Friday, May 20, 2011

By the hair of my chin: Facial hair through the ages

Presented to the Club by William A. Selke on Monday evening, March 21, 2011

It was on "The hair of my chin," his beard, that the little pig vowed his defiance to the wolf. With men, as well as well as little pigs, beards have been traditional symbols of maleness, and, in some eras, have had important significance. Implying that a man would rather emasculate his chin than fail to live up to a promise is reflected in the oath, “By my beard” used by Shakespeare in “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” In all but the most primitive societies, when a beard was worn, it has been a conscious choice, but that choice has waxed and waned throughout history. It is the wearing of beards, and the razors for removing them, that we will consider this evening.

On display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo are several oval gold disks, with small handles on one side, identified as razors of the period four millennia ago. If one doubted that these devices were effective, relics and pictures of Egyptian royalty of that period show the men shaven, though in some cases with a small circular beard, real or artificial – of gold – in the middle of their chins. Clean chins and jaws have been a possible choice for the elite for a very long time.

Meanwhile, across the Red Sea, Jews following the instructions in Leviticus, Chapter 19, verse 27 wore truly full beards. That verse states that “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads; neither shall thou mar the corners of thy beard.” (We might note that verse 18 of that same chapter includes the “Great Commandment “ –“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”) Over the course of history, we’ll see men adding or removing their beards for indefinite reasons, but in this case the authority is clear.

Moving forward to ancient Greece we note that Zeus was always bearded, as was Poseidon. but the young god, Apollo, was usually represented as a beardless youth, a kouros. Statues of mortals are less common, but the customs of the mortals can be inferred from contemporaneous statues of the gods. The similarity in appearance of gods and mortals is evident in the fact that a number of unwitting women bore children fathered by gods whom they had mistaken for their husbands. Hermes, always free-spirited, wore a beard when posing for his early statues, but was beardless from the fifth century BCE.

Greek fashions changed after Alexander the Great’s sweep of conquest in the 4th century BCE. He ordered that all his troops remove their beards, so as to deny the enemy handles by which soldiers could be grabbed and killed. While it was introduced for practical military reasons, shaving spread through the Macedonian Empire as fashion. When a beard was worn, it would be by a philosopher, as a professional badge. This predictably led to proverbs such as “The beard does not make the sage.” So, in the third century BCE, the majority of aristocratic Greeks shaved.

As the Roman forces took over the Greek Empire, the Hellenistic era begins with the conquerors learning to imitate the Greeks they had conquered. That most expert military leader, Scipio Africanus, who was granted that name for his conquering of Hannibal in 202 BCE, is represented in Rome clean-shaven in a splendid bronze bust. And that style was followed by all the early Caesars . Shaven Ceasars were the rule until 117 AD, when the brilliant and transformative leader, Hadrian, wore a beard to signify his respect for the cultural richness of the Greece of 500 years earlier. His successors followed his model for centuries.

Looking at the Middle East two thousand year ago, we ask did Jesus wear a beard? We never see representations of him without one, and we can be sure that no artist took it upon himself to make such an important decision himself. The teachings of Leviticus were, from the start followed carefully by members of some groups – the orthodox Jews throughout time – but not widely. Nowhere in the Gospels is there direct mention of Christ’s beard, nor, for that matter of its absence. The evidence of his beard comes from centuries of biblical scholarship. The Old Testament book of Isaiah, you will recall, foretells the coming of the Messiah. Chapter 5, verse 6 states “I gave my back to those who strike Me, and my cheeks to those who pluck out the beard.” This is indirect, but unassailable proof.

In his depiction of the Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci showed all of those gathered with beards except for two. One of these is conventionally identified as the Apostle John, known to be younger than his fellows, and therefore, frequently shown as beardless, as was Apollo, the young one in an earlier holy group. On less distinct grounds, the other beardless man is thought to be the Apostle Philip. One would hope it is with tongue in cheek that some feminists now question those identifications, all of them male. They propose that one of the beardless figures is Mary Magdalene and the other, perhaps Martha.

