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’.

HoveSteelMrForkbeard large
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.

Movember Special: Hiding Behind the Beard

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

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

flowery-hipster

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

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

How d'ye like me?

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

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

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

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

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

THE APPLICATION OF A CERTAIN KIND OF GOAT’S HAIR IN IMITATION OF HUMAN HAIR TO THE MANUFACTURE OF HEAD DRESSES, MOUSTACHES, AND ALL KINDS OF FALSE HAIR, AND THE PROCESSES OF PREPARING THE SAME

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

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

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

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

Beard generator

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

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

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

Beards…or no Beards?

StateLibQld_2_174867_Sketch_entitled,_The_New_Queensland_Ministry.jpg

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s summer 2016, and beards are still pulling headlines in the news. A report on last week’s Financial Times website suggested that men are spending 20% more year on year, on niche products. One observer notes that the market for men’s grooming products is likely to top £1bn by 2018. The Guardian claim to be able to read personality through different beard styles, while other sites range from calling the end of the Hipster beard, to a report that one man wants to see the return of the beard tax.

There have been some signs of slowdown in recent months; a friend (and owner of a traditional barber shop) tells me that the numbers of men coming in for beard grooming has begun to fall, but also that the style has began to change towards shorter beards. Men who have beards are not removing them altogether, but seemingly cutting them back.

Shaving

(Image – Wikimedia Commons)

All of this has me thinking back to periods of beard ‘trend’ in history, and questions about actually how many men participate. Over the past few years we have seen an apparently huge rise in the popularity of beards. When a new trend starts it becomes literally remarkable. This certainly happened (and to some extent is still happening) with beards. Media, advertising, imagery all serves to build up a sense of momentum, beards became more noticeable on the high street and they begin to become associated with identity and lifestyle. But at some stage a tipping point is reached. This is essentially the idea behind so-called ‘peak beard’ – the point at which they become so popular that they lose their status as an alternative to what has gone before, and become…well…normal.

But even at their height this time around (probably 2014/5), how many men actually had beards? It’s impossible to quantify, but I’d be surprised if it went much about 25/30%. A study of 6500 European men in 2015 suggested that 52% had some form of facial hair, but such a small sample can hardly be considered bulletproof. (It was in the Daily Mail too by the way!)

I was talking recently to Christopher Oldstone-Moore (author of the recent book ‘Of Beards and Men’) and he argues that, even in times when beards are extremely popular, many (most?) men actually still don’t have them. I’ve been looking recently at Victorian photographic portraits of men across different levels of society, and different regions of the country. The period between 1850 and 1890 was the height of the ‘beard movement’ in Britain; a wide range of contemporary literature goes into great detail about the social, cultural and economic reasons why men should grow beards. As I’ve explored in other posts, these range from arguments that the beard filters out germs, protects the throat, chest and teeth, stops sunburn and even saves the economy millions by restoring the working hours lost in shaving!

Hat

(Image https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/481533385133628358/)

But I’ve actually been struck by the amount of clean-shaven portraits that I’ve seen. For all the whiskers, moustaches, chin beards, Dundreary whiskers and all the rest, many men clearly did still prefer to shave. We can’t rule out the possibility that some were shaved specifically for their portrait, but this can’t account for all cases. So were these men freakish? Did their clean-shaven faces make them prominent when all other men were apparently sporting large patriarch beards?

There is certainly evidence to suggest that not all men viewed beards positively. In 1851, for example, just as the beard fashion was beginning to gather pace, a correspondent to the CS Leader and Saturday Analyst, complained at the ill treatment meted out to him by passers by, who took his beard as a sign of ‘foreignness’. As he walked through the streets he was hissed and laughed at, and particularly objected to someone shouting ‘French Dog!’ when, as he pointed out, he was not French and had served his country in the British army for many years. Neither were the jibes from children; his assailants included ‘well dressed and grown-up people, especially by ladies, and shopkeepers’ clerks’.

Those who still preferred the razor were well served by products available for them; in a previous post I mentioned shaving creams like the popular Rowland’s Kalydor, which were marketed throughout the nineteenth century. So were various kinds of razors. In fact, it could be argued that some of the biggest advances in razor technology occurred when beards were at their most popular. Of course some shaving was still necessary for certain styles, especially chin beards and whiskers, but it also suggests a ready market for the clean shave.

