In recent years, beards have become a fashionable accessory among youngish men. Despite critics’ hopeful predictions of society reaching ‘peak beard’, their popularity has yet to decline. Like many fashions, society’s historical hunger for beards has been cyclical: it grows for a time, becomes an unmanageable, ubiquitous tangle and is cut back by the tastemakers, only to sprout again years later.
According to an article by Dr Alun Withey, “Beards are having a moment. Quite a long moment, as it turns out.” Still, beards rarely grow without opposition: for every pro-beard position there is an anti-beard one.
Recent media reports claimed that beards trap feculent particles and can harbour “more germs than a toilet seat”. Indeed, few who have read Roald Dahl’s The Twits can forget Mr Twit’s beard, which doubled as a larder of decaying food should the man get peckish.
However, at times the beard’s propensity to trap particles has been promoted as a healthy, even protective quality. In The Philosophy of Beards, T S Gowing sets out to objectively justify the beard, and part of that justification is on medical grounds. “The beards of foreign smiths and masons,” he remarks, “filter plaster dust and metal from the air, protecting the lungs.” Bearded soldiers, he claims, are less likely to catch colds; and the ability of a moustache to warm the air is invaluable “in a consumption-breeding climate like ours”.
Gowing does not overlook the aesthetic importance of a beard, of course. To him, a beard brings out the finest and most manly qualities of a face, as evidenced by the Biblical patriarchs. He claims that “the masculine chin is seldom sightly, because it was designed to be covered,” and “there is scarcely indeed a more naturally disgusting object than a beardless old man!”
This inevitably leads to the question of why women are usually beardless. To Gowing, living in a society shaken both by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the early days of women’s suffrage, the beard offered evidence of God’s great design. Women have no beards because they have no need to perform manual labour, or work outdoors: “Woman was made a help meet for man”.
Gowing seems to find something unpleasantly simian in the shaven face. In a humorous anti-shaving poem, he gives Darwin short shrift: “God made you all Men, don’t make yourselves Apes!” Ironically, a recent article in Psychology Today by Hector Garcia argues the opposite: that growing a large beard is rooted in simian displays of size and aggression.
Both pro- and anti-beard stances have been justified by appealing to fashion, to history, to hygiene, but ultimately these claims are contradictory. With the continued efforts of historical pogonologists, perhaps one day we shall unpick these knotty issues.
Authors: Deborah Leem, Digitisation Project Coordinator, and Cassidy Phillips, Support Services Assistant, work at the Wellcome Library.