A Close Shave

Shaving brush Nicola here. Are beards hot or not? Recently I was reading an article in the BBC History Magazine that reminded me that sporting a beard in 18th and 19th century Europe or America was far more than just a fashion choice for a man. Throughout history, in fact, the decision on whether to be clean shaven or not was often tied in to cultural and political influences.

The Historical Beard

The 16th century was a time of prodigious beards; the English beard was square cut, the Spanish one Sir Francis Drake shaped like a spade and when Francis Drake (pictured with what actually looks like a Spanish beard) claimed to have singed the King of Spain's beard when he raided Cadiz in 1587 he was making a political point. His attack had damaged the enemy but had not entirely destroyed it. It was also a taunt, the 16th century equivalent of "bring it on!"

Peter the Great The beard also had a significant role to play in the English Civil Wars of the 17th century when the clean-shaven Roundheads believed that the Cavaliers' long curly tresses represented every possible vice, and the Cavaliers considered the Roundheads lack of hirsuteness to mean they also lacked wit, wisdom and virtue. But probably the most despotic act against the beard was Peter the Great of Russia's edict in 1698 that all Russian men should shave off their beards and his decision in 1705 to levy a tax on anyone who persisted in wearing one. He felt that Russia should embrace western modernity and the removal of the luxuriant Russian beard was one of the most telling ways to demonstrate this. Here's Peter on the left, without the beard but still with a neat little moustache!

Polish and Gentility

In the 18th and early 19th centuries being clean shaven chimed with Enlightenment notions of polish and gentility. Cleanliness and good self-presentation fitted with the idea of harnessing nature through scientific progress, and hirsuteness was condemned as unkempt and wild. Only hermits could really get away with beards and ordinary men who sported them were considered eccentric at best and untrustworthy at worst. Writing in the "Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Literature and the Arts" in 1802, William Nicholson noted that "the caprice of fashion, or modern day improvements, has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards." But fashion and the influence of the Enlightement was not the only factor at work. Technological advances in steel-making had seen new types of metal come onto the market and some of these, particularly crucible steel, were ideal for making razors that could for the first time guarantee a close shave.

Self Help for Beginners

The aristocratic gentleman usually retained a manservant trained to handle a razor but for most men a shave was Barbers shop obtained at the barbers and many Georgian cariacatures poke fun at the figure of the barber with his blunt razors like "oyster knives" who scraped and scraped away at the faces of his victims. Barber-surgeons had traditionally had a role in tooth-drawing and blood-letting as well as shaving (which could be much the same thing) but in 1745 a separate Company of Barbers was established. This was also the period when shaving oneself was becoming possible. For the first time razor-makers began to advertise their products to private individuals. But shaving oneself was no easy matter in the days before safety razors, especially for those with uneven or pock-marked faces. In 1770 a French razor-maker wrote "Pogonotomie; or the art of shaving Oneself," a self-help guide for beginners.

Naturally the razor had to be used in conjunction with a variety of lathers and creams, and the 1770s was also the period when these started to be marketed to individuals. Charles Woodcock of London advertised a sweet scented lather to give a close shave in 1772 and the British Shaving Paste was launched in 1793. Shaving creams and pastes were sold in many fashionable perfumiers.

Changing times, changing beards

Victorian man with beard All fashions change, of course, and by 1850 the beard was back. In the Victorian era it was associated with ideas of masculinity and male courage. The resulting popularity has contributed to the stereotypical Victorian male figure of the stern patriarch clothed in black whose authority is underscored by a heavy beard and side whiskers. This trend can be recognised in the United States of America, where the shift can be seen amongst the post-Civil War presidents. Before Abraham Lincoln no President had a beard; after Lincoln until Taft every President except Andrew Johnson and William McKinley had either a beard or a moustache. The last word should therefore go to poet Samuel Butler, who wrote in the late 17th century: "Speak with respect and honour, both of the beard and the beard's owner.

Are you a fan of the hirsute hero? Do you prefer a clean-shaven Regency man, reflecting Enlightenment ideas, or a Victorian hero whose beard is a sign of his virility and masculinity?