fashions have always been cyclical. More than this, just like clothes, they are sometimes virtually a visual shorthand for a particular period or a historical type. The Tudor men in Holbein’s portraits, for example, are often sporting their magnificent ‘spade beards’; perhaps the most common image of Henry VIII in popular consciousness is that with his characteristic chin beard. In the eighteenth century (as any fule kno!) men were all clean-shaven, and wore wigs, amidst an age of elegant, polite masculinity. If asked to picture Victorian men, however, it’s likely that the prevailing image will be two eyes peeping out between a dense thicket of facial hair and the brim of a stovetop hat.

(A Victorian ‘carte de visite’ from my own collection – please do not reproduce this image without permission)

As broad caricatures these are useful in understanding facial hair trends. But a deeper dive into the records reveals that there is more to this than simple, homogenous trends. In other words, what we assume to be the predominant fashion doesn’t mean that every man wore this style. 

Take the eighteenth century, for example. If portraits are to be believed, then barely a whisker besmirched the face of the Georgian man, except perhaps for very old, the very poor, the ‘insane’, or the religious fanatic. The strictures of polite appearance dictated that facial hair was uncouth, spoiling the general mien of the face, and creating an unfavourable impression for others. 

But descriptions of men in ‘wanted’ advertisements for criminals, runaway servants or apprentices reveal a more complex picture, containing many descriptions of men with facial hair of various amounts, styles and colours, suggesting that it might not have been as uncommon as once thought to see men with some form of facial hair. If we assume that these are more likely to be men of the lower classes than elites, then this might even suggest that the clean-shaven model was more applicable to middling and elite men, rather than the ‘ordinary’ guys who perhaps represented the majority. 

A second point to make is that the frequency of shaving – generally no more than three times a week for elites, and once a week for poorer men – suggesting that the Georgian period was much more a stubbly age than it was a clean-shaven one.

Image: Theodore Lane, The Rival Whiskers, Designed and Etched by Theodore Lane; Engraved by George Hunt (London: 1824)

There were sometimes also counter trends. The early nineteenth century saw a trend for side-whiskers, especially amongst young, metropolitan men, which spanned two decades. Suddenly bushy outcrops of beard, the longer and more elaborate the better, became the height of fashion and, whilst sometimes lampooned in the press, also drew admiration. 

For the mid nineteenth century, with its ‘beard movement’, the large numbers of books and articles extolling the many and various supposed health benefits to a fulsome crop of beard, the personal testimonies of men, and indeed the photographic records, all appear to point in the same direction, towards the unassailable dominion of the beard.

Image copyright Wellcome Images

But here again, photography, in this case photographs of prisoners taken at the point of arrest, provides a surprising alternative. For my book I compared hundreds of prisoner photographs from across Britain in the 1860s, the supposed high point of the ‘beard movement’ when beard-wearing was assumed as virtually ubiquitous. But rather than the archetypal full beard, these photographs suggested a much wider range of styles. First, it was notable that a substantial number (40% of the 635 sampled) had no facial hair at all. One of the most popular beard styles was the ‘chin beard’ or ‘chin curtain’, a thin strap of beard from the sideburns to under the chin, with no moustache. Goatee beards were popular, as were side whiskers, especially amongst older men. Many younger men were clean shaven, with only a few wearing moustaches. Again, these were men from the lower classes, suggesting possible variations according to social status, but also differences in the choice of styles between men of different ages. 

These examples from both periods reveal important truths. First, when we think of beard fashions in the past, we can’t assume that all men, across all of society, adopted the same styles. There were always variations, alternatives, and sometimes reactions. Not all Tudor men had ‘spade’ beards; not all Georgian guys shaved and many Victorians shunned the magisterial fronds of the patriarch! All of this raises a second point, which is that facial hair always involves choices: whether to grow a beard or not; whether to shave or not to shave; whether to grow one style or another, and so on. And, in many respects, as it was in the past, so it is today. 

One thing that is certain is that modern beard trends are shorter in duration – a pattern that began in the twentieth century. Whilst broad beard trends once lasted decades…even centuries, they now span periods of several years or even less. But the key point remains the same, that beard fashions, like any other type of fashion, are cyclical. Second, modern beard trends are not homogenous. Even when the recent ‘hipster’ beard trend was in full feather, it belonged to a certain age group and demographic, and large numbers of men (including me!) continued to shave. 

Earlier I promised to return to the two all-important questions, so here goes. Do I think the beard is ‘over’? No. In fact I think that something else entirely has happened, which is that it  has ceased being a fashion, and is instead now just a style choice, and one that doesn’t necessarily need a ‘trend’ to hang it on. It’s worth noting too that often in the past, when a new beard fashion has emerged, there is an initial period of debate and sometimes ridicule, which settles down as the beard stops being ‘remarkable’.

What comes next? Ah, the all-important one! Historically, beard trends are replaced by their exact opposite, suggesting a return to a clean-shaven model. But, to return to my previous point, I think things are more complicated today, and that any number of facial hair styles are now acceptable. I have seen some magnificent twiddly moustaches and ‘sculpted’ beards in the gentrified coffee shops of Cardiff of late. But one style that has (so far) steadfastly refused to make a comeback are side whiskers…once linked to revolutionary tendencies and angry young men. Might their time be coming?