In the Islamic tradition, God commanded Abraham to keep his beard. Accordingly, Muhammad encouraged the growing of beards. In recent times, only a minority of schools of Islamic Law regard beard wearing as compulsory, but all regard it as at least commendable.

Whether the man is Greek or Roman or Jew, his beard starts to grow when, during puberty, pre-existing hair follicles are stimulated by dihydrotestosterone, a derivative of the male hormone, testosterone. A particular follicle will produce hair for a fixed period, designated the anagen. The length a hair can reach depends on the duration of the anagen; since the hair is dead, its growth is not influenced by whether it is cut or not. The anagen of follicles on the arm, for example, will be a few weeks to three months. On the scalp or chin, it is two to six years. When the anagen is over, during a period called the catagen, no further length is added, but a clublike end is put on the base of the hair. After a few months of rest, the follicle pushes out the old hair and another anagen commences.

There are significant differences in the beards of men of different races with in general Caucasians with bigger beards than East Asians. What might be called the earliest Asian immigrants in the US, the so-called native Americans,” are essentially beardless.

Looking for a group within the Caucasian race with a genetic difference in beard length, one might look at the Lombards, the Germanic group which conquered northern Italy in the 6th century and who controlled most of Italy near the end of the seventh. Their name, Lombard, is indeed a latinization of “Longo bardi,” — long beard. I was disappointed to find that the there is no evidence that the anagen period of the chins of Lombard men was ever unusually long. Instead, the name comes from what is probably a fanciful tradition. As the story is told, when the ancestors of the Lombards were a very small tribe in Northern Europe they found themselves opposed by superior force. As they lined up to battle their foe, they were badly outnumbered by the attacking tribe. The order went out for the women to pull their long hair up over their faces and to stand next to their husbands This fooled the invaders and brought instant victory. The term, Lombardy, whatever its true derivation, remains the name of the northern part of Italy, where the descendents of the Germanic invaders remain to this day.

Psychological warfare is not a recent innovation. When those early German tribes were threatening Rome, the defenders tried to demonize their opponents by attributing atrocities to them. They alleged that before a young German man was allowed to wear a beard, he must personally kill a Roman. Whether that was accurate or mere slander, it is an example of the current customs by which the wearing or the shaving of a beard is governed by tests of manhood. In some groups, one can shave only after killing a deer. In others, shaving follows finishing hockey playoffs. A feature of the 250th birthday celebration of Great Barrington is a contest for the longest, bushiest, and most creative beards. After the judging, participants will have “…those follicles (sic) removed for free…” at Sim’s Barber Shop. For some men, unhappy about the trends of our society, the appeal of any customs involving beards is that they are among the last refuges that can’t be invaded by women

In Renaissance Europe, church hierarchies kept switching between requiring priests to be shaven and forbidding them to wear beards. Martin Luther wore a beard, and so young Reformist priests wore beards as marks of their positions. Across the Channel, Henry VIII wore a beard, and his archbishop, Henry Cranmer, honored Henry by growing a notable beard. His subsequent defiance of the catholic Mary I led to his being burned at the stake as a heretic in 1556. With the resumption of the Reformation, it was the bearded Catholic priests who perished on the stake.

In his 1949 book “Beards: Their social standing, religious involvements, decorative possibilities, and value in offense and defense through the ages,” Reginald Reynolds relates how in the 16th and 17th centuries there were constant fights within the church hierarchy as to whether the wearing of beards should be mandatory, or should be proscribed. The disputants were bitter in their partisanship, even though they could not have believed that either side had divine favor. The theologian Valerino Bolzai acknowledged that neutrality with his judgment that “God is not offended by hair,” In Italy some in the clerical community seems reluctant to let shaving be a personal or a parochial choice. In 1656, in Benevento, an Antibeard Party lost in its bid before the regional council for ecclesiastical enforcement of their position that priests must shave. In a show of good sense, that council held that the only theological limitation on facial hair was that mustaches must be sufficiently short as to avoid defiling the sacrament

Even though the switches in custom over the last millennium are dictates of fashion, not instructions from a deity. Following the local style could be an essential career move. Monarchs are accustomed to being flattered, and we know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Thus when bare-chinned, eight-year old Louis XIII ascended the French throne in 1610, beards disappeared from court. Philip 5th of Spain, crowned in 1683, couldn’t grow a beard. So members of his court also displayed bare cheeks and chins.

