A Hair-Razing History of the Beard: Facial Hair and Men’s Health from the Crimean War to the First World War

*the following guest blog was written by Brendan Cull, 2014 Curatorial Volunteer

The period following the Crimean War and until the end of the First World War marks an interesting time for men’s fashion and health. During the Victorian period, beards and other facial hair styles enjoyed resurgence in popularity which had not been seen since the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.[1] While the facial hair trend waned by the end of the nineteenth century,[2] enthusiasm for debating the cleanliness and overall health of bearded and non-bearded men remained strong. With increased attention to the face, and more specifically the hair on it, doctors, nurses, soldiers and the general public engaged in spirited discussions of men’s health.

The popularity of the beard in Victorian Great Britain has often been attributed to the Crimean War (1853-1856). This war consisted of a number of armed conflicts between Russia and Turkey, as well as Turkey’s allies (England, France and Sardinia). While stationed in the Crimean Peninsula, many men in the British Army began to grow beards. Partly a fashion statement, long “Crimean beards” (pictured below) also had the practical advantage of keeping soldiers warm in the local winter environment.[3] When the war ended and British troops returned home to England, the public adopted the look with great enthusiasm. Although Crimean War veterans can be credited with the resulting popularization of the bearded masculine look, interest in growing beards was already starting to gain momentum within academic and political circles back home.[4] However, with the return of successful soldiers sporting thick beards, the style became a common fixture of the modern, masculine Victorian man for approximately the next fifty years.

L0012176 Queen Victoria visiting soldiers wounded in the Crimean war. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images
L0012176 Queen Victoria visiting soldiers wounded in the Crimean war.Credit: Wellcome Library,London. Wellcome Images 

Many people began to explore the benefits of growing and maintaining facial hair during the nineteenth century. One advocate of the beard, Dr. Tom Robinson, an English physician who published an article entitled “Beards” in The St. James Magazine in 1881, links the beard to historical and contemporary research, and encourages men to grow facial hair to help prevent illness.[5] According to Robinson, who drew on medical literature dating back to the Renaissance, as well as contemporary studies from France and England, medical conditions such as loose and sore teeth, nasal catarrh (excessive mucous production in the nose, related to irritation of the mucous membrane), and facial neuralgia (sharp pain associated with nerves in the face and head) could all be prevented or even treated with the growth of facial hair.[6] In one example, he highlights a French study in which railway workers from Lyons were asked to shave their beards and the participants’ health was observed. According to the original author of the study, Monsieur Szokalski, of the 53 men who shaved, only 14 maintained good physical health.[7] Some of the shaved men also demonstrated uncooperative and rebellious behaviour.[8] Another observation included in Robinson’s article notes that soldiers with facial hair were less likely to be admitted to hospital with respiratory ailments such as bronchitis because it was believed that the hair could sift out harmful particles in the air.[9] As a result of these reports, in addition to other pro-beard endorsements, many men chose to grow their facial hair, sporting styles which ranged from large moustaches to long beards. Participants in this trend included farmers, judges, lawyers, sailors, politicians[10] and even those who provided health care services (pictured below).[11]

 

This composite photograph of the graduating class of the University of Toronto’s Medical College from 1888 demonstrates the popularity of the beard even amongst doctors and medical students in Canada (click on image to enlarge). The style also came to British North America following the Crimean War and remained popular well after Confederation in 1867. Museum of Health Care # 1984.6.162
This composite photograph of the graduating class of the University of Toronto’s Medical College from 1888 demonstrates the popularity of the beard even among doctors and medical students in Canada (click on image to enlarge). The style also came to British North America following the Crimean War and remained popular well after Confederation in 1867. Museum of Health Care # 1984.6.162

While many people promoted the health benefits of a hairy face, general opinion towards the beard began to turn sour at the turn of the twentieth century. By the 1890s, it became common practice to shave beards while patients were hospitalized.[12] As germ theory was accepted and shared publically, facial hair became problematic. Research showed that beards could harbour bacteria which might lead to the spread of infectious diseases.[13] For example, spittle caught in the hairs of the beard could contain tuberculosis.[14] With contact, the disease could be passed from person to person. As a result, at the beginning of the twentieth century, hospitals in Britain banned beards altogether and nurses were expected to remove facial hair, likely employing straight razors (see below), as part of their health care duties.[15]

A straight razor from the nineteenth century. This kind of tool would have been used by health care providers to shave patients’ faces before safety razors were invented in the early twentieth century. Museum of Health Care #1980.18.95
A straight razor from the nineteenth century. This kind of tool would have been used by health care providers to shave patients’ faces before safety razors were invented in the early twentieth century. Museum of Health Care #1980.18.95

In North America, by 1901 the beard was considered a public health issue. The contamination of milk supplies in New York became an international headline when it was argued that facial hair could harbour farmyard dirt or tuberculosis, which could then end up in the milk, infecting it with deadly bacteria.[16] Consequently, the Milk Commission of the Medical Society of the County of New York put into place a regulation which ensured that only clean-shaven men would be allowed to milk cows and deliver their product to distribution centres.[17] This new rule also extended to doctors. Just like dairymen, doctors were exposed to bacteria and diseases which could become trapped in their facial hair, leading to suspicions of an increase in mortality rates among their patients.[18]