Cuts, Rashes & Chatter! The Pain of the 18th-century Shave!

Unless there are particular reasons, for example a skin condition, or a faulty razor, shaving today is usually a pretty mundane – if not a pleasant – experience. Indeed, the rise of traditional barbershops over the past few years, offering shaving as an experience, together with an increasingly elaborate range of rituals, head massages and exotic products, makes it almost a form of beauty treatment for men. But what was shaving like 300 years ago? What did it feel like to be shaved with a Georgian razor? 

Before the end of the 18th century, and indeed for many men for quite a long time afterwards, the mainstay of shaving was the barber. Barbers were readily available across Britain, in shops of various size and quality, or sometimes operating with a couple of chairs in the backrooms of their houses. With shaving paraphernalia expensive to buy and bothersome to maintain, it was often simply easier, and potentially much cheaper, to simply go to the barber. Here men could not only have a shave, a haircut, have their earwax removed, tongues scraped and boils lanced, but could meet with other men to gossip, eat and drink and generally shoot the breeze.

Image Copyright Lewis Walpole Library

But if all this sounds cosy and convenient, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the shave itself could be a far less than comfortable experience.

For a start, much depended on the quality and state of repair of the razor. Early 18th century races common razors were made from a type of steel that could be brittle and, unless regularly maintained, could quickly lose its edge. Inventories of higher-end barber’s shops in the 17th and 18th century sometimes show whole cases of razors, along with sharpening strops and hones, meaning that their use could be rotated. Smaller barber businesses, however, might only have a couple of razors…and if these blunted, and with a queue forming, corners (and faces!) were likely to be cut. Whilst a sharp razor cut cleanly through beard hairs, a blunted one rasped away at the layers of skin, literally scraping the hair rather than cutting it. 

Trade card of John Best, Razor Maker, Copyright Wellcome Images

Some comfort could be derived from the type of shaving soap that the barber used. Like razors, the quality of these varied dramatically. Whilst high end soaps had unctuous, perfumed creamy lather, which helped the razor glide across the face and neck, there were complaints about the lather of cheaper soaps, that reportedly just fell off the face, doing little good to the poor punter in the chair.  

Another important consideration was whether the shave was performed with hot or cold water. There were heated debates amongst razor makers in the 18th century as to which was more suitable. Some thought that hot water causes the razor to expand, increasing its efficiency. Others protested that it was cold water that better suited the minute particles in the razor. Again, for the poor man in the chair, this could be a crucial decision. Whilst being shaved with hot water can be pleasant, a cold water shave is something more to be endured than enjoyed!

Once the shave had been completed, the customers face would be towelled dry, and he would be sent on his way. Depending on the nature of the ordeal, he was by this stage either fresh-faced and clean-shaven or cut to ribbons and sporting a conspicuous and painful shaving rash. In the latter case, unfortunately, there was little remedy. Domestic remedy collections show no evidence of specific preparations for shaving rashes…or even any recognition of the condition. With no commercially available after-shave balm or lotion, the best a man could hope for would be to apply one of the many soothing skin remedies that existed for redness or swelling in the face.

Perhaps the best way to view contemporary attitudes towards being shaved by the barber is through depictions in 18th century satirical cartoons. Whilst these give us extremes, rather than typical experiences, they tell us enough about what could go wrong to be able to understand the potential plight of our ancestors!

For a variety of reasons, barbers were particular targets for the pensions of cartoonists. The incessant chatter of the barber, for example, attracted particular criticism. Cartoons often poked fun at the dangers of being at the hands of a razor-wielding barber, so absorbed by his own conversation that he risked accidentally injuring the customer.

In Rowlandson’s ‘Damn the Barber’, the customer in the chair winces as the barber holds him by the nose, about to shave him. On the left an apprentice holds a mirror to a man, to show the results of his work. The customer has his fingers in his ears, perhaps removing hair and lather…but also perhaps blocking out the barber’s chat.

Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Damn the Barber!’ – Copyright Wellcome Trust


A worse fate is about to befall the poor punter at the hands of a barber in this second Rowlandson cartoon, so absorbed in his diatribe about news from Amsterdam that he fails to notice his razor blade sinking into his customer’s nose. “Halloh! You sir!” cries the man “what are you about? Are you going to cut my nose off?” (Lewis Walpole.

Image Copyright Lewis Walpole Library

Perhaps one of my favourite of all satirical images of shaving, however, and the one perhaps most suggests the discomfort that could be visited upon the 18th-century shavee, is this 1804 etching of a barber shaving a man in his shop. As the barber’s blunted razor rasps across the poor man’s chin he cries out in pain…”Zounds! How you scrape!”.

V0019687 A barber shaving a man in his shop. Etching, 1804. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://images.wellcome.ac.uk A barber shaving a man in his shop. Etching, 1804. 1804 Published: 25 June 1804 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Barbers and (the lack of!) Polite Advertising

Over the past few years, I have spent much time looking at ‘polite’ advertising in the 18th century. During this period, a whole range of retailers advertised their goods and services to appeal to ladies and gentlemen of taste. Without discussing anything so base as price or money, they instead tried to coax, cajole and compliment their customers to become regular visitors.