The Georgian period is renowned as a beardless age – lasting from the slow decline of beards and moustaches around the 1680s, to the start of the ‘beard movement’ in 1850. But was this actually the case? In Georgian Britain the majority of portraits we have are of the upper classes and elites; can we be sure that rural labourers did not hold on to their beards? In fact, part of the reaction against beards was that they made polite gentlemen resemble rustics. This suggests that the rustic look could be bearded. This point is made, for example, in a 1771 portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘A Bearded Man’. The purpose of the painting is unclear, but it is unusual in depicting a beard at a time when being clean-shaven was the norm. According to the Tate Gallery, the sitter was a beggar named George White, perhaps explaining his unkempt appearance.

A Man's Head c.1771-3 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792
A Man’s Head c.1771-3 Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00106

 

Another eighteenth-century portrait, by Balthasar Denner, also depicts a bearded man in the eighteenth century. This time the stubbly face represents the ageing man – a common artistic allusion but, again, suggests that clean-shaven may not have been the ubiquitous state it might at first appear from the sources.

Balthasar_Denner-_Portrait_of_an_Old_Man_-_Eremitage.jpg

(Balthasar Denner, ‘Head of an Old Man’: Image from Wikimedia Commons)

As I delve deeper into the history of facial hair it becomes ever more clear that things are rarely as clear cut (sorry!) as they appear. Periods in history that we associate with certain facial hair styles do not necessarily speak for all men. Just as today, when by no means all men are sporting luxuriant Hipster beards, so not all Tudor men had ‘Stilletto’ beards, not all Victorians had ‘Cathedral’ beards, and not all Georgians were clean shaven. Instead, decisions to wear (or not wear) facial hair are bound up in a complex web of meanings and influences. I’m looking forward to the next stage in the development of beards!

Beards, Masculinity and History.

The continuing popularity of beards over the past two years or so has surprised many. A mere few months after beards first became apparent, several media articles suggested that ‘peak beard’ had already been reached, and that the decline of facial hair was imminent. That was Summer 2012 and, despite repeated claims of its impending demise (some wrongly attributed to me!), the beard is still apparent as we near 2016. Several interesting things have accompanied this ‘trend’. First, it is the most sustained period of facial for around thirty years. Second, the style – the so-called ‘Hipster’ or ‘Shoreditch’ beard – may well prove to be the defining facial hair style of this generation, in a way, say, that ‘designer stubble’ recalls the rampant consumerism of Thatcher’s 80s. Furthermore, where male grooming products for men have catered for removing facial hair, a new market has emerged for beard care, including oils, moustache waxes and even beard moisturisers.

Aside from the issue of ‘how long will it last’, ‘what do beards mean’ is a common question. Indeed, it is a question that has repeatedly been asked through the centuries. The relationship between men and their facial hair is complex, but is usually closely bound up with prevailing ‘ideals’ of masculinity. At times in history the beard has represented a basic component of masculinity and manliness. Will Fisher’s work has shown how facial hair in the Renaissance formed part of medical understandings of gendered bodies, and the function of the four ‘humours’. Viewed as a waste product (in fact a type of excrement) it was seen as resulting from heat in the ‘reins’ – the area including the genitals. A thick beard thus spoke of virility and sexual potency, since it indicated the fires burning below. Not only was the beard held up as an ensign of manhood, it was a highly visible symbol of his ‘natural’ strength and authority.

Moroni

“Moroni Don Gabriel de la Cueva” by Giovanni Battista Moroni (circa 1525–1578) – http://www.all-art.org/baroque/portrait1.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Remarkably similar claims were made for beards in mid-Victorian Britain, when the beard made a spectacular return to favour as the ‘natural’ symbol of a man. Everyone from writers such as Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, to physicians like Mercer Adams, were enthusiastically extolling the virtues of this “badge of manly strength and beauty”. More than this, as Adams argued, a moustache was “nature’s respirator while the hair covering the jaws and throat is intended to afford warmth and protection to the delicate structures in the vicinity, especially the fauces and the larynx”. (A. Mercer Adams, ‘Is Shaving Favourable to Health?: Edinburgh Medical Journal, Dec 1861). Here again, facial hair was closely bound up with themes of masculinity, health, male appearance and conduct.

