Losing Control

The Nineteenth-Century Beard Movement in Europe and North America

Beards Graph 2

MODERN AMERICAN MASCULINITY IS about mastery and control: control over one’s destiny and that of ‘lesser’ men and women. The late Notorious B.I.G. summarised this vision of manhood succinctly when he rapped ‘never lose, never choose to,’ but the same sentiment is manifest in a variety of pop cultural forms. Never mind that the imperative for mastery seems to emerge from outside of masculine men and women – that pop culture protagonists are impelled by a force that they themselves do not control. Unencumbered by this contradiction, John McClane and his kindred spirits seize control of Nakatomi Plazas all across the pages, screens, and stages of American cultural life.

This obsession with masculine control is nothing new. When thirteen of Britain’s North American colonies waged war against the British monarchy, General George Washington based his claim to authority in part on his self-mastery. Seemingly unflappable, and blessed with an unfailingly rigid mouth (a trait he carefully cultivated), Washington was believed to possess the discretion necessary to command men’s fates in war. After American independence, men like U.S. Senator Henry Clay (who coined the phrase ‘self-made man’) and U.S. president Abraham Lincoln were celebrated for willing their way to wealth and power, despite lowly origins. And, from slaveholding aristocrats to humble dirt farmers, early American men measured their manhood according to mastery. To be a fully-fledged adult white man in this age was to control ‘dependents:’ to own the resources that women, non-whites, and children needed to survive.1

Masculine mastery and control were, at some level, patent fictions. Slaveholders would have gone bankrupt and poorer men starved without the labour of enslaved people, free women, and countless other ‘dependents.’ But, as is often the case, various forms of physical, legal and economic violence allowed men to avoid this basic reality – or, perhaps more accurately, to create the reality they desired. The lash, the law and the promise of inherited lands thus made real a degree of control that was otherwise perilously tenuous.

All this, by contrast, is why the nineteenth-century history of American and European men’s grooming is so interesting: because, in this realm, the reality of interdependence between men and their ‘dependents’ was so poorly disguised. Here, European and American men glimpsed the fateful possibility that they might not be in control of their bodies; that they might, in fact, owe more to the men who shaved their stubborn whiskers than those men owed to them. In response, they inaugurated a dramatic half-century of beard wearing – and endowed their newly-grown beards with the symbolic trappings of mastery. But try as its proponents might to disguise the beard’s origins, the style remained a child of fear: an implicit recognition of the very interdependence that masculinity seeks to deny.

Viewed from a distance of more than a century, the nineteenth-century beard fashion looks like a basic historical fact. For many observers, the succession of bearded and otherwise unremarkable U.S. presidents during the decades preceding 1900 is no more surprising than the fact that there are mountains in Switzerland. And yet the arrival of this fashion came as a great shock for those who lived through it. Sweeping much of Europe, North America, and Latin America after roughly two centuries of clean-shavenness, the beard movement was almost certainly the most dramatic development in nineteenth-century men’s fashion – every bit as shocking as if knee breeches and ruffled shirts were to once more become the dominant mode of men’s dress throughout the so-called ‘Western’ world.

The apogee of this trend, according to one scholar, arrived between 1870 and 1900. After carefully analysing more than a century’s worth of men’s images from the Illustrated London News, sociologist Dwight E. Robinson, writing in 1976, placed the twin peaks of the beard fashion – with roughly forty-five percent of all men’s images featuring a full beard – at roughly 1875 and 1895. Facial hair more generally, Robinson added, peaked around 1890, with approximately ninety percent of all men depicted in the News wearing a beard, moustache, or sideburns.2

While Robinson’s analysis remains the most exhaustive quantitative study of the nineteenth-century facial hair fashion, there is reason to doubt its accuracy. This is especially true for areas outside of Britain, which arrived at the facial fashion at different times and for different reasons. My own research, for instance, indicates that as early as 1865, roughly half of all general officers serving in the American Civil War sported a beard of some description, while only ten percent were clean-shaved.3

The precise trajectory of this trend, however, need not detain us here. Instead, what should concern us are the reasons for the beard’s popularity. These reasons, as is typical for nearly any fashion, are both varied and mysterious. To date, scholars of the nineteenth-century beard movement – including Christopher Oldstone-Moore, whose 2015 Of Beards and Men is the first rigorously-researched, book-length analysis of grooming trends from antiquity to present – have emphasised the way in which facial hair embodied and reflected larger ideals of the age.