One of the most common ways of doing this was the trade card. These were small printed pamphlets or bills, handed out to the customer after purchase as a reminder to them to visit again. Combining the refined language of ‘politeness’ with elegant neoclassical imagery, they reminded the customer of the world of goods available, the opulence of the shop surroundings, and the care and attention lavished on the customer.

Hundreds of eighteenth-century trade cards still exist, and for all manner of trades. Unsurprisingly these were often high-end businesses. But even some small, prosaic trades also adopted the card, and examples can be found for anything from dentists to skeleton sellers!

Trade card of Nathan Colley, Skeleton Seller, Copyright Wellcome Images

One type of business that appears to have steadfastly resisted the trade card, however, was the barbershop. On the face of it (excuse the pun!) barbers might be seen as just the sort to benefit from attracting regular, returning custom.  As shavers of men, they were key practitioners in fashioning polite appearance. The face of the gentleman in the eighteenth century was expected to be smooth and shaved; facial hair at this point signalled a rougher version of masculinity, far away from the delicacy and sensibility of the Beau monde. Evidence from the eighteenth century suggests that gentlemen visited barbers to be shaved up to three times per week. Indeed, dictionaries throughout the eighteenth century often defined barbers as ‘shavers’. In other respects, then, barbers could lay claim to be key practitioners in the construction of the polite, public face, helping men to meet new ideals of appearance. And yet they chose not to bother with trade cards. Why might this have been?

It has been argued that barbering as a profession was in decline in the eighteenth century. It has long been assumed that the split between the barbers and surgeons in 1745 elevated the surgeons, at the same time as relegating the barbers to mere ‘mechanics’. In reality this is far from being the case, and barbers in fact remained extremely busy throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, remaining key figures, and especially for men. What actually happened is that hairdressers attempted to position themselves as polite practitioners, fashioning the wigs and curls of beaus and belles, whilst also consciously distancing themselves from the rough and ready trade of barbers. One thing that hairdressers were particularly keen to avoid was shaving. 

Trade card of Colley, ‘Hair Cutter’ – Image copyright British Museum – https://media.britishmuseum.org/media/Repository/Documents/2014_11/10_14/575bba3a_9a15_4329_9b19_a3df00e9d286/mid_01511033_001.jpg

It could also be argued that, as self-shaving became gradually more widespread in the later eighteenth century, barbers moved more towards men lower down the social scale. In popular culture too, the barber became something of a figure of fun, often portrayed as a rustic tradesman – the stereotypical bumbling, inept fool who did more damage to his customers appearance than good. In fact, barbers were sometimes singled out and mocked for trying to affect airs and graces. 

But did barbers actually even need trade cards in the first place? The business relied, first and foremost, on footfall and passing trade. A given street in an eighteenth-century English town might contain several barbershops of various size and quality to suit the pockets of a variety of customers.  Such accounts and references that do survive suggest strongly that people tended to keep to one particular barber, building a relationship over time…in fact quite similar to today. This being the case, was there in fact any need to remind the customer of where they had their last haircut or shave? 

Secondly, the nature of the barbering trade was arguably different to those of other, even related, trades. Wig (or peruke) makers, for example could trade on their range of the stock, the quality of their hair, and the service element of their business. Some cards survive for perukemakers  which demonstrate their easy assimilation into the world of polite advertising. For barbers, however, aside from selling the odd cake of soap, glass of beer, or keg of butter, they were unlikely to adopt (or need) the fawning, obsequious style of metropolitan shop owners.

Image from R.W. Proctor, The Barber’s Shop (London: 1883) – author’s photograph

If not trade cards or newspaper advertisements, then, did barbers even advertise at all? In fact it could be argued that barbers had the most striking advertisements of all, hidden in plain sight: the pole. Without wishing to be a ‘pole denier’ I do have some reservations about the origins of the red and white striped design, and the idea that it represents the bloodletting process. Whilst it’s a nice idea (the red signifying the blood being taken, the white denoting the bandages, and the pole itself is said to be the ‘fillet’ – the small stick gripped by the patient whilst their vein was being opened) it seems a little bit TOO convenient. Evidence can be found for barbers’ pole outside shops in the sixteenth century; the story of the colours was certainly in circulation by the late eighteenth century, and vigorously and enthusiastically repeated by Victorian antiquarians. Hard evidence, though, is somewhat more difficult to come by. There is some evidence, for example, that the pole sometimes had blue and white stripes, although this might suggest it represented the vein about to be cut.

Whatever the origins, the lack of trade cards might be taken as evidence that barbering itself was not a ‘polite’ trade; but equally it might just reflect that fact that barbers were so busy that no such expense or trouble was needed.

Beard Fashions and Class

Over the past few centuries, fashions in facial hair have changed substantially. In the mid seventeenth century many men wore the ‘Van Dyke’ style of a small, pointy beard and moustaches. By the end of the 1600s, beards were in decline, leaving many men with just moustaches. The eighteenth century has been viewed as an entirely ‘beardless age’, and one in which men across Europe abandoned their facial hair amidst new ideas about neat, elegant manly appearance, and smooth faces. 

So this remained until around 1800 when a fashion for side-whiskers emerged amongst young elite men in Britain. But beards truly came back with a bang around 1850, amidst the great Victorian ‘beard movement’, when it might appear that men all across Britain suddenly adopted effulgent, luxuriant and magisterial facial hair!