Getting closer to our time we note that mid-19th century figures such as Nathaniel Hawthorne just had big mustaches, but by the end of that century the leading literary figures wore beards. Melville and Henry James and James Russell Lowell all sported beards. J. Willard Gibbs of Yale – the first American Ph.D. in engineering, father of chemical thermodynamics, is always pictured with a beard. The leaders in other fields at that time are also pictured with beards, Charles Darwin, Richard Wagner, Auguste Rodin, to name a few.

While numerous generals and civilian leaders wore beards in the early 19th century, our presidency has generally had fewer beards than business and political leaders of their eras. The New York Times recently showed an unfamiliar picture of Lincoln, taken in June 1860. One sees that he has not yet joined what was a nationwide swing to beards. A photograph from later that year shows him starting the beard which in 1861 marked the man we remember. There was a short run of presidential non-shavers, but that ended, with Benjamin Harrison being our last bearded president. After the terms of William Howard Taft, no facial hair at all has been worn in the White House.

For thousands of years, the means existed for men to be shaven if they wished. The metals used for razors followed the general advances of technology, with bronze replacing gold and iron replacing bronze. After the eruption of Vesuvius an 79 AD, pieces of glassy obsidian provided a sharper edge than the metal of the day. Obsidian knives were employed for ceremonial sacrifice by the pre-Columbian Meso-Americans

Eventually, there developed the open-bladed steel straight razor with folding handle, and the strop for the final sharpening This was the true classic design, the standard of excellence for centuries. In the OED, there is a citation for “strop: strip of leather or wood covered with leather for sharpening razors” dated 1702.

Some men found the idea of straight razors near their throats worrisome. They might have shaved themselves were it not for the fear of accidental suicide. In recognition of these potential users in the late 1800s several so-called safety razors were brought to market. In every case, the guard, which protected the throat, prevented the sharpening of the blade in place, making shaving a rather involved process. In 1898, the American team of William Nickerson and King Gillette patented a safety razor with easily changeable disposable blade. Gillette was at that time a very successful salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company. From that experience he knew it was possible to make a lot of money by supplying a large number of well-made small and simple objects. (These caps sealed 90 percent of the beer bottles we saw earlier this season). Gillette’s razor was introduced to the market in 1902 and immediately took a leading share of this growing field. Gilllette is usually, but undeservedly, regarded as the inventor of the business model in which the razor is sold at a loss and the profit comes from the sale of the blades. In its introduction, his razor sold for a very high price, five 1902 dollars. Later, to maintain share in the emerging market, he copied his competitors, who already had adopted the strategy usually referred to as ”giving away the razor.” (Currently there may be no better example of this business model than the pricing of computer scanner-printers. The price of two pairs of short-lived refills – color and black – exceeds the price of the printer, itself.)

At some point in the history of shaving there appeared a vital accessory product, the little white styptic pencil, to stanch the flow of blood from the inevitable nick or gouge. While I mention these little cuts in connection with straight razors, only with the advent of plastic injector cartridges was nicking entirely eliminated. Those without a styptic pencil stuck a bit of tissue paper on the bleeding spots, hoping to remember to remove them before the public day began.

Gillette had a flair for marketing, and he expanded the market of shavers. His picture was part of the trademark and appeared on every folder of blades. In 1910, after Theodore Roosevelt had left the presidency of the United States, with great fanfare, Gillette offered him the presidency of the Gillette corporation at a salary of one million dollars. Of course Roosevelt declined, but at very little cost, each party received desired publicity.

