Stories

Lloyd's Register and the Victorian Beard Movement

alun

Author

Dr Alun Withey

Alun Withey is a Senior Lecturer at Exeter University, specialising in the history of medicine between the 17th and 19th centuries. He has published several books, including a study of medicine in 17th century Wales and technologies for the body in the 18th century. He has recently completed a major study of the history of facial hair in Britain, and his new book Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England, 1650-1900.

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Wednesday, August 04 2021
Introduction
This is the first installment of a six part serial about Lloyd's Register and the Victorian Beard Movement written by Dr. Alun Withey. To find out about all upcoming releases, sign up to the Heritage & Education Centre's mailing list.
 
 

The photographic collection of the Victorian men of Lloyd’s Register contain a fine display of facial hair. Here are all sorts of fashions, from moustaches and whiskers to full ‘cathedral’ beards. It’s perhaps easy to overlook but, in fact, these men were actually part of a new phenomenon. ...the great Victorian ‘beard movement’.

In the first half of the 19th century, facial hair had been seriously out of fashion. As it had been throughout the 18th century, the masculine ideal was for the clean-shaven face, which reflected gentlemanly control over appearance, neatness and elegance. Around 1850, however, attitudes began to change, and facial hair came suddenly and dramatically back into fashion. There were many reasons for this. At a basic level, facial hair fashions often go in cycles. After nearly 150 years of beardlessness, perhaps the time was right for change.

But it was more than this. The mid nineteenth century was a time of rapid change, with industrialisation, new ways of working, changes in gender relationships, and with women, agitating for greater rights and freedoms, there was a growing anxiety amongst men that their ‘natural’ authority, and in fact their very masculinity, was being eroded. Amidst all this rapid change the beard took on new significance as a reassuring symbol of something permanent - an emblem of manliness.

The Beard Movement

There were certainly new bearded heroes to whom men could look as exemplars of rough and rugged masculinity. Soldiers returning from the Crimean war, for example, had grown their beards long. This was partly because it made them look fearsome, but also because they believed that long beards would protect them from the harsh elements. It was said that a long beard was a soldier’s best friend, keeping his face cool by day, and warm by night.

Other bearded heroes included notable Victorian explorers, who again let their beards grow long as they immersed themselves in wild nature. Simply by growing a full beard, the clerk, locked in his counting house, or the worker in the factory, could look to imitate these tough new heroes, and remind himself that he was still a man!

The fashion quickly took off, and by 1853, newspapers were full of reports of what they called the ‘beard movement’. Initially, writers poked fun at the fantastic length to which some men were growing their facial hair, likening them to wild men. But support swiftly grew, and a raft of articles began to emerge, trying to convince doubtful men that they should propagate a full crop of whiskers.

Nature's Sentinel

Amongst the most common arguments made in support of beards were that they were healthy. Claiming to be based on hard medical evidence (although often vague in terms of its source), a wide range of health benefits were ascribed to beards. These included keeping the face warm in harsh weather, and preventing frostbite, as well as improving a man’s face. ‘The beard that has never been cut is beautiful’ exclaimed an article in The Crayon magazine. But it was also claimed that the beard was ‘nature’s sentinel’ - a natural protector of the nose, throat and lungs against all sorts of pulmonary disease.  

Some claimed that the beard protected teeth. Amongst the more unusual assertions was that facial hair had a direct relationship with the eyes. This was easy to prove, it was alleged, by the fact that eyes watered if the beard was pulled!  

Perhaps most common was the claim that beards were claimed to be a sort of natural filter, or face mask, which stopped dust and germs before they could enter the nose and mouth and damage the lungs. As such, beards were recommended for men working in dusty trades, such as coal miners, stonemasons, and railway workers. Since they protected against harsh weather, beards were also recommended for men working outside, but also for travellers heading off on voyages. What better to protect a man’s face from the bitter blasts and driving spray aboard a ship in a gale than a full, magisterial, ‘cathedral’ beard?! 

The beard, therefore, was both a natural emblem of manliness, but also nature’s protector against a wide range of dangers. The beard movement lasted from the early 1850s until the late 1870s, by which time it had started to lose it momentum. Younger men in particular were keen for change, and were re-discovering the razor, as well as experimenting with the moustache, rather than the full beard.  

Footnote hovee text

Ships & documents in this story

Lake Simcoe, 1871

Build year: 1871

12 Related objects

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Mallard, 1882

Build year: 1882

29 Related objects

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Cover note for Mallard, 3rd June 1882

Date of document: 03/06/1882

Mallard

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  1. Lake Simcoe, 1871
  2. Mallard, 1882
  3. Cover note for Mallard, 3rd June 1882

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