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

How Much?! Barbers & the Price of Shaving.

One of the central themes of my new book is how the practice of shaving has changed over time and, more importantly, who has been responsible for it. From the second half of the eighteenth century, individual men began to take more responsibility for shaving themselves, helped on by the availability of newer, sharper steel razors. Being able to shave yourself or (if you were wealthy enough) having a servant to do it for you, was a mark of status. 

But throughout the early modern period, and indeed through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, it was still the barber who was the main provider of shaving for the vast majority of men. A couple of things that I have long wondered about as I worked on my project was how much a visit to the barber cost in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and how frequently men went for a shave.  

The second part of the question is easier to answer than the first. Passing references in diaries do sometimes mention when men visited a barber although, because it was a routine occurrence, they didn’t usually give much detail…unless, of course, something went wrong! Samuel Pepys, for example, often noted in his diary when he was trimmed or shaved by his barber, Jervis. But establishing how much individual men paid, and for what, is more difficult since this wasn’t generally noted. Since barbers were very often small businesses too, they seldom left details of their charges in the historical record, especially in this period. 

One type of source – household accounts – does provide useful clues not only about how much (admittedly middling and elite) men paid for a shave, but how often they went to their barber. Even here, though, matters are complicated by the terminology used surrounding the practices of the barber. Often, men referred to being ‘trimmed’ by the barber. This could refer to shaving, but it could also refer to a haircut. Equally, the word ‘shaved’ is problematic, because it might refer to shaving the face or the head. Even a generic entry such as ‘paid the barber’ masks what was actually done. 

Also problematic is the habit of paying barbers on account, rather than in cash on the day. Some men simply paid a blanket sum either quarterly or sometimes annually. In 1717, for example, Thomas Milward, a Stourbridge attorney paid ‘Mr Hopkins the barber [for] 1 yrs shaving and powdring me’, but the number or frequency of visits covered by this sum is unknown, as is whether ‘shaving’ referred to the head, face, or both. But, even despite these limitations, it is still possible to make some educated guesses!

One thing that is clear is how important a figure was the barber to early modern men. Barbers took responsibility for a wide range of bodily tasks, from shaving and haircutting to digging out earwax, scraping tongues, lancing boils and any number of other minor running repairs. Barber’s shops were hugely important spaces for men to gather, gossip, eat and drink, and also sometimes to play music. Some barbershops even had their own instruments for customers to use whilst they waited. So it is firstly important to note that visiting the barber’s shop might not necessarily always been to have something ‘done’, but instead just to hang out with other male friends. 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Having gone through lots of entries across many different sets of accounts though, some patterns do begin to emerge. Most common, it seems, at least for wealthier men, was to visit a barber either once or twice a week to be shaved. Given the preference for the clean-shaven face from the late seventeenth century, this likely meant having the stubble scythed off, but might also include the head, to accommodate a fashionable wig. In 17th-Century Westminster, the barber John Phillips noted that he shaved John Powell up to three times a week…sometimes washing his feet and cutting his corns into the bargain. 

For men lower down the social scale, however, a single weekly shave (referred to as a ‘hebdomadal shave’!) was more likely. In these cases, we can also pinpoint the day, which was almost always a Saturday, due to the need to This was because of the social importance of appearing decent in church on Sunday mornings.

Adding together the evidence from lots of different accounts also starts to give a picture of how much men paid for the services of the barber. Costs could vary according to where you lived, your social status, and where the shave took place. A mark of wealth was having a barber attend you at your own home, rather than sit amongst the proles in a grubby shop. This possibly carried a higher charge because of the inconvenience and extra cost to the barber, although it also meant that some barbers (known as ‘flying barbers’) could dispense with running a shop altogether.

 

In shops, costs also varied widely, from a penny to as much as a shilling, and even sometimes more. Some accounts note instances where haircutting was included with shaving, incurring a higher cost, which allows some direct comparison. Overall, the most common charge occurring across many different accounts for shaving was sixpence each time. When men paid quarterly for barbering services, they usually paid between three and seven shillings, again depending on circumstances. 