As this chapter in Concerning Beards explores though, there are reasons to believe that these fashions weren’t necessarily as all-encompassing as we might think. Joanne Begiato’s recent book on manliness makes the important point that we sometimes overemphasise stereotypes in the history of masculinity – e.g. the Georgian man of feeling, or the muscularly Christian Victorian man. Whilst these are useful as broad ideals or ideas about manliness, there could be much variation according to thing like class, location and occupation.

In my book, one of the questions that I wanted to explore was how widespread were facial hair fashions at different times and in different places. Did the 18th-century ‘polite’ preference for the clean-shaven face, for example, mean that poorer men had no facial hair either? Equally, whilst proponents of the ‘beard movement’ were expending pints of ink attempting to convince men of the many and various supposed benefits of beards, how far did these ideas sink in? 

The problem lies in how to actually get to the faces of men lower down the social scale. Georgian portraits generally reflect elite men, whilst the advent of photography also, at least initially, attracted gentlemen for a sitting. As I found, though, there are ways to tease the faces of lower-class men out of the shadows. 

Sir David Lindsay by Joshua Reynolds – Image from Wikimedia Commons

18th-century ‘wanted’ advertisements offered one useful window onto facial appearance. Increasingly, newspapers were used to seek the capture or return of individuals, such as runaway servants, apprentices and criminals. Because those placing advertisements naturally wanted these people caught, their descriptions highlight any distinguishing features. Facial hair was just the sort of thing to be noted. Although a runaway might obviously shave off their facial hair as a means of disguise, the advertisements at least reveal what they were wearing when they took to their heels.

The fragmentary nature of these sources made a large-scale quantitative study impossible, but they suggest that a proportion of men of the eighteenth century did wear some variety of facial hair. In 1763 The burglar Henry Tandy was described as having a large black beard, a dark complexion and ‘pock-fretten’ face. When he deserted from the ninth Regiment of Foot in Bristol in 1756, William Williams had a ‘brown beard and a jolly face’, while the distinctive features of the Edinburgh thief William Brodie included sandy-coloured whiskers ‘frizzed at the sides’.

Caledonian Mercury, 27 November 1771 – screen capture from British Library Newspaper Database

For the Victorian period, the advent of photography makes it easier to see the actual faces of nineteenth-century men. In particular though, the introduction of photography as a means of recording the faces of criminals offered the perfect opportunity for a bigger study. For the book I surveyed hundreds of photographs of prisoners from three gaols around the country – Bedford, Wandsworth and Carmarthen. Since these photographs were often taken soon after arrest (and before they were likely shaved on admission to prison), they offer a potential glimpse of the facial hair fashions of poorer men.

Bearded gentleman from 19thc Carte de Visite – author’s own collection

When we think of Victorian bearded men, we tend to associate them with a particular style – the ‘cathedral’ beard, or ‘patriarch’ beard. But in fact, the findings of my study suggest that a rethink may be needed for the faces of lower-class men…and perhaps even across society. First, across the sample of my study, 58% of prisoners showed some variety of facial hair…which obviously means that more than 40% were completely clean-shaven. Even this raises questions about how widespread across society actually was the beard trend.

Perhaps more surprising was the type of beard that was most common in the sample. Of those men displaying facial hair, across the three gaols, nearly three quarters (72%) had a variation of the ‘chinstrap’ or ‘chin curtain’ beard. This was a line of beard coming down from the sideburns, underneath the chin, and back up the other side, with no moustache. This style could be thin, or bushy, and long or short. 

Only 15% of those men with beards wore what we might think of as the archetypal full Victorian beard. Some wore goatee beards, others had light beards or stubble. Only around 3% of prisoners with facial hair wore a moustache on its own. There were also strong variations according to age. Prisoners below the age of 25, for example, often had little or no facial hair. Older men, in their 50s and above, seemed to prefer bushy side whiskers. 

Overall, the vast majority of styles in my sample would still require at least part of the face to be regularly shaved. If these findings are in any way representative of the population more generally, the idea of the heavily bearded Victorian gentlemen throwing away his razor and tackle and letting his facial hair run riot seemingly needs revision! Perhaps we shouldn’t even be too surprised to find that individual men made their own decisions about what styles suited them best. Men always have, and still do, retain control over their own facial appearance. 

By way of conclusion, it’s worth noting that even contemporaries recognised the wide variety of styles worn by men. In the 1870s, the Hairdresser’s Chronicle noted the ‘countless varieties of forms’ that had arisen in ‘British Whiskers’. It asked the reader to imagine the next few men walking down a busy street. 

‘The first has his whiskers tucked into the corner of his mouth , as though he were holding them up with his teeth. The second whisker that we descry has wandered into the middle of the cheek, and there stopped as if it did not know where to go’. The whiskers of number three ‘twist the contrary way, under the owner’s ears’ whereas a fourth citizen, ‘with a vast pacific of a face, has little whiskers, which seemed to have stopped short after two inches of voyage”. 

Beards, it seems, just like their wearers, came in all shapes and sizes.

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/

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.

A Hidden History of Beard Terms!