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“Edward Bates – Brady-Handy” by Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.01083. CALL NUMBER: LC-BH82- 4097 <P&P>[P&P]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Bates_-_Brady-Handy.jpg#/media/File:Edward_Bates_-_Brady-Handy.jpg

The eighteenth century, however, represents something of an anomaly in the relationship between man and his beard. While much of the sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries saw men wear at least some sort of facial hair, the eighteenth century has been described as the first truly beardless age in history. The exact reasons for this are unclear but, by 1750 beards, moustaches and whiskers were seriously démodé and, by 1800, the author William Nicholson was able to assert that “the caprice of fashion […] has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards”.

In many important ways, this flight from the beard seems to run counter to what should have represented the masculine ideal. First, humoural understandings of the beard still prevailed. As such it was, at least technically, still an important component of the man. To shave it off, then, was to remove this important ‘signal’ of masculinity. Secondly, the eighteenth century was a period obsessed with the damaging effects of effeminacy in British men, not least in their ability to fight. Importantly this was not effeminacy, with its modern connotations of homosexuality, but literally becoming more feminine. Anxieties surrounded the feminising effects of Frenchified fashions upon young British men. The extreme form of new fashions was the ‘Macaroni’ – the foppish, bewigged and affected dandy. Even wigs were a source of tension in terms of their effect on male appearance. And yet, shaving the face actually rendered it more smooth and feminine.

Philip_Dawe,_The_Macaroni._A_Real_Character_at_the_Late_Masquerade_(1773)_-_02

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the apparent conflict caused by concepts of the ‘natural’. Nature underpinned the enlightenment, and much time and effort was expended in trying to uncover its meanings, and apply this to new ideals. The body was certainly part of this. Straightness in posture and deportment was considered components of the ‘natural body’. The artist Joshua Reynolds lauded the symmetry of perfect nature, suggesting the ‘Serpentine line’ of beauty, and suggesting that nature was the true model. The face was the most public of bodily surfaces, and smoothness, neatness and elegance were prized. But all of this glossed over the fact that the beard was in fact the natural state; shaving was inherently unnatural. Logically, if the beard was natural, why then get rid of it?

There are several potential reasons for the decline of the eighteenth-century beard, each of which highlights the close relationship between facial hair and contemporary ideals of masculinity. Social status certainly played a part. Whilst neatness and elegance were badges of the refined gentleman, facial hair marked out the uncouth rustic, the hermit, or the elderly derelict. This also raises the important issue of control. Just as enlightened masculinity championed rationality and manners, it also emphasised self-control as a key male feature. According to conduct literature of the time, whilst delicate ladies might blush and swoon, a man should remain in control of his senses and be measured in his emotions. The new vogue for shaving, spurred on by newly invented, sharper razors, fits this well, in terms of mastery and control over one’s own body.

Changing aesthetic ideals also fed into the freshly shorn face. The veneration of ancient sculpture, identified by George Mosse as an important element in the construction of manliness, yielded admiration at the smoothness and tactility of the stone, as well as the subjects. The obvious paradox was that many statues of Greek and Roman heroes were bearded, but this did not seem to have an effect. Coupled with this was the so called ‘cult of youth’. To affect a delicate, fey appearance was highly sought after in the later eighteenth century; shaving the face immediately rendered it more youthful.

400px-Statue_of_a_youth,_semi-nude,_in_heroic_pose_(so-called_Britannicus)_-_Mostra_di_Nerone_-_Palatin_hill

(Image ‘Statue of a youth in heroic repose – Mostra di Nerone, – from Wikimedia Commons)

More broadly, however, the shaven face almost literally reflected enlightened ideals of openness and enquiry. Shaving opened up the countenance to the world, in turn symbolising a mind open to new possibilities. In fact it was even acknowledged that beards were inherently masculine. What mattered, though, was the ability to be able to grow one, rather than the need to actually display it.

Through history, therefore, beards have been a central issue in the construction of masculinity and sexuality, but there is no simple, linear path to how they have been construed. At some points in time the beard has been the very symbol of sexual potency, authority and power. At others, however, the clean-shaven face has prevailed. In more recent times, indeed, shaving has become part of the grooming routines of men, and still strongly linked to health and hygiene.