This last point also highlights the issue of status. A common feature of barbers was the tailoring of prices according to the means of their customer. Barbers serving poorer punters charged less, by necessity. But, ministering to the podgy faces of elites offered the chance for greater fees. The issue of charges also lets us address the long-held assumption that barbers were low status practitioners. Even if a barber charged only sixpence for a shave, and carried out 20 shaves a day for 300 days a year, it was entirely possible, depending on profit margins, to make around £75 per year, representing a solid, middling income.

So perhaps we need to rethink the whole issue of barbers and status. For a long time they were regarded (and often depicted) unfairly as low-rank chatterers, who scraped the faces of the poor for a few pennies. In fact, barbers were – and in fact still are – key practitioners for men, not only in terms of fashioning heads and faces but, in providing important social spaces for men.

Finding Your Beard Style in the 19th Century

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

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

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

Funny Folks, 28 June 1879, p. 206

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Banning the Beard.

Last month it was reported that an officer in the Belfast Police was taking the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to an industrial tribunal over a matter of personal appearance. More specifically, the tribunal will consider the legality of a rule stipulating that officers cannot wear beards or moustaches.

The PSNI argue that the rule is based on practical concerns for the safety of its members. In some circumstances, officers may need to wear respiratory protective equipment to avoid them accidentally inhaling dangerous substances. As has been argued in cases of the banning of facial hair in the modern military, facial hair can prevent masks, inhalators and respirators from functioning properly, by acting as a barrier to a close fit. It’s not clear yet what the outcome of the case will be.

But this is certainly not the first time that Irish police officers have come out in support of the beard. In the mid nineteenth century, a group were also actively petitioning against a ban and, remarkably, their grounds for complaint were also based on health. On that occasion, however, rather than beards potentially damaging health, they were in fact seen as protecting officers against dust and disease.

Liverpool Police

(Image from http://liverpoolcitypolice.co.uk/photo-galleries/4551684190)

In February 1854, a small article appeared in the Leader newspaper, reporting an appeal by members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police to the commissioners. More than 400 officers signed this statement:

“We, the undersigned, believing that almost all, if not all, diseases of the respiratory organs are in great part, if not altogether, caused by the practice which obtains of shaving off the beard; that the discontinuance of the practice would greatly conduce to their comfort, exposed as they are to the clemency of the weather, as well as save a great deal of trouble and sometimes considerable difficulty; that Nature having supplied man with such an adornment manifestly never intended that he should disfigure himself by the use of a razor, respectfully and earnestly request the Commissioners of Police to permit them entirely to discard it, and henceforth to wear their beards’.

7d747d80794ef06d5ff81a1d12a497cd--old-photos-vintage-photos

(Image copyright Tyne and Wear Archives)

The arguments made in the statement neatly encapsulate virtually all of the supposed benefits ascribed to the wearing of beards, just as they began to reach the height of their popularity during the Victorian ‘beard movement’. First was an emphasis upon the dangers of shaving. To scrape off facial hair was, it was argued, was a dangerous, if not outright foolhardy act. Shaving was argued to weaken a man’s body, ridding it of vital spirits and strength. Not only this, cuts caused by shaving could act as ‘little doors’, into which infection could enter, and demise swiftly follow. Hard medical evidence was brought to bear, citing scientific studies of groups of men who had apparently shaved off their beards as an experiment, and swiftly fallen prey to a whole range of ‘thoracic and pectoral woes’.

One of the key arguments made by a wide variety of medical and lay commentators alike, was that men had been endowed with a beard by God and Nature. It had a specific purpose,  to protect men from the vicissitudes of weather, climate and environment. Victorian men were told that beards were nature’s filter against all manner of dust, disease and germs. A thick crop of facial hair would, they were assured, protect the face, teeth, neck and throat from extremes of temperature. In summer, the beard was said to keep the face cool, by wicking away the sweat; in winter, it protected from the numbing cold and biting wind.  As if all this wasn’t enough, the beard was set up as the most manly of all attributes; the ‘hairy honours of the chin’, as one writer colourfully put it. To wear a beard was to reflect physicality and rugged manliness.