2020 will be a milestone for me, as it sees the completion of my research, and the submission of my book Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England, 1650-1900, in many ways bringing an end to my project on the history of facial hair – a huge, and in many ways life-changing undertaking, which has occupied me for the past 7 years. It’s been quite a journey, covering a huge range of source material, archives all over the country, conferences, public lectures and media appearances. It’s been fantastic, both academically, and personally.

One of the absolute joys of researching this topic has been discovering the wealth of gems hidden away in archives, with fantastic stories, anecdotes or even just little insights into the lives of people in the past. As you might have noticed, blog entries have sadly suffered a bit over the past year or two, as I’ve been preoccupied with full-time teaching, research and book writing. It’s time to kick start things again and to use the blog to highlight some of this material that I haven’t been able to use in the book, but which definitely deserves to see the light of day.

So, I thought I’d use today’s post as a little teaser, by revealing some of the most unusual terms I’ve come across for beards, barbers and shaving. This a whistle-stop tour through the lexical history of facial hair.

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

‘Imperbicke’ – In Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionary or An Interpreter of Hard English Words of 1623, ‘Imperbicke’ was defined as being ‘without a beard’ or ‘beardless’. In the early modern period, as in fact at many other points throughout history, being unable to grow a beard was often viewed negatively. In the seventeenth century, the lack of a beard suggested that a man lacked inner heat. In the humoural system of the body, beard hair was actually a waste product – a sort of exhaust gas left over from the production of sperm deep in a man’s body. Heat caused it to rise upwards, solidifying as it did, to become beard hair. So, a beard was an outward demonstration of a man’s generative power, or even virility. So, if a man could not grow a beard, it was assumed that he was lacking in sexual potency, and potentially effeminate, or at least carried more female than male characteristics. The fact that there was a specific term designated to this, shows its importance in beliefs about the body.

‘Lanuge’ – One of the most important stages in a young man’s life, and one that heralded the transition from boyhood to manhood, was the first appearance of beard hair during puberty. In Cockeram’s dictionary, again, was the word ‘lanuge’, which he defined as ‘downe, or the beard when it appears to grow’. There were other words for the first appearance of beard hair. One was ‘probarbium’, in John Barrow’s 1749, Dictionarium medicum universal. The stage of initial beard growth was also given a name: in Nathaniel Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, the fluffy-faced youngster was ‘impubescent’.

‘Barbigerous’ – various appellations have been attached to the actual wearing of beards, moustaches and whiskers. My favourite of all, again from Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum was ‘barbigerous’, making beard-wearing sound a bit violent. Beard hair itself could sometimes be referred to as ‘barb’, as in Thomas Browne’s Union Dictionary in 1800, and a bearded man could be described as ‘barbed’. These all derive from the Latin term ‘barba’, from which we also supposedly (although there is some debate) get ‘barber’. On the matter of barbers, this is how William Toone described the term in his Glossary and Etymological Dictionary of Obsolete and Uncommon Words (London: Thomas Bennett, 1832), 81-2

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

Barber to shave or trim the beard. This ornament (for it was so considered when worn) was an object of great attention about three centuries ago, and was fashioned to a variety of shapes. Taylor, called the Water Poet, mentions them as cut to resemble a quickset hedge, a spade, a fork, a stiletto, a hammer &c. Much time was spent “in starching and landering” them, and such care was taken to preserve them in proper shape, that cases were put on to enclose them, which were put on at night, that they might not be disarranged by sleeping. The fashion of wearing beards declined in the reign of Charles II and was gradually discontinued. Barbers were employed to trim and adorn the beard, and so called from barba, a beard, and to barber was to shave or put the beard in order, and not to powder, as Dr Johnson suggests.

All this sounded better than John Wilkins’ rather curt dismissal of barbers in his Alphabetical Dictionary of 1668, describing them as ‘hair cutting mechanics’.

Smock-Faced – Returning to the issue of being beardless, ‘smock faced’ was a common insult term levelled at smooth-chinned men and beardless boys alike. Even after beliefs in the humours had started to decline, a lack of beard hair could raise suspicions about a man’s…manliness. In defining the term ‘beardless’, Thomas Dyche used it for “one that has no hair visible on the chin, as children, women and effeminate men”.

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

Spanopogones – In the spirit of saving the best till last, this one is perhaps the most unusual term that I’ve come across. It appeared in John Barrow’s 1749 medical dictionary, and was defined as ‘persons whose beards are thin, or whose hairs fall off from their chins’. It again points to the importance of being able to grow a beard, even if you ultimately chose to shave it off. As to how it is pronounced, I am still none the wiser!

So, with the research files bulging, and lots of stuff to share, I will endeavour to be a better boy at updating the blog. Thanks to you all for not deserting me and, as ever, for so many of your kind comments about the blog, and my work.

Uncovered: The First ever Beard and Moustache Competition?!

Last week, hordes of hirsute men descended upon Antwerp in hopes of securing a prize at the World Beard and Moustache Championships. This has become a major event, attracting thousands of entrants, and headlines all across the world. It has also spawned a whole host of smaller versions which, again, prove extremely popular. (I can speak from experience here, having been lucky enough to be a guest judge in the Devon and Cornwall beard and moustache competition a couple of years ago!) The first world championship was held in 1990.

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(Image my copyright)

But, quite by accident, whilst trawling through Victorian journals in the British Library, I’ve chanced upon an earlier example than that. In fact, quite a lot earlier. Actually… nearly 150 years ago!