One of the downsides of researching a topic like facial hair is that it carries perceptions of quirkiness. How, after all, can something as basic and mundane as the beard tell us anything about history? In fact, though, beards, moustaches, whiskers and beardlessness tell us a very great deal about the ways that masculinity, gender and sexuality have all shifted through time.

Launching the ‘Beards Project’!

This month sees the beginning of my three-year project ‘Do Beards Matter? Facial Hair, Health and Hygiene in Britain, c. 1700-1918’. Around September 2014 I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship from the Wellcome Trust, and was hugely lucky and privileged to have been granted the award in January of this year. It’s been a long wait to get to this point, but it’s finally here, and the next few years will see me delving into the archives to see what delights lay in store. But why should facial hair interest us? Surely something so prosaic as a beard can’t tell us much about the grand sweep of history? I thought it might be an idea to say a bit about why it is important and, in fact, takes us to the heart of a number of key issues in the history of the body, health and hygiene and masculinity.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

The project starts in 1700, a period when the bodily humours still dominated, and older ideas about the body prevailed. As it moves through the Georgian period, it charts a period of almost complete ‘beardlessnes’, which was to be the norm until at least the 1820s. Covering the Victorian ‘beard and moustache movement’ of the mid nineteenth century it culminates at the end of the First World War – a time when moustaches remained popular, while the military motivations for wearing them had declined.

Over time, changing views of masculinity, self-fashioning, the body, gender, sexuality and culture have all strongly influenced men’s decisions to wear, or not wear, facial hair. For Tudor men, beards were a symbol of sexual maturity and prowess. Throughout the early modern period, debates also raged about the place of facial hair within the medical framework of the humours. The eighteenth century, by contrast, saw beards as unrefined and uncouth; clean-shaven faces reflected enlightened values of neatness and elegance, and razors were linked to new technologies. Victorians conceived of facial hair in terms of Darwinian ideas of the natural primacy of men, and new models of hirsute manliness. The early twentieth-century moustache closely followed military styles; over the past 60 years the duration of beard fashions has shortened, influenced by everything from celebrity culture and the Internet to shaving technologies and marketing. At all points the decision to wear facial hair, or not, and its managements and style, involved not only personal decisions, but social, cultural and medical influences, as well as a range of practitioners. Also, from light beards to stubble, and whiskers and moustaches, there are questions about degrees of ‘beardedness’ and the significance of the beard as a binary to the shaven face.

Copyright - Wellcome Images
Copyright – Wellcome Images

But what was behind these changes? Despite recent media and popular interest in the cultural significance of beards (on which point a further blog post is to follow!), historians haven’t really taken up the baton. Works by Will Fisher, Christopher Oldstone-Moore and Susan Walton have explored the cultural and sexual significance of beards in the Renaissance and Victorians periods respectively, while my own article on eighteenth-century shaving charted its relationship with masculinity and emergent steel technology. So far the focus has been on broad changes in attitudes towards beards, elite fashions and concepts of masculinity at given points in history, rather than across time.

This project will be framed around a number of key research questions:

To what extent are beards a symbol of masculinity and what key attributes of masculinity do they represent?
• To what extent did the ‘barbering trades influence beard styles and the management of facial hair? How far did they shape trends that were then replicated in personal shaving rituals? How far did the ‘barbering’ trades cater to wider male health requirements before, during and after the high point of the ‘barber surgeon’ as a medical figure in the long eighteenth century?
• To what extent were beard trends led by the elite and by metropolitan fashion? How far and how quickly did these spread elsewhere? Did the distinct regions of the British Isles have distinct cultures of facial hair? How far did provincial trends influence metropolitan trends through migration?
• What impact did changing shaving technologies have on beard fashions/trends?

Firstly, I want to chart the changing nature of facial hair in men’s views of their bodies and masculinity over a longer period than hitherto attempted. The aim is to recover the series of cultural, scientific and intellectual changes that have affected views of facial hair, and to raise questions about the extent to which beards are indeed a symbol of masculinity, and indicate changing conceptualisations of masculinity.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Secondly, the role of medical practitioners, and in particular barbers, in shaping both conceptions of, and the management of, facial hair has yet to be fully elucidated. How far, for example, were barbers responsible for shaving and how did the relationship alter over time? This period witnessed both the ascendancy and decline of the barbering profession, but the often-close link between barbering and medicine has yet to be fully explored. Margaret Pelling has demonstrated a close correlation between the two in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but we know far less about how that relationship changed over the course of the 18th century as the role of the barber surgeon disappeared, or of the health and medical functions performed by barbers, say, in the nineteenth century.