By the First World War (1914-1918) removing facial hair had once again become common practice. With the popularization and mass-production of Gilette’s disposable razor (pictured below) and the military requirement that each man have a shaving kit and maintain a hair-free face, the beard declined in popularity.[19]

A Gillette safety razor manufactured in Canada. King C. Gillette’s design includes double-sided disposable blades made from sheet metal and a handle which screws open at the top to hold the blade. This example was produced circa 1932. Museum of Health Care #998.003.063
A Gillette safety razor manufactured in Canada. King C. Gillette’s design includes double-sided disposable blades made from sheet metal and a handle which screws open at the top to hold the blade. This example was produced circa 1932. Museum of Health Care #998.003.063

Achieving a clean-shaven face was not without its challenges, however. Many reports circulated in newspapers during the war that shaving brushes (pictured below) posed a major health risk to men on the front lines. Anthrax, an aggressive bacterial disease that can be passed from some farm animals to humans, infected and killed soldiers who had used contaminated brushes to apply shaving soap. An enquiry led by Dr. Francis Coutts revealed that the disease was being spread via cheap shaving brushes made from horse hair which had not been properly disinfected.[20] In a newspaper report from 1917, the British War Office accused a Montreal drug company of supplying infected brushes produced in the United States.[21] The fight against anthrax continued following the war, with horse bristle shaving brushes remaining a major problem for soldiers and civilians.[22]

A shaving brush dating to the nineteenth century. The brush pictured here is made of “pure badger hair” as indicated on its handle. Museum of Health Care #1980.18.115
A shaving brush dating to the nineteenth century. The brush pictured here is made of “pure badger hair” as indicated on its handle. Museum of Health Care #1980.18.11 

While fashion was one influence on a man’s choice to grow a beard or to shave, it is clear that health played a significant role in the way in which people viewed facial hair. The stories highlighted above, taken from literature published between the Crimean and First World wars, demonstrate the public’s keen interest in this subject. Ultimately, the hairy and clean shaved face had health-related implications for people of various social and professional groups within British and North American society, including doctors, nurses, farmers, soldiers, government officials and the general public.

 

 

In February 2015 the Museum of Health Care will be launching an exhibit on the history of health care and health care workers during World War 1. Visit us Tue-Fri 10am-4pm, 32 George St, Kingston, ON. 

Bibliography

Anonymous. “Anthrax and Shaving Brushes.” The British Medical Journal 1, no. 2948 (1917): 882.

Anonymous. “Anthrax in Shaving Brushes.” Public Health 30 (1916): 143.

Anonymous. “Shaving Was Clinical Duty in 1890s.” Nursing Standard 26, no. 42 (2012): 10.

Anonymous. “The passing of the beard.” British Medical Journal 2 (1902): 273.

Chicago Daily Tribune. “Beards and Bacteria.” October 19, 1901, pp. 16.

Hadden, J. Cuthbert. “Beards and No Beards.” The English Illustrated Magazine 109 (1892): 27-34.

Much, Marilyn. “King Gillette Became A Razor-Sharp Entrepreneur.” Investor’s Business Daily, January 29, 2009.

Oldstone-Moore, Christopher. “The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain.” Victorian Studies 48, no. 1 (2005): 7.

Robinson, Tom. “Beards,” The St. James’s Magazine 4, no. 40 (1881): 387.

The Atlanta Constitution. “Vanity, Greed and Hygiene Combine to Banish the Beard.” February 23, 1902, A4. 

The New York Times. “Shaving Brushes Anthrax Carriers: Laboratory Division of Army Traced Disease Among Soldiers to Infected Bristles.” August 18, 1919, pp. 11.

 

[1] Christopher Oldstone-Moore, “The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain,” Victorian Studies 48, no. 1 (2005): 7.

[2] The Atlanta Constitution, “Vanity, Greed and Hygiene Combine to Banish the Beard,” February 23, 1902, A4.

[3] Anonymous, “Shaving Was Clinical Duty in 1890s,” Nursing Standard 26, no. 42 (2012): 10.

[4] Oldstone-Moore, “The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain,” 7.

[5] Tom Robinson, “Beards,” The St. James’s Magazine 4, no. 40 (1881): 387.

[6] Ibid., 385-386.

[7] Ibid., 386.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 387.

[11] The Atlanta Constitution, “Vanity, Greed and Hygiene Combine to Banish the Beard,” A4.

[12] Anonymous, “Shaving Was Clinical Duty in 1890s,” 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] The Atlanta Constitution, “Vanity, Greed and Hygiene Combine to Banish the Beard,” A4.

[17] Chicago Daily Tribune, “Beards and Bacteria,” October 19, 1901, pp. 16.

[18] The Atlanta Constitution, “Vanity, Greed and Hygiene Combine to Banish the Beard,” A4.

[19] Marilyn Much, “King Gillette Became A Razor-Sharp Entrepreneur,” Investor’s Business Daily, January 29, 2009.

[20] Anonymous, “Anthrax and Shaving Brushes,” The British Medical Journal 1, no. 2948 (1917): 882.

[21] Anonymous, “Anthrax in Shaving Brushes,” Public Health, 30 (1916): 143.

[22] The New York Times, “Shaving Brushes Anthrax Carriers: Laboratory Division of Army Traced Disease Among Soldiers to Infected Bristles,” August 18, 1919, pp. 11.

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