With all this going on amongst their civilian counterparts, small wonder then that the Dublin police officers sought permission to start cultivating their own manly tufts. One issue was that of the health protection afforded by beards. Out in all weathers, and at all hours of the day and night, surely the beard was a vital part of the uniform? What’s more, it would cost the commission nothing, whilst preserving the health of the men. How could the Commissioners argue with Nature?

Around this time too, police forces across Britain and Ireland were keen to promote the physicality and athleticism of their officers. A report in the late 1830s had noted that the Dublin City Police in particular derived great power from the size and muscular strength of their men, believing it to be a great advantage in subduing suspects – who were more likely to come quietly to a powerful, beefy constable than a 7-stone weakling – and controlling disturbances. Muscular, athletic bodies were more intimidating. So, implied the Dublin officers in 1854, were beards.

bobbies_with_horse

(Image from Old Police Cells Museum – http://www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk/content/history/police_history/life_in_the_19th_century_england-2)

What happened next is unclear; I’ve yet to find an article stating what the outcome was. Given the overwhelming support for beards across the rest of society, though, and the recommendations on medical grounds that men who worked outside, or in difficult environments should grow them, it seems unlikely that the Dublin Commissioners would not have relented. If anyone can shed light on the outcome, I’d be pleased to hear.

(The story doesn’t quite end there though. As I was finishing this post, I was made aware of another protest in support of facial hair. In France in the early 20th century, Parisian waiters went on strike, demanding the right to wear moustaches – a right usually denied to those in low paid, domestic or manual occupations. For the full story on the ‘Great French Moustache Strike’, click here

Beards, Whiskers and the History of Pogonotomy – BBC Free Thinking Transcript

This is a transcript of the paper I gave at the BBC ‘Free Thinking’ Festival in Sage Gateshead, November 2014. Enjoy!

Free thinking

Something beardy this way comes! Love them or loathe them it seems that beards are everywhere at the moment. Walk down your local high street and before you’ve gone too far it’s a fair bet that you’ll be met by a veritable sea of hairy faces. In many ways 2014 may well prove to be the year of the beard. After a fairly long period in the wilderness, facial hair has returned. It may well have passed you by but there is actually a World Beard Day, dedicated to the celebration of the hairy chin. In Bath in September was held the British Beard Championships, a virtual X-Factor for beard-wearers, where owners of mighty examples of facial topiary submitted themselves to the scrutiny of a panel of pogonotomists. For whatever reason – and there are potentially many – beards are back.

How long can this last? Questions were beginning to be raised in spring 2013 as to whether ‘peak beard’ had been reached. This is the point at which some theorists think that beards become so ubiquitous as to render them unfashionable again. There are certainly no signs of change at the moment. Only a few weeks ago came the startling revelation that, in the past year, manufacturers of razors and related goods such as shaving foam, have seen a drop in sales of more than £72 million pounds. Market analysts IRI noted that men’s shopping habits were changing and, even though the total market still accounted for 2.2 billion pounds, this was a substantial dent. The cause of this change? Beards.

Not everyone is a fan. In fact, as Jeremy Paxman found out to his bewilderment, beards have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Pogonophobia – the fear of beards – is apparently on the increase. What is it about beards that some people find so apparently distasteful? Some men – and women – just dislike the feel of beards. Most men can probably sympathise with the feeling, usually after the first week or so, that your beard is attacking your face with itching powder. Once that passes and some semblance of dermatological normality resumes there are the social problems to overcome. Small pieces of food lodged in a beard do not present a good look. So obsessed were the heavily-bearded Victorians with this problem that they invented all manner of devices and contrivances to cope. These included ‘moustache spoons’ to stop errant whiskers dipping into the soup course. Some people feel that beards are hiding something. There is, in fact, a long history of distrust. Henry VIII’s beard, for example, was allegedly extremely unpopular with Catherine of Aragon, who pleaded with him to shave it off. In fact, Henry’s emblematic beard was actually the result of a bet with Francis, king of France. Before their famous meeting on the field of the cloth of gold, both men resolved not to shave until the big day.