Alun loses his beard!
Alun loses his beard!

Thirdly, (and as you might expect from a Welsh/regional historian!) this project moves away from a London-centred and elite-focussed study, instead addressing different regions of the British Isles, and also the question of ‘beardedness’ at different social levels. What, for example, was barbering provision like across both time and location in Britain?

A final key question for me, one close to my heart after recently finishing my book on eighteenth-century technologies of the body, is that of the impact and nature of technologies of shaving upon facial hair over time. New technologies, from cast steel to safety razors and scissors, all had an impact upon men’s ability to fashion their own appearance, but the nature of the relationship between the propensity and ability to self-shave requires exploration. How far were new technologies directly responsible for changes in facial-hair styles?

Image from http://www.taylors1000.com/index.htm, used with permission.
Image from http://www.taylors1000.com/index.htm, used with permission.

And so, after all this, it’s time to deliver, and to do that will require a large and diverse body of source material. Amongst the things I’ll be looking at will be popular and religious texts relating to beards, self-help books such as Jean-Jacques Perret’s 1770 book Pogonotomia, instructing men how to shave, all of which serve to reveal the cultural context of beards. Medical texts from the 17th to the 19th centuries show everything from conceptions of facial hair to preparations to stimulate beard growth. A variety of personal sources, including letters and diaries from Parson Woodforde to the oral testimony of soldiers in First World War trenches are there to be mined for their gems. Portrait collections show the changing depictions of beards over time, while the records and advertisements of razor manufacturers and sellers offer a glimpse of the marketing of shaving technologies. A huge new database of medical practitioners in early-modern Britain will form the basis for discussion of barbers, along with references to the figure of the barber in popular culture, from literature to satires.

And so, let’s get started! I’ll be tweeting regular updates from the archives using #beardsproject, and a project website will hopefully be in place soon.

Unhealthy Beards? Denouncing Facial Hair in History

Once again in the past week beards have made the headlines…and for all the wrong reasons. The Independent carried a story titled ‘Do beards really contain as much faeces as a toilet?’. For the Daily Mail the question was ‘how filthy is your beard? ‘Yes’, cried the Huffington Post, ‘our beard might be as dirty as a toilet seat’!

 CAPTION: Portrait of red haired man with beard, hipster, male

CAPTION: Portrait of red haired man with beard, hipster, male

Beard-2

The source of the controversy was a claim apparently made on a Mexican website, that beards can actually harbour more germs than the average toilet. Microbiologist John Golobic was quoted as saying that the ‘degree of uncleanliness’ was such that if the same levels were found in a supply of drinking water it would be turned off. Hipsters, Santa Claus, and other beard wearers, he suggested, should wash their hands frequently. As quickly as the beard was being accused, a rush of pogonophiles emerged to defend it. Many pointed out that the same germs inhabit the skin on the face, and pose no risk to health.

But this latest attack on beards is seemingly part of an emerging trend. Over the past few weeks several articles have appeared to encourage the move back to a clean-shaven look. Back at the start of April, CBS posed the question ‘Are Beards Bad for You’, quoting a New York physician as saying that they harboured bacteria, and advising men to wash their beards regularly. Even in last Wednesday’s Metro, for example, is a (albeit light-hearted) list of ’11 Reasons Beards are Wrong’. These range from the danger of confusing babies to making the wearer look older (or, perish the thought, resemble a Hipster) even to deceiving people and being unhygienic.

Beard

How long this current beard trend will last is a burning issue for journalists. This time last year came a slew of articles all confidently asserting that ‘peak beard’ had been reached; the same claim was being made in the summer of 2013, when the demise of facial topiary was first mooted. So far the beard has proved stubbornly resistant to attack. Indeed, if anything, the anti-pogonotomy trend has continued to grow. There is little evidence of men beginning to shave off their beards. In fact there has been a noticeable rise in products for beard care in the advertisements sections of men’s publications like GQ. It seems that, for the first time in the last few decades, the beard may become more than a passing fad of fashion.