For European Romantics and their American counterparts, according to Oldstone-Moore and others, facial hair reflected a larger fascination with both medieval aesthetics and the concept of nature. (Beards, notably, were a central feature of men’s grooming in the Middle Ages, and the bushy beard was presumed to be more ‘natural’ than the shaved face.) European and American imperialists, meanwhile, cherished the beard as emblematic of their own ostensible superiority to those with a limited capacity – real or imagined – for facial hair growth (usually Asians, Africans, and indigenous Americans). And radicals of various stripes – including socialists, nationalists, abolitionists, religious extremists, and health reformers – adopted the beard to symbolise their rejection of the status quo. Health reformers, in particular, proved influential in this realm – arguing convincingly, though inaccurately, that the beard protected its wearers against tuberculosis and prevented men from inhaling particulate matter (no small thing for those living in the period’s coal-red cities or working in its dark satanic mills).4 All of these assessments of the beard fashion’s origins and meaning have much to recommend them. When nineteenth-century men, in both Europe and America, articulated why they chose to adopt the beard, they did so in precisely these terms – generating hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pro-beard polemics repeating the foregoing claims. But these assessments of the facial hair fashion’s origins also ignore what may be its most interesting feature: the fact that, in important and fundamental ways, men throughout the Atlantic basin did not choose to adopt the beard. It was not, in other words, a style over which they exercised that quintessential masculine virtue: control.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the relationship between barber and patron throughout much of Europe and North America was not fundamentally different from many other service relationships. Patrons sought out barbers for a good shave – a task many men found too difficult or too unpleasant to perform for themselves in the era of the straight razor. Barbers sought out customers for their incomes. And, by a variety of means, customers pretended that they controlled the relationship from beginning to end. They were the ones who sought the barber’s patronage, after all. And, in any event, most barbers were low-status figures – poor whites in Europe, men of colour in America – over whom patrons exercised control outside the shop as well as in it.

Beginning in the 1840s and 1850s, however, the relationship between barbers and patrons took a deleterious turn. Barbers, once seen at worst as mischievous schemers (like Beaumarchais’ Figaro) and more frequently as harmless, vapid chatterers, assumed a menacing cast. Indeed, during these years, patrons awakened en masse to the fact that barbers held deadly blades to their throats, and almost immediately began fantasising about the murderous possibilities of the barber shop. In the process, they grappled with the very real possibility that it was barbers, and not themselves, who controlled the act of grooming.

The most obvious example of these murderous fantasies was the story of Sweeney Todd. First told in the novel The String of Pearls, published serially between 1846 and 1847, the story of Sweeney Todd centers on a London barber who slashes unlucky customers’ throats, dispatches their bodies to a dungeon-like basement by means of a trap-door barber chair, and, with the help his co-conspirator Mrs. Lovett, transforms their lifeless corpses into delicious meat pies.5

Despite its patent ridiculousness, The String of Pearls proved immensely popular, inspiring a blockbuster theatrical adaptation and a raft of literary imitations. In the U.S., these imitations ranged from pulp drivel like ‘A Narrow Escape,’ a widely circulated tale in which an alcoholic enslaved barber murders a customer, to Herman Melville’s masterful ‘Benito Cereno,’ in which an enslaved mutineer named Babo quietly menaces his captor using a straight razor.6

Robert L. Mack, the leading scholar of Sweeney Todd, compellingly argues that these tales proved popular in the 1840s and 1850s because they spoke to larger fears about urban anonymity. In this light, The String of Pearls and its imitators are best understood, not as stories about a murderous barber, but as tales of a murderous stranger who claims the lives of unattached urban dwellers.7

Undoubtedly, there is much to recommend a broadly social interpretation of Sweeney Todd’s popularity and that of its imitators. Fears of urban anonymity were rampant throughout Europe and North America during this period, as individuals grappled with the rapid growth of vast, impersonal cities. In the U.S., meanwhile, where the Sweeney Todd character was, as suggested above, frequently replaced by a barber of colour, the story spoke to widespread white fears of black violence and dissimulation.

And yet Mack’s interpretation fails to take seriously the setting of these stories. While tales of tonsorial violence were important vehicles for exploring larger social anxieties, they were also, plainly and specifically, about the latent menace of the barbershop. How else can we explain the fact that, in the many tales inspired by Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber is rarely, if ever, replaced by another kind of blade-wielding tradesperson: a rampaging butcher, for instance, or an unhinged fish-monger?