But the decision to wear or not wear a beard, moustache, whiskers etc is one that has long been a problem for men. Over time, attitudes to beardedness and, indeed, shaving have constantly shifted. Something so seemingly mundane as facial hair is actually bound up in a complex web of meanings. To paraphrase Karl Marx (a poster boy for the beard if ever there was one!) men don’t just act as they please; instead they behave according to the influences of the society they live in. Growing a beard is a conscious decision and can be for a variety of reasons from cultural to religious. In fact, although we’re concentrating more on other influences today, religion is very closely linked to beard wearing, especially for example in Judaism, Islam and Sikhism, and can even become a cultural stereotype. Some men might protest that they just got fed up with shaving…but the decision not to shave is an equally conscious one. However much we like to think we are all individuals, as a group we behave in predictable patterns. And, to be fair, we can’t blame the coalition for this one.

If we look back through history it is amazing how many periods have their own, immediately identifiable, facial hairstyles. In the Renaissance, for example, beard-wearing was a sign of masculinity and almost a rite of passage. To be able to grow a beard represented the change from boy to man. As the historian Will Fisher put it in his article on beards in Renaissance England,  “the beard made the man”. It is noteworthy, for example, that most portraits of men painted between, say, 1550 and 1650 contain some representation of facial hair – from the Francis Drake-style pointy beard to the Charles I ‘Van Dyke’. The beard was viewed as a basic mark of a man, but this was not just something fanciful. In fact, beards were strongly linked in with theories of medicine and the body. Early modern medicine saw the body as consisting of four fluid humours – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Facial hair was regarded as a form of bodily waste, which resulted from heat in the reins – the areas around the genitals, and the liver. As such, beards were strongly linked to sexual prowess and fecundity. A man’s sexual capabilities were writ large across his face. Nevertheless, beards were still not for everyone. Some prominent figures such as Thomas More and Oliver Cromwell preferred the clean-shaven look in line with austere religious beliefs. Indeed, 17th-century Puritans, never a group in love with display, viewed the beard as an unnecessary bauble on the face. For men in this period, therefore, the beard was not just some frippery; it was closely linked the very essence of manhood, and concepts of health, sexuality and the body.

The eighteenth century had been one where men were almost entirely clean-shaven. Here it was in fact the lack of facial hair that defined the ideal man. The face of the enlightened gentleman was smooth, his face youthful and his countenance clear, suggesting a mind that was also open. This was the age of the fop and the dandy, where the very idea of growing a beard would have been greeted with a furrowing of the be-wigged brow and a few choice words about impropriety and vulgarity. Interestingly, this was also the first period in history when men began to shave themselves, rather than see a barber. New, sharper razors were accompanied by the first signs of anything like an advertising campaign by razor makers. Growing a beard at this point would only have been a deliberate act done purposefully to convey a message. John Wroe, for example, leader of the Christian Israelite group, let his beard grow wild to signify his withdrawal from society. In this sense beards, and their removal, were closely linked to technology and culture, and to the expanding world of enlightened science and innovation.

By the mid-Victorian period, however, the beard made a spectacular return to favour. Sometime around the 1850s, concepts of masculinity itself began to change. Something strange was happening to men in this period and they were under new pressures to reassert their authority and status. This was the age of industrialization which brought with it new challenges, not least in the need to create hierarchies and structures of authority to cope with the sheer numbers of men who could now work within a single company. But men were also increasingly nervous about women. If, as was beginning to happen, women were finding a voice and beginning to agitate for greater levels of independence, this would be a significant threat to the status quo. Men needed to react. And they did.

One of the ways they did this was to place a new emphasis upon the physical characteristics and strength of men. According to the new view, men should reflect what has been termed ‘muscular Christianity’. In came a new vogue for athleticism, sports and game playing. The underlying theory was, as EM Forster put it that sport encouraged ‘well developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts’. Vigorous, vital and athletic men were exactly the sorts of stout fellows needed to swell the ranks of the army, and defend and expand the Empire. Whilst the connections might not immediately be clear, the beard played a strong part in this process; in fact, it virtually became the emblem of the Victorian man. Central to this was the belief that the beard was simply the ‘outward mark of inward qualities’ of masculinity, such as independence, hardiness and decisiveness. A man’s character and strength was visible upon his face in the form of a large bushy beard. A range of new sources stressed the scientific basis behind men’s ‘natural’ authority, alleging irrefutable proof that women were the weaker sex and should therefore know, and keep, their place. This was the age of Darwin, who argued that man was essentially the result of millions of years of evolution and natural selection. The beard was a God-Given marker of man’s ‘natural’ strength and fitness to be the dominant sex. Not only this, Victorian thinkers called on science to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that man had come to be the masters of the world simply because he was the best equipped to do it. How could women argue against the pure logic of science and nature and the morality of religion when the very emblem of masculinity was literally staring them in the face?