Throughout the western world, the first decades of the twentieth century saw change from one in which all men had beards to one in which almost all shaved (or were shaved) daily. The introduction of the safety razor must have helped, but there were other forces in the same direction. In World War I, many of the British inductees, rural laborers, most of whom were bearded, were found to be infested with head lice. The vital step in fighting these parasites was denying them shelter, which meant ridding the soldier of hair, both from his head and from his face. From then on, he had to shave. Among American draftees, infestations were not as severe, but sanitation still favored clean shaving. To this end, the army bought a Gillette shaving set for each inductee, and, of course, made every inductee a consumer of Gillette’s blades. The advent of gas warfare in World War I brought forth an issue somewhat parallel to that faced by Alexander’s Macedonian troops. Beards could interfere with the sealing of gas masks. On this basis the armies of many countries still require that in some branches, if not all, soldiers be clean-shaven. Concern about the fitting of emergency oxygen masks led to the world-wide prohibition of beards on airline pilots.

In the 1920s, beards became a rarity. The only bearded man that I can remember seeing in the flesh, except for the department store Santa, was an uncle, who stereotypically was an alienist. That trend continued through World War II, so that beard wearing in the United States fell to its all-time low by the 1950s. Teaching at Columbia at that time, I don’t remember any of the academic giants of the Philosophy or the English Departments following the example of the bearded philosophers of ancient Athens. Elsewhere, there were small numbers of beard-wearers, following the customs of their groups. An example are Amish men. Young bachelors must be clean shaven, but upon marrying, the Amish man grows a beard which he wears for the rest of his life. The leaders of the Eastern Orthodox church retained their beards. Some Catholic monastic orders continued, and still continue to wear beards, and as do orthodox Jews. But all these small groups together represent a small fraction of American men.

In the late 1960s, the trend reversed, and we started to see more beards. These new beards were not on the Melvilles of the day, but on young men who spurned conventional fashion. But, as we come up to the present, beards spread more and more widely in our society, and lately appear more on members of the Establishment than of the counterculture. The neatly dressed young Mormons who ring our doorbells did not abandon shaving, but members of a wide range of the professions have done so. In the past few days I’ve seen pictures of the following: David Wessel, Economics editor of the Wall Street Journal, Bruce Josten, Chief lobbyist of the US Chamber of Commerce, Randy Moss, wide receiver, Dr. C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General, Benjamin Bernanke, Federal Reserve Chairman, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged terrorist .

Picking up on the story of razors, we find that although his company thrived, Gillette, himself, having been spectacularly extravagant, suffered ruinously in the great depression. When he died in 1932 he was almost bankrupt. From the very beginning, Gillette razors dominated the market around the world. But in 1960, their position was challenged by a competitor, Wilkinson Sword of Sheffield, England, who introduced a superior blade. It was of stainless steel. It was known that when a blade is used, it rendered the blade dull. The stainless alloy used by Wilkinson extended the life of the blade more than enough to justify its premium price. But after a brief dent in their market share, Gillette blades, now stainless, were again dominant.

The Gillette Company thrived, buying up competitors and other consumer-care businesses including Oral-B, Duracell, and Braun. The company was finally sold to Procter and Gamble for $57 billion in 2005 and the brand name Gillette is still strong.

The pairing of Gillette razors and Duracell dry cells matches the fact that the Wilkinson Sword Company, which sells its razors in the US under the Schick tradename, is now owned by Eveready Battery, the Energizer Company These groupings of product lines — razors and batteries — are evidence that in modern business, having common distribution channels is more important than, for example, having similar technological bases.

The American inventor Col. Jacob Schick introduced the first electric shaver in 1928, starting what is called in the trade “dry” shaving (the traditional use of razors being called “wet”). Dry shaving had a further lift when Remington Rand introduced an electric shaver in 1937. More recently, a third design, called a Rotary razor, was introduced by Philips Laboratories. Dry shaving changed where one shaved; it didn’t need to be to the bathroom. Then, with the introduction of rechargeable batteries, it was not even tied to the electric socket and so really set free. Driving in morning commuter traffic in Atlanta one sees almost equal numbers of men, telephoning, drinking caffeinated beverages, and shaving.

