Victorian men unable to grow “soup strainers”, “thigh ticklers” and “Piccadilly weepers” resorted to false facial hair, “beard generator” creams or even crime.
Everyone from writers such as Dickens and Thomas Carlyle to physicians like Mercer Adams, were tripping over their thigh ticklers praising the Victorian beard- this “badge of manly strength and beauty”.
Beards had been banned in the British army until the Crimean War of 1854-56, but the freezing temperatures of Crimean winters and the impossibility of getting shaving soap forced a change.
By the time the last troops returned home, a beard was the mark of a hero.
Before the great beard and mustache revolution, whiskers enjoyed a brief twirl in the early 1800’s.
Whiskers were fashionable enough that wigmaker Ross of Bishopsgate advertised a new type of wig with that came with whiskers attached through ‘such remarkable adhesion as cannot be discovered from Nature itself’.
That’s right, a twofer.
This ‘new invented whisker’ came at the steep price of three pounds and three shillings – a full pound dearer than his standard, un-whiskered wigs.
By 1808, even women were apparently trying to get in on the act. Several fashion journals (such as the popular ‘Le Belle Epoque’) reported a coming trend for ladies to train their lovelocks down the side of their faces ‘in imitation of whiskers’.
For some this was a step too far:
“I am at a loss to conceive what a gentleman will be pleased with in a lady’s whiskers”.
Nevertheless, whether it was ‘The Countess Dowager of B—s whiskers’ which were apparently ‘already in great forwardness’, or the ‘belles of Cockermouth’, a set of whiskers was fashion-forward.
All the same, it was suggested that an Act of Parliament should be made to curtail the fashion of whiskers.
Even then, the subject of male facial hair was controversial!
The fashion for whiskers had petered out by the end of the 1810s. It’s not clear why – perhaps the Victorians weren’t quite ready.
Fires burning below
In the Renaissance, facial hair indicated the fires burning below.
Viewed as a waste product (in fact a type of excrement) it was thought to come from heat in the ‘reins’ – the area including the genitals.
A thick beard meant virility and sexual potency since it hinted at fires burning below.
Not only was the beard held up as a sign of manhood, it was a highly visible symbol of his ‘natural’ strength and authority.
Victorian defenders of the beard argued that men needed facial hair to protect their mouth and lips while they fought or labored outdoors, or just in public settings.
Facial hair on soldiers provided them with protection from the elements, and beards on working men protected them from the unclean air and water of the larger cities.
In 1854, the Committee on Industrial Pathology on Trades Which Affect the Eyes recommended that workers “who are exposed to the influence of dust, grit, chips, splinters &c” would do well to grow beards, not only to “arrest the particles of dust and grit” but also because the beard acted as “a tonic influence… to the nerves of the face and eyes” and generally improved health and comfort.
The beard was even thought to be a direct link to the health of the eyes, as seen by the fact that pulling the hairs of a man’s beard caused his eyes to water.
It apparently prevented toothache, by capturing and warming the air around the mouth.
Beards supposedly protected the face from extremes of weather and cold, preventing damage from sunburn, cold winds, and frost.
Public speakers needed beards to proA writer to The Times confirmed that “medical men recommend all public speakers who have a tendency to ‘relaxed uvula,’ ‘clergyman’s throat,’ or ‘aphonia clericorum’ to let the beard grow under the chin.”tect their face and throat.
“By 1850, doctors were beginning to encourage men to wear nature’s respirator as a means of warding off illness.”
As 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.
The author of the 1862 pro-facial hair treatise, Apology for the Beard, found it fitting that God had provided protection to the voices of men, who, unlike women, were destined to be teachers and preachers.
A writer to The Times confirmed that “medical men recommend all public speakers who have a tendency to ‘relaxed uvula,’ ‘clergyman’s throat,’ or ‘aphonia clericorum’ to let the beard grow under the chin.”
Unfortunates who were unable to grow beards were either forced to slather on creams or buy false mustaches and whiskers – sometimes made from goat hair.
Some innovative inventors even patented mechanical devices using springs, to fix false whiskers firmly on the head.
In August 1895 Charles Owen Martin, a postman from Lee, was arrested after stealing a postal order to pay for a “bottle of whisker-producing compound” to produce “a pair of captivating, fascinating whiskers.”
The postman used the stolen funds to pay for not just one “bottle of whisker-producing compound”. According to a press report, he “madly rushed after all sorts of preparations in order to force upon his face the bristles he loved so well.”
To no avail, it seems: “His cheeks and chin are as smooth as a billiard ball. Not the faintest indication of a solitary hair has made its appearance on one or other of them and, as a consequence, his heart was sad.”
The fashion for beards, whiskers and bristling mustaches went about-face for much of the first half of the 20th Century.
A contributing factor was that in both world wars, the seal on gas masks would only work on hair-free skin.
In 1902, New York dairymen were banned from having beards.
Dr Park from the Board of Health was quoted as saying: “There is real menace to the milk if the dairyman is bearded… The beard, particularly when damp, may become an ideal germ-carrier.”
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.