Whether fears of gullet aggression inspired the story of Sweeney Todd or vice versa remains unclear. Most likely, the two were intimately intertwined. What is clear, however, is that Sweeney Todd, and the fears it embodied or inspired, had a dramatic effect on the history of men’s grooming. Across Europe and North America, a growing number of men abandoned the barbershop and took up shaving themselves. This was reflected, not just in the demographics of several major American cities, where the number of barbers shrank relative to the populations they served – a figure that indicated decreased demand for barbers’ services. It was also apparent in the comments of numerous commentators.8

In an 1860 article for the British publication The Albion, for instance, an anonymous writer reflects not only on the disappearance of barbers – their red and white poles ‘as scarce as good Madiera’ – but also on the menace of the shop. ‘I don’t mind … admitting honestly,’ the writer notes, ‘that I’m afraid of the barber … It is the hints, and inuendos [sic], and covert violence to which you are subjected that set my nerves in a utter. I wouldn’t mind if they’d assault you unmistakably and openly; you’d know what course to pursue under those circumstances.’ Instead, the barber, ‘by a gentle pressure of the thumb, forces your head into the most eligible position for being guillotined’ and ‘[beats you] with a couple of hard brushes about the head, ears, nose, and eyes till your head burns, your ears redden, your eyes smart, and your nose very nearly bleeds.’9

For men like the anonymous Albion author, the appropriate response to the terrors of the barber shop was clear: ‘I shave myself,’ the writer proclaimed. And so too, for the first time, did countless other men throughout Europe and North America during the middle decades  of the nineteenth century. Soon they discovered, however, that shaving was no simple task – that, despite unkindly estimates of barbers’ intelligence, the operation of shaving was, in fact, a difficult one. As a result of these first-time shavers’ incompetence, the act of shaving became a source of torment. Over the course of the early nineteenth century, in fact, complaints of pain became a constant refrain in articles on shaving – with roughly half of all American articles on the subject referencing pain or discomfort by 1850.10 These complaints, moreover, were exacerbated, not only by the primitive conditions in which many men shaved – without access, for instance, to warm water, decent shaving soap, large mirrors, or light – but also by the indifferent quality of the tools at their disposal. Thanks to a high American tariff, passed by a nationalistic U.S. Congress in 1842, top-notch continental razors suddenly jumped in price for American consumers. British and continental consumers, meanwhile, had to contend with lower-quality blades, as European manufactures compromised on quality to keep their wares competitive in U.S. markets.11

The result of all this was that, by the late 1840s, a growing number of men were giving up on shaving altogether and letting their beards grow freely. As early as 1853, roughly one-in-eight New Yorkers, according to an informal survey by Scientific American, had adopted the style. And by the mid-1860s, as suggested previously, nearly half of European and American men had followed suit.12

During these years, and in the decades to follow, many men did their best to make the beard, and facial hair more broadly, symbols of masculine virtues. And, in many respects, they succeeded. Following a lengthy public relations campaign waged in newspapers, magazines and books, European and American proponents of the beard seemed to convince significant portions of their respective societies that the beard symbolised everything from patriarchal firmness and racial mastery to healthfulness and beauty. In the eyes of the public, then, facial hair appeared to be a style that men had freely chosen, and that reflected mastery and control: both of themselves and their bodies, and of the ‘lesser’ men and women whom they were charged with governing.

In point of fact, however, the beard was anything but. Instead, its deep history speaks to a fundamental loss of control: a fearful recognition of dependence on the part of European and American men; and a grim realisation that the body is, ever and always, the work of many hands.

Sean Trainor is a historian specialised in men’s fashion and grooming in nineteenth-century America. His upcoming book, Groomed for Power, is about the antebellum American beard movement.

This article was originally published in Vestoj’s latest issue ‘On Masculinities,’ available on www.vestoj.com and in select bookstores now.


  1. See, for ex. S McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997. 

  2. D E Robinson, “Fashions in Shaving and Trimming of the Beard: The Men of the Illustrated London News, 1842-1872,’ The American Journal of Sociology 81 (Mar., 1975), pp.1,133-1,141. 

  3. See S Trainor, ‘Groomed for Power: A Cultural Economy of the Male Body in Nineteenth-Century America’ (Ph.D. diss., The Pennsylvania State University, 2015), p.2. 

  4. C Oldstone-Moore, Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2015; C. R. Oldstone-Moore, ‘The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain,’ Victorian Studies 48 (Fall 2005), pp.7-34; Trainor, ‘Groomed for Power,’ esp. Ch. 4. 

  5. The String of Pearls has been republished as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Ed. R L Mack, New York, Oxford University Press, 2007. 

  6. For one of several versions of this tale, see ‘A Narrow Escape,’ Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), May 15, 1847; see also H Melville, ‘Benito Cereno,’ The Piazza Tales, New York, Dix & Edwards, 1856. 

  7. R L Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend, London, Continuum, 2007. 

  8. S Trainor, ‘Groomed for Power,’ p.69. 

  9. ‘Barbers,’ The Albion 38 (Jun. 30, 1860), p.303. 

  10. S Trainor, ‘Groomed for Power,’ esp. Ch. 1. 

  11. Ibid., esp. Ch. 2. 

  12. ‘Bearded Civilizaton,’ Scientific American III (Jul. 9, 1853), p.342.