By Dr Alun Withey, guest Curator of The Age of the Beard exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum, and Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter.
The mid nineteenth century saw the beard return to the British male face in spectacular fashion. After nearly 150 years of being clean-shaven, British men abandoned their razors in droves, spurred on by a raft of articles in newspapers and periodicals, extolling the many and various benefits to beard wearing.
As the historian Christopher Oldstone-Moore and others have suggested, the military were important role models as early adopters of the moustache and beard. Before July 1854, facial hair was nominally even banned in the British Army, with the exception of a few regiments who had permission to grow moustaches. Some French regiments had burly, moustachioed recruits placed at the front of their marching columns, to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. Not to be outdone, by 1854 the British Military decreed that no soldier should shave his upper lip, making the moustache the mark of the man.
There were occasions, however, when authorities allowed soldiers to grow their beards as an expedient for protection in harsh climates. During the Crimean war, soldiers petitioned their superior officers, to be allowed to grow beards, not only to relieve them from the onerous task of shaving in the field, often in dirty conditions, but also as protection against the elements. During the advance upon Sebastopol, amidst the harsh conditions suffered by the troops, Lord Raglan relaxed the order to shave, allowing them to grow their beards.
It was argued that the beard was the soldiers best friend in the field, keeping the face dry and cool by day, and warm by night. It was said to prevent sunburn, and also protect from extremes of heat. Evidence from a supposed study was put forward which claimed that a number of bearded soldiers who had decided once again to shave were all rapidly struck down by respiratory infections as a result!
When the war ended, the sight of the returning troops inspired admiration. Queen Victoria noted in her journal on 13th March 1856 that the soldiers disembarking from boats ‘were the picture of real fighting men…They all had their long beards and were heavily laden with large knapsacks’.
The Queen had hit on an important point: as returning heroes, complete with their ‘heavy Crimean beards’, the men represented the very pinnacle of rugged masculinity. Men stuck in their mundane jobs in offices and factories, holding their manhood’s cheap, saw the beard as a way of emulating these new Victorian heroes, and allowed their facial hair to grow in admiration. Whereas beards had once been the mark of political radicals and romantic artists, they were now the essential mark of a man.
Articles like ‘Why Shave’ by Charles Dickens, waded into the debate. The beard, argued Dickens, was nature’s protector against foul weather. “Man is born to work out of doors, and in all weathers for his bread: woman was created for duties of another kind, which do not involve constant exposure to sun, wind and rain. Therefore only man goes abroad whiskered and bearded”.
The beard protected against “the sharp wind that [otherwise] strikes on the bare cheek”, risking permanent nerve damage and palsy. There was, argued Dickens, “no better summer shield or winter covering” than the beard. As if this weren’t enough, the beard was argued by physicians to protect the eyes, throat and even teeth from damage, as well as preventing the inhalation of dust and germs. A popular argument was that the beard acted like a respirator, a sort of natural cordon sanitaire, trapping dangerous substances before they could attack the throat and lungs.
It is noteworthy that the moustache remained a central element in the British Military for decades after 1854. By the end of the nineteenth century the so-called ‘Beard Movement’ was on the wane, and men were once again returning to the razor. Nevertheless, it was not until 1916 that General Sir Neville Macready finally repealed the regulation requiring the wearing of the ‘martial moustache’, bringing to an end a decades-long era of military facial hair.