It is interesting to note, though, that, just as there have always been beard trends, so have there always been detractors. There have always been those for whom facial hair is anathema. Often, when beards have apparently been most popular, some have sought to bring about their demise. In fact, peering back through history the parallels with the recent attacks on facial hirsuteness are often striking.

Shakespeare, for example, although a poster boy for the pointy goatee, allowed his characters to vent their spleen upon the hairy face. The character Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing exclaims ‘Lord! I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face: I had rather lie in the woollen’!

Beatrice and Benedick

In the eighteenth century facial hair fell spectacularly from favour. ‘The caprices of fashion’ wrote William Nicholson in 1804, ‘have deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards’. The face of the Georgian Beau Monde was clean-shaven, smooth and elegant, reflecting new ideals about politeness and appearance. To be stubbly was considered vulgar. The Whig politician Charles James Fox was lampooned in satires for having a heavy growth of stubble; in fairness this was a man whose own father had described him as resembling a monkey when he was a baby! How would our perceptions of Cameron, Clegg, Miliband et al be affected if they had appeared on televised debates sporting full Hipster beards? It’s not an attractive thought I confess.

The tax levied on beards by the Russian monarch Peter the Great in the eighteenth century is often cited. Peter was keen to modernise his nation and saw the beard as a symbol of earthy roughness – the exact opposite to the image he wanted to portray of a modern, European nation. This seemingly was not the last tax on facial hair though. In 1907, a report claimed that a member of the New Jersey state legislature had introduced a bill for a graded tax on facial hair. The unnamed politician claimed not only that men with beards had something to hide, but had ‘base and ulterior motives’ for growing them. It was bearded men, he claimed, who had recently carried out a series of notorious murders. What further proof was needed?

Image copyright to Lewis Walpole Library Digital Images
Image copyright to Lewis Walpole Library Digital Images

Perhaps more striking was the graded scale of the tax. For an ‘ordinary beard’ the tax was levied at $1 per year. This was fairly straightforward. But, from then on, things got a bit strange. For those men whose whiskers exceeded six inches long the charge was $2…per inch. A bald man with whiskers was punished to the tune of $5, while goatee beards were clearly high on the undesirable list, coming in at a hefty $10 levy. The final (and rather inexplicable) stipulation was that, if any man sported a ‘red beard’ (i.e. ginger), an extra 20% was chargeable. What happened to the bill (and indeed whether it was ever meant to be a serious piece of legislation) is unclear.

Some feared that the trend for facial hair might lead to the weakening of British moral fibre! In 1853 a barber calling himself ‘Sibthorp Suds’ complained that the “movement for German beards and Cossack Moustachios” would lead to nothing less than a “farewell to the British Constitution”. If this continued, he argued, he and others like him should be entitled to “‘demnification”!

Health and hygiene issues surrounding beards have also long been a bone of contention. In the 1660s the English churchman and historian Thomas Fuller was referring in print to the beard as “that ornamental excrement under the chin”. Sound familiar? Even as the Victorians were in the grip of a ‘beard movement’ in the mid nineteenth century, a raft of claims were being made about how healthy the beard was, as well as being the ultimate symbol of male authority. ‘The Beard that has never been cut is beautiful’ opined one author in ‘The Crayon’ periodical. Not only that, the beard protected men from infections of the nose and throat by trapping bacteria before they could enter the mouth.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

But others were swift to cry down the beard. If facial hair could filter germs, might it not also act as a magnet, which merely collected them around the face, where they could do most damage? Keeping the beard clean was certainly a consideration. In Cardiff in 1870 a barber prosecuted for shaving on a Sunday (against the law!), argued that he was doing a service since a man attending church with a dirty beard was a blackguard.

All of this raises questions about why some people apparently dislike beards so much. They clearly have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Cleanliness – or otherwise – is clearly one issue. Another is that of the element of hiding, or disguise. Some simply dislike the aesthetics of the beard. It will be interesting to see whether, by 2016, the decline of the beard will have begun. Whenever (indeed if!) this occurs, it will simply be the passing of another episode in the chequered love affair between man and his facial hair.