If Victorian men also needed new bearded heroes then they found a ready source amongst the ranks of explorers and hunters. This was the age of exploration, of hunters, climbers and explorers. As rugged adventurers began to tackle the terra incognita of far-flung continents, they would immerse themselves in wild nature, letting their beards run riot. The beard became a symbol of rugged manliness and men began to emulate their bewhiskered heroes. Albert Smith was the Englishman who went up a mountain and came down…with a beard. Smith was an author and entertainer but also a mountaineer who, in 1851, had climbed Mont Blanc. He was also the inspiration for the Victorian craze for mountain climbing. As a new exemplar of the mastery of men over nature, Smith personified the Victorian masculine ideal.

By 1850, however, beards were becoming valued not just for their cosmetic attributes, but their health benefits too – and doctors were beginning to encourage men to grow their facial hair as a means to ward off illness. As Christopher Oldstone-Moore points out, the Victorian obsession with air quality saw the beard promoted as a sort of filter. A thick beard, it was reasoned, would capture the impurities before they could get inside the body. Others saw it as a means of relaxing the throat, especially for those whose work involved public speaking. Some doctors were even recommending that men grew beards to avoid sore throats. Clergymen who shaved, according to one correspondent in the Hampshire Advertiser in 1861, invited all sorts of ‘thoracic and pectoral woes’!

For the Victorians, beards were closely linked not only to new ‘scientific’ ideas of male dominance and ‘natural’ authority; they also drew on age-old themes of the beard as the ultimate symbol of manhood. A Victorian man unable to grow some sort of beard was scarcely a man at all!

The twentieth century brought a variety of styles. In the first decades after 1900, moustaches were definitely in vogue. Part of this was to emulate the rugged masculinity of British military. It was in fact a military regulation that British soldiers must wear a moustache, until General Sir Neville Macready, who hated the moustache, repealed the order in 1916. The 1920s saw Chaplin’s toothbrush moustache achieve notoriety. Some speculate that a certain Austrian corporal Hitler actually took his inspiration from Chaplin, whose work he admired. In the 40s, bushy fighter pilot moustaches were all the rage, but the improved availability and quality of razors was making shaving easier, more comfortable, and increasingly popular. By the 1960s the beard was the ultimate symbol of the tuned in, turned on and dropped out hippy. Everyone from John Lennon to the Joy of Sex man was heavily hirsute and proud of it.

The 80s introduced designer stubble. This was the decade when razor advertising crossed into popular culture. Electric razor advertisements were full of speedboats, motorbikes and parachuting heroes. We also learned from Victor Kyam that the humble razor could be the inspiration to buy a whole company! The 90s gave us the goatee…about which, the less said the better!

But where once beard styles could last decades, the pattern in the past 10 years or so has been more towards months. That is why the endurance of the current crop of beards is actually quite interesting. Whatever the current, vogue for facial hair tells us about men today it is clear that beards, moustaches and whiskers are not just a quirky sidenote; in many ways they are in fact central to a range of important themes in history. One of the most constant of these has been emulation. In the early modern period monarchs provided a bearded (or indeed clean-shaven) ideal. By the Victorian period powerful and fashionable figures, and new types of industrial and military heroes, offered men something to aspire to. Now, with almost unlimited access to the lives of celebrities through the voracious media and internet, the opportunities to find ‘heroes’ to emulate are almost limitless. If history tells us anything it is that nothing stays the same for long. How long this current trend will last is difficult to say. What is more certain is that men’s relationship with their facial hair will continue to change and evolve, and provide us with a unique way to access the thoughts and feelings of men through time.

WitheyR3