5 things beards tell us about history

For perhaps the longest period in the past 20 or so years, facial hair is in the midst of a remarkable resurgence. From full-length hipster beards to neatly groomed stubble, men are seemingly reconnecting with their facial fuzz

King Gillette's safety razor, 1905 (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty)

For some, fashion is the biggest consideration, while others simply can’t be bothered to shave. But if you believe beards are little more than a quirky irrelevance (how can something so mundane as a crop of bristly beard hair be of any importance, much less tell us anything about history?), think again: beards, moustaches and whiskers are actually at the very heart of gender, society and culture, and tell a story through time.

Here, historian Dr Alun Withey reveals 5 things that beards tell us about history…

 

Masculinity

Over the centuries, beards have played an important part in concepts of manhood. In some senses the beard can be a useful index not only of how men feel about themselves at a given point in history, but what society regards as ideal male characteristics.

During some periods, for example, beards were held up as the ultimate marker of a man. For Tudor and Stuart men, they were visible symbols of masculinity. As worn by monarchs and elites, they exemplified authority and power – something that men lower down the social scale wanted to emulate.

Not only this, some writers saw them as proof that God intended men – not beardless women – to rule. The author John Bulwer wrote in 1653 that not only was shaving indecent, but an act of “practicall blasphemy most inexpiable against Nature, and God the Author of Nature, whose worke the Beard is”.

Even 200 years later, TS Gowing’s Philosophy of Beards was accusing shavers of “a deliberate offence against nature and reason”. Victorian men, feeling the need to reassert their manhood, invoked beards as visible symbols of male strength and fitness to rule.

At other times in history, though, beards fell out of favour. In the 18th century any sort of facial hair was viewed as anathema to the primped, polished and polite denizens of Georgian society. Beards were only to be seen in rustics, religious ascetics and old men.

It is worth noting that facial hair has not always been regarded as a fully male characteristic. Some 400 years ago, women’s bodies were seen as inverted versions of men. Instead of male and female bodies there was a single spectrum, with extremes at either end.

Just as some men could have feminine characteristics, some women could display male traits such as facial hair. The ‘bearded lady’ later became something of a novelty, and some women made a living by putting themselves on show.

 

Health

It might seem odd, but beards have through time been closely linked to concepts of wellbeing.

Early modern people believed that the body consisted of four fluid humours, and that health relied on a delicate balance between them. Under this model, facial hair was seen as a direct result of heat emanating from the liver and genital area, which made its way upwards where it was released through the face.

In this sense the beard was a form of bodily waste, much like any other! But because it displayed heat in the genitals, it was also a strong indicator of a man’s sexual prowess.

By the late 19th century the beard had a very different relationship to health. The germ-obsessed Victorians viewed the beard as a useful filter that could stop all manner of noxious substances from getting into the nose and throat. Doctors even advised their male patients to grow beards – especially clergymen and public speakers, whose voices needed to be protected.

Beards also hid the visible signs of diseases such as smallpox, which often bore social stigma.

 

Technology

One might assume that as shaving technologies improved, so men shaved more. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

Until the 18th century men generally went to the barber to be shaved, but this could often be an uncomfortable experience. Satires depicted barbers as inept and clumsy, leaving customers with rough faces and a nasty shaving rash.

But with the development of new types of cast steel razor in around 1750, which made shaving far more comfortable, came advertising encouraging men to shave themselves.

Georgian razor advertisements bore many similarities to those we see today: they called upon masculine ideas of strength and hardness. There was even talk of a shaving machine, that shaved customers as if on a production line!

 

But it is unclear how far the decline of beards was actually related to these new razors – it perhaps had as much to do with new elegant, smooth and refined ideals of the male face.

While the French author and razor-maker Jean-Jacques Perret had mooted the idea of the safety razor in 1762, it wasn’t until 1880 that the first one was marketed by the Kampfe brothers. This was followed in 1895 by the first razor with disposable blades, invented by an American travelling salesman named King Camp Gillette.

It is worth remembering, however, that these inventions took place at a time when beards were enjoying massive popularity. Razors certainly did not mean the end of the beard!

 

Emblematic beards

One of the most common symbolic connections of the beard has been to religion. From Judaism to Islam and Sikhism, the beard has been a recognisable cultural stereotype.

Beards worn by Jewish men have been visual shorthand for centuries, while for Sikhs the beard is a gift from God and something to be cherished. Facial hair is similarly central to Muslim men.

Over time, beards have also been used in art to represent wisdom. Renaissance paintings commonly included beards as shorthand for age and sagacity. One famous painting of the elderly Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, depicts him with a full white beard.

But at other times the beard has suggested the dereliction of age. Tim Bobbins’s The Passions Delineated shows a group of ragged and bearded men with rickety teeth. Cartoons and satires have long used facial hair to connote the old fool, whose beard is a symbol of a body left to go fallow.

 

Personal grooming

Today, billions of pounds are spent by men worldwide on personal grooming products. Through history, this habit has told us a lot about how men feel about themselves.

While Tudor and Stuart men were not necessarily big on cosmetics, the late 18th century brought an entire new market in male beauty washes and pastes. By the time the Victorians came along this enterprise was massive, and newspapers were filled with adverts for scents, colognes and other products to beautify the male face. Nonetheless, overdoing it could bring accusations of effeminacy.

Sometimes, though, the beard has represented a reaction against personal grooming. John Wroe, leader of a religious group called the Christian Israelites in the late 1700s, grew a massive unkempt beard as a visible sign as having turned his back on society.

Even in the 1960s, the beard was the ultimate symbol of the tuned-in, turned-on and dropped-out hippy – a subversion of personal grooming; a sign of defying convention.

In conclusion, then, at all points in history, facial hair has carried meaning, and for cultures across the globe, the beard is much more than a mere crop of bristles.

Dr Alun Withey is an associate research fellow at the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter. He is also a BBC Radio 3 and Arts & Humanities Research Council New Generation Thinker.

Dr Withey will deliver a lecture, ‘Beards, Whiskers And The History Of Pogonotomy’ at BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead on 1 November. The talk will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 7 November at 10.45pm, and will be available for 30 days afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

To find out more about the festival, click here.

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