While beards are seen as a male fashion accessory today, beards and whiskers were associated with manliness, strength and even male beauty in the 19th century. Unfortunate Victorian men that were not able to grow bushy whiskers or beards were so anxious, that the market for products that guaranteed an increase in facial hair flourished.
Today, beards are still in fashion to a certain degree, but one of the requirements is that your beard should be trimmed neatly. Bushy, unkempt beards are definitely not sexy!
In the 19th century, masculinity was so closely associated with beards that some men took to wearing a wig with false mechanical whiskers that were attached to the face with wires and springs. This mania for beards included moustaches and side-burns, inspired by hirsute soldiers serving in the Crimea. The craze led to the first beard grooming products.
According to research done by Dr Alun Withey, a medical historian from Exeter University, the product range included beard generating growth potions, lotions to make beards more luxuriant and bigger, beard-dyes and scented beard oils. At the height of the craze, Victorian women even went as far as trying to compete with men by styling their own facial hair.
In 1863, an article appeared in the Examiner reporting that the new fashion for European ladies would be the extending of love-locks to pull them down over the cheeks to imitate whiskers.
The research done by Dr Withey on health and the male body in British society is currently on display at the Florence Nightingale Museum in London. The exhibition is aptly named ‘the Age of the Beard” and features various 19th century beards and whiskers with exotic names such as thigh ticklers, soup strainers and Piccadilly weepers.
Dr Withey noted that the nineteenth century was a golden age for beards. British men had gone beardless for well over a century before that, but then revived their love for facial hair. For Victorian men, growing a beard was however more than a fashion fad, as it was rather viewed as an essential component of men’s vigour and strength.
Withey added that although beard waxes and oils are thought of as modern, there was already a market for beard care products in the nineteenth century. These included lotions and creams to scent and soften the beard, and help it grow thick. Men not able to grow beards could either slather on creams like a so-called ‘beard generator’, or buy some of the many false whiskers and moustaches that became available at the time. Various inventors patented mechanical devices that used springs to attach false whiskers to the head.
Thomas Bowmen of New Bond Street obtained a patent in 1800. The patent described manufacturing wigs with fasteners made from springs and wires made of steel to adhere the whisker points to the face and head. The device covered parts of the head as a substitute for whiskers.
Examples of tinted wigs from Victorian times were also discovered. Whiskers were attached to the wigs using a glue that was supposed to be indistinguishable from the real thing. In Victorian, society beards were so important that Charles Dickens even wrote a treatise on the subject called “Why Shave?” Victorian newspapers reported on women leaving their husbands because they “could not live any longer with a man who had no whiskers.”
Charles Owen Martin, a postman from Lee, was arrested in August 1895 for stealing a postal order. He used the money to buy numerous products that promised to promote beard and whisker growth. The crime report stated that “His cheeks and chin are as smooth as a billiard ball and his heart was sad.”