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/