In 1873, advertisements began to appear in newspapers around the country for “The First Beard and Moustache Show” to be held at North Woolwich Gardens in London on 30 July. The idea came from its proprietor – William Holland – theatre owner, impresario, and regular organiser of public entertainments for working class East Londoners. With thanks to Lee Jackson, (owner of the fab Victorian London site, and author of ‘Palaces of Pleasure’) for sharing some of his gems, amongst Holland’s other recent events had been a ‘beautiful baby’ show and even a ‘Barmaid show’, which involved being served drinks by different barmaids and voting for whichever you thought was the best!

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(A Victorian pleasure garden, c. 1850 – image from Wikimedia Commons)

The advertisements advised suitably bearded men (and the public) of the date and venue, and Holland clearly had hopes of attracting a big audience. Prize medals were promised for all winners, and the event was to be judged by a “jury of ladies”, drawn at random from the expected crowds, who were to determine the “best cultivated hirsute appendage”!

Generally, the idea seemed to be quite well received. A journalist in the Sporting Times wrote of his disappointment at not being able to attend the event, fully supporting the need for such a show, and even offering advice for the judges. It was not necessarily the biggest, longest or thickest beard or moustache that should win, he suggested, but whichever’s “colour, form and cut” was most aesthetically pleasing. But, noting the comments of a female friend who pointed out that, as a rule, ladies preferred “plenty of hair on the male subject”, he seemed resigned to the fact that the “shaggiest monster” would likely win the prize!

A hack in the East London Observer was less impressed. “The novelty of the thing will no doubt make it a profitable speculation, but what about those who go to show themselves and, still more, who are they who will go to look at them? Beards and moustaches, disgusting”.

According to one report there were around thirty entrants. Unable to attend on the day, one hairy hopeful, apparently a “Mr Charles Chaplin, resident somewhere in Essex” (but unlikely to be THAT Charles Chaplin!) even sent a “specimen of his beard” by post, which was over forty inches long. Another entrant claimed to have a moustache that dangled down sixteen inches on either side of his face…an impressive 32 inches from end to end!

Despite this promising start, however, it seems that things didn’t necessarily go so well on the day. First, it seemed that the event had not attracted the large audience that it probably merited, and reports suggested that it was quite thinly attended.

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(A late 19th-century ‘carte d’visit of an unknown gentleman – image my copyright)

But worse still, sniffy reports also appeared in the press suggesting that the show itself hadn’t exactly been a rip-roaring success. According to Reynolds’ Newspaperon the 3rdAugust, there were only six competitors; five who showed up on the night, plus the man entering by post. The winner was one “Mr Gordon, blessed with a fine, glossy, flowing beard”. But in the moustache category there was only one entrant – a moustachioed man with a wooden leg, forcing Mr Holland to stand in order to at least make a contest of it. Holland was apparently renowned for his own trademark moustache, and “Holland’s points [were] known all over London”. According to the report, “the prize was generously conceded to the gentleman short of a limb”.

It was also reported in The Era, quoting Mr Holland himself, that some of the competitors proved nervous and reluctant to submit themselves to judgement. Candidate number one took the stage “looking very foolish and trembling at the knees”. Number four had “nothing worth calling a beard”, and the facial hair of another was “scrubbiest among the scrubby”. Only Mr Gordon, the eventual winner, stood out, “proudly conscious of his hairy superiority”. It was noted that, rather than staying to enjoy the approbation of the ‘crowd’, the entrants were keen to make their exit as swiftly and expediently as possible.

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(detail from ‘A Bearded Dandy Admiring the Ladies through his Monocle – from Wellcome Images)

Neither, it seems, were the jury of 12 ladies entirely enamored of their new role, appearing reluctant to touch the entrants’ hairy appendages, and generally seeming embarrassed to be there. All in all, as reports in several newspapers attested in similar terms –  “it wasn’t much of a success”.

If all this is true, it begs the question as to why? Why in what was, after all, a golden age for the beard, did Mr Holland’s innovative event not capture the public’s imagination and become a celebrated and regular event? The answer, I think, is simply that his timing was out.

By 1873, the great Victorian ‘beard movement’ was in its third decade – a long time for any fashion. The young bucks who formed its vanguard in 1853 were, by now, hurtling headlong into middle age. Some of the arguments made in support of the beard, once so compelling, had now began to lose their potency. As I’ve discovered in the process of my project on the history of facial hair too, by the last quarter of the 19th century, younger men were beginning to return to the shorter, neater styles of facial hair and, indeed, to the shaved face.

Sadly, it is likely that Mr Holland’s groundbreaking Beard and Moustache Show was probably around 15 years too late. To be fair, it doesn’t seem to have dampened his spirits, and he continued to put on all sorts of weird and wonderful entertainments for the discerning folk of London. So, out of respect to him and his innovative ideas, let’s instead say that William Holland was ahead of his time, and that it took the rest of the world 117 years to catch up!

 

 

Unnatural Fashions: Wigs and Beards in the 18th Century.

