Hair hunting

Hair hunting

Details such as facial hair can reveal clues about your ancestors’ lives, as Ruth Symes reveals in this exclusive extract from her recent book, It Runs in the Family

Ruth A. Symes, Teacher with freelance writer

Ruth A. Symes

Teacher with freelance writer

Men in 19th- and early 20thcentury family photographs often appear a little remote behind masses of facial hair. While your great-grandfather might have been bewhiskered, your grandfather might have sported sideburns and a handlebar moustache, and your father might, mysteriously, always have been cleanshaven. Strange as it may seem, these looks were not just individual fashion choices as they mostly are today, but matters that had much to do with the time and culture in which your male ancestors lived.

The kind of beard sported by your ancestor might give away something about his personal qualities and his desire to keep up with the prevailing fashions of the day; but, more importantly, perhaps it may also tell you something more about the times in which he was living and his position within his community. At various points in their history beards have signified a variety of cultural characteristics including age, community tradition, military rank, religious affiliation and marital status.

In the middle of the 19th century, dramatic changes were afoot in men’s appearance. Facial hair became more desirable and was a ‘look’ supported by new scientific knowledge. Frederick Knight Hunt wrote an article,‘Man Magnified’, for the popular magazine Household Words (edited by Charles Dickens), in September 1851. He had studied the composition of human hair under a microscope, and had concluded that the shaving of a man’s facial hair was plain unnatural. A great number of newspaper articles and papers discussed the pros and cons of shaving around the years 1853 and 1854. In this debate the anti-shaving movement (sometimes referred to as the Beard Movement, although it was not an organised political campaign) had the upper hand.

The difference between being bearded and being clean-shaven became a matter of pride, patriotism, virility and class. Beards were an important part of the new and more masculine look of the Victorian male. For many men, being clean-shaven was starting to be seen as a sign of effeminacy. Industrialisation had brought many men from rural areas into the towns, exchanging agricultural jobs for office jobs. With this transition to non-physical indoor labour, they had shaved their chins. By growing back a beard, urban workers could symbolically claim back their lost masculinity.

Masculinity apart, there were a number of cultural reasons why more men wore beards from the 1850s onwards. From other clues you might have about your ancestor’s life, you might be able to work out which of the considerations below is likely to have caused him to wear a beard.

Many arguments were put forward to suggest that shaving was actually dangerous to health. It was thought that by accidentally cutting his face with a razor, a man could introduce potentially fatal infections. Beards and moustaches were thought to protect the lungs from the respiratory diseases (including tuberculosis) that plagued industrial cities. They also kept the neck and face warm, thus fending off sore throats and colds.

1926 ad for a safety razor
A 1926 ad for a safety razor – reflecting growing enthusiasm for being clean-shaven again in the post-Edwardian world

Ancestors who were in the British military from the Crimean War (1854) onwards tended to be hirsute, and their heroic image was something that the ordinary man on the street wanted to copy. If the ancestor in your photograph really was a military man, take particular note of the shape of his beard or moustache, as the style of these may help you work out his rank. In general, the bushier the beard and the larger the moustache, the more senior your ancestor will probably have been. From the 1860s until the middle of the First World War a moustached ancestor might well have been in the army: military men were actually forbidden to shave their upper lips during this period. The regulation was finally abolished on 6 October 1916. Since then, men in the Royal Navy have been allowed to wear ‘full sets’, that is beards and moustaches joined, but not beards or moustaches alone. The other forces (Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines) allow moustaches only (except where beards are being worn for religious reasons).

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Ancestors who were colonial administrators wore beards as part of an unofficial but widely recognised Imperial uniform.

If your male ancestors were especially religious, they might well have sported a beard to register that fact. In art, Jesus and many other biblical characters (such as Moses and Abraham) were characteristically portrayed with beards. By the midnineteenth century this age-old connection between religion and beard-wearing became accentuated.

Alternatively, your ancestor may have worn a beard for cultural reasons. Jewish men wore beards to show their observance of the Old Testament. Talmudic tradition allows Jewish men to trim their beards with scissors but not with a razor.

While your Victorian and Edwardian ancestors may have been gloriously bearded, the chances are that their sons and grandsons from the second decade of the 20th century onwards were cleanshaven. A growing awareness of the connection between bacteria and health in the Edwardian period also helped to usher in a period of clean-shavenness. During the First World War, Gillette worked out a deal with the American military that ensured every American soldier had a disposable razor as part of his standard issue gear. All soldiers were required to shave their beards so that gas masks could seal over their faces. While the wearing of beards declined in this period, moustaches flourished, and became a symbol of rank. In general, the younger the man the less extravagant his moustache.

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