As winter approaches, that is the question
For the Ancients the beard was a symbol of virility. No oath was legal and binding in Babylon until it was sworn on one. The ancient Egyptians shaved closely. Greeks reserved beards for men of certain age and experience. Alexander the Great preferred his face smooth as to better display his profile. He also ordered his troops to follow suit as a military provision, “to remove the handle which the enemy can seize.” British Celtic queen, Boudicca, more used to the sight of her warriors’ long green and blue dyed moustaches, mocked the Roman invaders’ ‘soft and effeminate’ shaved faces…
Throughout the ages facial hair fell in and out of favour. Fashions and customs moved from one extreme to another: A whole day at the barbers was not unheard of for an Elizabethan gentleman. He would have his barber dye his beard a fashionable red (a tribute to the Queen), have it curled with hot irons, stiffened and perfumed. Naturally after going to such lengths the barber would provide his client with a wooden box to tuck and protect the precious beard during sleep… Not even a century later, Peter the Great of Russia in an attempt to “encourage” the clean-shaven look of his subjects (in line with the then current Western fashion) slapped his subjects with “beard tax”, making having a beard a very expensive business indeed. And so the beards were off. Only to come back longer and fuller, signalling the new times and brave new generation. Until, that is, the next one thought it was more original and revolutionary to shave.
The further you went into the nineteenth century, the bigger the beards (on both sides of the Atlantic) got. Just look at the Victorian greats: Dickens, Darwin, Tennyson… A New York etiquette manual from 1855 enthused: “(…) the full beard is the most natural, comfortable, most expressive, unified, and beautiful. Nature gave man a beard for use and beauty. In manly ideal we claim the beard. The Gods and Heroes wore beards!”
Fast-forward some forty years and all that’s left is a shy moustache. But the beard did not go without a fight. The new whiskers-only fashion was considered so daring and scandalous at the time that shop assistants throughout the British Isles were forbidden to wear them under the penalty of fines and instant dismissal. In 1907 France, oppressed waiters even staged a strike fighting for their right to wear one. However give it few more years again and the moustaches not only got significantly heavier, but they gained respect and became the typical wear of Englishmen at the height of prosperity of the British Empire (think Rudyard Kipling). This force-to-be-reckoned-with, mouth concealing style even brought about an invention of a ‘moustache-cup’ – with a china bridge across the inside to prevent the liquid ruining the drinker’s ‘pride and glory’.
But the First World War put an end to the mighty moustache and as the unemployment and depression followed it was reduced to the size of a toothbrush (famously portrayed by Charlie Chaplin’s screen persona 'The Tramp'). By this time also, a noteworthy invention of an American businessman, King Camp Gillette, had gained huge popularity. His version of the safety razor with the thin, disposable blade of stamped steel revolutionised the industry, making the clean-shaven look suddenly that much more achievable and easy to maintain.
And so the story continued. The fashions came and went. Some men grew a beard or a moustache… Some men shaved them off. All the way into XXI century where, fortunately, there’s no tax to be paid for having a beard or social stigma for getting rid of one. So, to beard or not to beard? The choice is yours alone. But whichever style you pick - our barbers' advice is to own it, wear it with pride and rest assured that we, the barbers (bearded, moustached and clean shaven), will always stand by you.
Source: ‘Muffs and Morals’ by Pearl Binder (1953)