I’m showing my age now, but watch the 1981 Adam and the Ants promo video for ‘Stand and Deliver’ and, during a few scenes showing the ‘Dandy Highwaymen’ amongst a group of outlandishly-dressed Georgians, look closely and you may notice a strange figure in the background…a man wearing a powdered period wig…and a beard. A wig and a beard. Together. On one man. It’s a look that should never be seen on any man. And, indeed, it was likely not a combination worn by any self-respecting polite Georgian gentleman. As the wig grew in popularity, the beard dramatically declined.

Initially there had been objections to the wig on religious grounds. In the seventeenth century, Puritan objections to the beard centred upon meddling with the divine form that God had created. The puritan polemicist William Prynne argued that replacing an individual’s own hair with the ‘hairie excrements of some other person’ was akin to denying the perfection of God’s work.  Here he was referring to the fact that hair was, in medical terms, regarded as a type of excrement – a waste product of the body caused by inner heat rising up and breaking out on the surface of the skin, much like soot up a chimney. But clean-shaven puritans clearly saw no irony in the fact that they had removed their own ‘hairie excrements’ in the form of the beard which God had presumably provided for them.

There were also tensions in religious tracts between notions of the wig as, on the one hand, a covering and, on the other, a form of display. The wig-wearer could simultaneously be accused of hiding their true features, and drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. Contemporary opponents to the wig also claimed that it altered gender perceptions of the body, confusing the appearance of the whole. Even despite these objections, wigs continued to go from strength to strength.

Hair, whether on the head or the face, was in fact a central component in the articulation of masculinity. The way that head hair was worn and styled was important. At some points, long hair was desirable but, at others, it was kept short and close cropped. Here again, Puritans were advocates of the short cut. The wig added an extra layer of complexity, in requiring the removal of the wearer’s own hair, and substituting it for the ‘dead’ hair of someone else.

Like head hair, fashions in beards waxed and waned throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The beard was considered a central component of manliness, one that demonstrated virility and manly vigour. The bigger the beard the better. By the last decades of the seventeenth century, though, facial hair had diminished in size to the short ‘Stiletto’ style of the Stuarts. By 1700 most men were going clean shaven.

On the surface, the virtually simultaneous decline of facial hair and rising popularity of wigs in the second half of the seventeenth century appears coincidental. Contemporary sources are frustratingly quiet on the nature of the relationship between beards and wigs. There were, for example, no fashion guides advising men to lose the beard and don the wig. One obvious conclusion is simply that there was no connection, and that fashions had simply shifted.

There were certainly similarities in terms of the prosthetic nature of both wigs and beards. Both could easily be adopted, put on and taken off at need. Both were manageable according to fashion, and both bore connections with masculinity, albeit in different ways. Why, then, did beards and wigs seem to be so incompatible?

One issue was simply the jarring aesthetic that the wig/beard combination created. Wigs and moustaches? Possibly. But wigs and beards, no. The wig was intended to contribute to a neat, elegant and harmonious whole – the goal of the polite gentleman. It was a fashion statement; one that shouted ‘status’ and rank. Later in the century there were complaints that wigs had sunk so far down the social scale that they were in danger of losing their potency as social markers. Facial hair, by contrast, had become seriouslyunpopular. In part this was because it came to symbolise roughness and earthiness, a component of the poor, country labourer, rather than the metropolitan gent. The two did not belong together.

Mixing beards and wigs also risked an odd clash between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ hair. Wigs were artificial contrivances. An individual removed their own ‘natural’ hair and replaced it with something fashioned from the frowzy hair of the poor. Conversely, as many authors had spent the previous two centuries arguing, beards were ‘natural’ – a God-given component of the male body. But men were increasingly having their beards scraped off, leaving the face clear. Perhaps part of the issue, then, lay in covering.  Head hair was removed but the head re-covered by the wig. Beard hair, by contrast, was shaved, but not replaced. In this sense, the ‘site’ of masculinity shifted from the face to the upper head, with the head covered, and the countenance open.

A further possibility, although perhaps less plausible, was the so-called ‘cult of youth’ which, amongst other things, encouraged smoothness and softness of skin as aesthetic ideals. Beards, and even stubble, could be scythed off with a newly-fashionable steel razor, giving a man soft and smooth skin. He might even slather on some of the many pastes, lotions and oils that were coming on to the market in the eighteenth century. The wig, though, could contribute to the illusion of youth, by giving an apparently luxuriant head of hair.

Whatever the true reasons, the wig and beard were uncomfortable bedfellows. There are very few formal portraits of bearded men in the eighteenth century. Those that do exist are usually paintings of older men, for whom the beard was a sign of wisdom and experience, and sometimes Biblical figures. But, we would struggle to find a painting of a bearded and bewigged gentleman! Some things, it seems, simply do not belong together.

 

What About Whiskers? The forgotten facial hair fashion of 19th-century Britain.

In 1843, an article appeared in the New Orleans ‘Picayune’ newspaper, titled ‘Whiskers. Or, a clean shave’. Dwelling on their utility as ‘ornamental appendages to the human face’, the authors sought to discuss how they contributed to the ‘”masculineness” of manhood’. They even – jokingly – referred to an, as yet undeveloped branch of natural sciences; ‘Whiskerology’.

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Victorian carte d’visit depicting unknown man with HUGE whiskers – recently used in our ‘Age of the Beard’ exhibition

Taking a long view of facial hair fashions since the 17th century, it’s broadly true that beards and moustaches began to decline after around 1680, and disappeared completely through the eighteenth century, until, first the moustache, and then the beard returned with full vigour in the middle of the nineteenth century. So, from bearded, to beardless and back again in around 200 years.

