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

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/

To Dye for! Colouring the Beard in the 19th Century.

Let’s face it, spotting that first grey hair can be a slightly depressing experience. Whatever age it chooses to arrive at, it signifies a step change in the body; a reminder of the ticking clock. For men, the first grey beard hairs are sometimes a shock. In the nineteenth century things were no different. This was the age of the beard, when having a luxuriant crop of facial hair demonstrated manly vigour and strength. Grey hair could be a sign of the wisdom accumulated with age, to be sure, but it also potentially portended the onset of bodily decline.

Even in the early modern period grey hair and beards bore strong connections with the beginnings of bodily decay. In humoural terms, grey hair was an outward sign of the loss of bodily heat. The beard, in Galenic medicine, was traditionally regarded as a type of excrement, the result of heat rising up through the body as a sort of exhaust gas from the production of sperm deep down in the ‘reins’ – the area around the kidneys. It was this heat that determined the colour of men’s beards. The deeper the colour, the hotter and more virile the man. As bodies aged, though, they got naturally colder and drier, and, as this occurred, the colour began to disappear from their hair, beards and whiskers.

Copyright British Library – digitised image from page 432 of “La Hongrie de l’Adriatique au Danube : impressions de voyage”

By the time of the ‘beard movement’ beliefs in the humours had largely been abandoned but, in an age that championed youth, ‘muscular Christianity’, virility and athleticism, going grey, especially at a young age, was not necessarily to be embraced.

Even from the early decades of the nineteenth century, a host of products were becoming available to dye the hair, beard, whiskers and moustache. These were part of a broader market for cosmetic products that had begun in the late 1700s, and which included men as consumers, as well as women.  The stated aim of the vast majority of these products was to return the hair to shades of brown or black. Alexander Rowlands’ advertisements for ‘Melacomia’ dye, suggested that brown and black were the ‘natural shade of the hair’. W.H. Cockell’s beard dye was ‘Instantaneous’, returning hair to a ‘natural’ colour and shine, with the added benefit of perfume, and ‘not a particle of poison’…always a good sign. 

 The use of the word ‘natural’ here was problematic though. On one level advertisers were suggesting that all they were doing was restoring facial hair to its proper ‘look’. But this process was of course inherently ‘unnatural’!

 Something else was at play though, and there were also perhaps some more sinister undertones in the privileging of certain colours over others. There were certainly expectations of what represented solid British colours: as the record of a meeting held in Newcastle to discuss the ‘beard movement’ suggested, ‘beards of all hues attended, from the sandy and light hue of the Saxon to the ebony ferocity of the Celt’!

Copyright British Library digitised image from page 897 of “The National and Domestic History of England … With numerous steel plates, coloured pictures, etc

But as Sarah Cheang has argued, the characteristics of hair, including its texture and length, as well as colour, formed an important part of nineteenth century debates about race and racial identities. In an era of concerns over racial classification and hierarchies of race, black or brown hair was considered characteristic of the Caucasian type, and therefore considered preferable over other shades.  In advertising their products, some makers actively singled ‘red’ facial hair, setting it up as an undesirable cultural other against the presumably more ‘British’ shades. 

Image copyright Wellcome Images

Perhaps the main issue that the makers of dyeing products were addressing, however, was ageing. Many makers stressed the utility of their products in masking the effects of age on a once effulgent beard. As early as 1807, perfumer John Chasson of Cornhill, London, advertised his ‘Incomparable Fluid’, for changing hair, whiskers and eyebrows from grey to ‘beautiful and natural shades of brown and black’. The London perfumer JT Rigge  sold his ‘Princes Russia Dye’ which would immediately make grey whiskers dark or black. In beard terms, this was the equivalent of the elixir of youth! 

For all that they promised, however, using certain dyeing products was not necessarily a straightforward process. An article in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle in July 1868 warned of the potential issues that could arise from the unpalatable odour of certain products. In the article, titled ‘Cosmetics for the Hair’, the correspondent noted the drawbacks to using preparations based on ammonia. The “abominable odour of hydrosulphate of ammonia, compounded of the putrid smell of hartshorn would, I should think, make the application of this sort of dye to a full head of hair intolerable; and a fellow who could complacently apply this hateful thing to his moustache must be strong of stomach, and not over delicate as to the sense of smelling.’ There were clearly some occasions when having a few grey hairs was preferable to having a beard that reeked of something between a wet nappy and a stink bomb!  

But it wasn’t all bad news for older men whose beards had lost their colour. With age was believed to come wisdom, and the long, flowing white beard could symbolised long life, and experience. ‘The white beard’s venerable grace’ could therefore be seen as the mark of the patriarch. As the proud owner of a lockdown beard which has now gone snow white on the chin, I’m happy to endorse this view!

My 2021 Lockdown ‘Van Dyke’!

Uncovered: The First ever Beard and Moustache Competition?!

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

Screenshot 2019-05-20 at 16.16.11.png

(Image my copyright)

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

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

Screenshot 2019-05-20 at 16.25.17.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019-05-20 at 16.59.10.png

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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, 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.

800px-Edward_Bates_-_Brady-Handy

 

“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.