But that’s actually not quite the case. Around the turn of the nineteeth century, male facial hair made what might be regarded as an initial skirmish, before the full frontal facial assault of the 1850s. It was not long-lived; by no means was there a ‘whisker movement’. But, for the first decade of the 19th century, whiskers were definitely a ‘thing’.

There is sometimes confusion about what whiskers actually are, and how they differ from beards. Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably. Even in contemporary articles whiskers could be used as a catch-all for beards or for beard hairs. But technically they refer to different things. Whilst beards are of the cheeks and chin, whiskers are specific to the sides of the face, and jawline. Also, whilst beards are generally a single entity, whiskers, like moustaches, come as a pair.

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(Image from Wikipedia: Edward Askew Southern as ‘Lord Dundreary’)

The fashion for whiskers seems to have begun quite abruptly around 1800. There were sneering reports, for example, of a new trend amongst young men about town, for cultivating their side -whiskers, and showing them off in public. To a polite society still embracing ideals of neatness and smooth, manly elegance, this was little less than scandalous. The desirability of whiskers, however, was such that the wigmaker Ross of Bishopsgate took to the Times to advertise his new contrivance of a wig with whiskers attached through ‘such remarkable adhesion as cannot be discovered from Nature itself’. This ‘new invented whisker’ could be combed to suit any fashion, but came at the high price of three pounds and three shillings – a full pound dearer than his standard, un-whiskered perukes

By 1808, so popular had whiskers become, that even women were apparently trying to get in on the act. Several fashion journals (such as the popular ‘Le Belle Epoque’) reported a coming trend for ladies to train their lovelocks down the side of their faces ‘in imitation of whiskers’. For some this was a step too far. ‘I am at a loss to conceive what a gentleman will be pleased with in a lady’s whiskers’. Nonetheless, this was clearly a popular fashion. Whether it was ‘The Countess Dowager of B—s whiskers’ which were apparently ‘already in great forwardness’, or the ‘belles of Cockermouth’, a set of whiskers was seriously a la mode. At one stage it was suggested that an enterprising perfumer was even selling preparations ‘To Ladies of Fashion ‘who have tried various preparations for changing the hair, whiskers and eyebrows, without success’, but this proved to be an error of phrasing, as the Satirist magazine were happy to poke fun at!

princes-russia-oil

There were certainly products aimed specifically at cultivating whiskers though. By 1808, ‘Prince’s Russia Oil’ and ‘Macassar Oil’ were in demand, and advertisers claimed that they were specifically designed to ‘promote whiskers’ and prevent damage or discolouration caused by frequent wetting.

Some of the arguments made for whiskers during this period were also in fact remarkably similar to those later made for beards. Echoing later claims for the innate masculinity of beards, whiskers were said to be ‘grave and manly’. Whiskers had been venerated by ‘the ancients’, lending them an air of authority and wisdom. It was, as one commentator noted, ‘silly to oppose so ancient a custom in an age so attached to antiquity’. Moreover, the ‘cruelty of shaving’ was matched by the dangers of the shaking hands of ‘unskilled operators’ (barbers). Most of all, it was argued, whiskers were beautiful, especially when set against the ‘unfringed faces of the present day’.

Gentleman with whiskers

(Image from Pinterest – owner of original copyright unknown)

At the same time whiskers were beginning to be held up as a desirable characteristic of the male face. A man obtaining goods under false pretences was described in 1811 as of ‘gentlemanly appearance’, and of ‘handsome countenance, who wears black whiskers’. A report of the suicide of Royal Footman Andrew Tranter in 1810 noted his reputation for ‘neatness and cleanliness’ in his dress and appearance, and that he ‘wore very large whiskers and was considered a handsome young man’. Such seemingly innocuous reports in fact hides an important transition; after more than a century, facial hair was again aesthetically and socially pleasing but, more than this, cleanly.

In 1813, ‘The Spirit of Public Journals’ reported the ‘Growing custom of encouraging whiskers’ and the barbed criticisms levelled at them by critics. It was apparently even suggested that an Act of Parliament should be made to curtail the fashion. Even then, the subject of male facial hair was contentious! Fortunately, the author argued, the ‘Whiskerandos’ outnumbered their tormentors and merely increased in proportion to the opposition levelled against them.

Despite the ‘Spirit’s enthusiasm, however, it seems that the fashion for side-whiskers had abated by the end of the 1810s. It’s not clear why it declined; perhaps Victorian society was not quite ready for the hirsute revolution of the mid century. But it is interesting to consider whiskers, not only as a sort of trial run for what came later, but also as an often-forgotten element in men’s facial hair fashions. It wasn’t all beards and moustaches.

Chin Curtain beard

(Image from Pinterest – owner of original copyright unknown)

As the current beard style continues to change, at the moment with beards seemingly getting smaller and more closely trimmed, will we see the return of such fantastic styles as the ‘Dundreary’ whiskers or (please no!) the ‘chin curtain’? Perhaps the Whiskerandos will rise again. If they do, you can be sure that this particular ‘Whiskerologist’ will be there to document it.