Reliable statistics on how American men treat their cheeks are hard to find. Any survey involving the internet is prone to distortion by a disproportionate participation by prepubescent boys. With that caveat, consider a recent report:

  • Wet shaving — 45 percent
  • Dry shaving — 17 percent
  • Not shaving — 38 percent

Another survey found that 75 percent of men shave daily. Of the nonshavers, 7 percent cite religious restrictions — presumably these include Orthodox Jews as well as Amish Christians. That survey found 64 percent wet shavers vs. 11 percent dry shaving. It should be noted that some of the newer electric razors are waterproof, leaving ambiguous whether the “wet” category includes electric shavers used with water.

If an anthropologist wanted to fix the date of construction of an American house of the 20th century, he could inspect the bathroom and note changes to accommodate differences in how we shaved. One clue would be the presence or absence of a slot in the back of the medicine cabinet for used razor blades. We used to poke our blades in there, only occasionally wondering about their ultimate fate. When it was no longer a simple blade that we discarded, but instead an injector, or an entire plastic-handled razor, the slot was too narrow to accommodate it, But, for that matter, those discards would not be pose the disposal problem as did a menacing bare blade. Next, the spread of electric razors spurred the installation of Ground-fault- detector electric plugs near the bathroom mirror

My recollections of my first professional haircuts, are of the wonderful barber chairs, and white-coated men wielding frightening straight razors bending over customers, whose faces were covered with thick foam, whipped up with a brush which had been in one of the elegant mugs from the shelves which covered the back wall of the shop. But that hedonistic luxury of being shaved by a barber has almost vanished from our lives. My barber in Lee shaves a few men each week. Generally, they are men physically unable to shave themselves, because of fractured limbs or severe palsy. Theirs is not the excellence achieved only with a straight razor; he uses a cheap plastic throw-away. In New York City one can still be shaved with the incomparable straight razor. The Metropolitan section of the Sunday Times of November 14 carried a feature entitled “A Straight Razor, a Warm Towel, a Fading Art.” It tells about The Hair Box, a storefront in Soho, which has housed a barber shop for over 100 years. There, old Italian men enjoy haircuts for $20, and shaves for $17. For a very different clientele the Style section a week later mentions that places like the “fancy pants” New York Shaving Company in NoLita, charge $25 to $40 for a straight razor hot shave.

For millennia, man had shaved with single blades. Very slight gains in closeness of shave can be demonstrated by two-blade assemblies at little additional cost. The second blade stretches the skin, pushing up the follicle as did the free hand of the user of a straight razor. But with the fraction of American men shaving having fallen so radically in the past 50 years, one might wonder why Gillette and Schick spend so much on developing flashier and flashier new razors, adding blade after blade for incremental, if detectable, improvement in actual performance? However, there is a rational explanation, viz. the evolution of the broadcasting of sports events on television. The audience for these broadcasts is well matched to shaving devices, and pictures of these products can be quite alluring. Verbal descriptions of a razor with – now — one more blade than the competitor’s couldn’t have stirred much interest in “play-by-play” but now men don’t give much thought to spending a dime or two more each day for fancier new razors. Were it not for playoffs and the World Series, we might never have had razors with more than two blades?

While it may not have been a widespread feeling, I believe that many of us would have worn beards in the past had we not faced a serious obstacle. That barrier was the awkward period between the stopping of shaving and the displaying of a recognizable beard. A recent development makes it possible to make that transition without at any point being out of style. In much earlier eras, aristocratic German youths sat for portraits wearing several days’ growth of beard – stubble. In the 60s, a stunt by some trend-setting American young men was to appear ostensibly unshaven, wearing one, or two, or three day’s growth of stubble. Third day growth, for example, is clearly perishable, but daily use of an electric clipper with suitable spacers permitted presenting the same – presumably transient — appearance day after day. American television viewers were introduced to stubble by a series called Miami Vice carried by NBC in the 1984 to 1989 seasons. Appropriately, the clipping equipment to maintain the stubble was called a Miami Device. (Recently, I saw one for sale in a local drugstore for $15). This practice was given impetus by publication of what was purported to be the results of a poll in the UK. It stated that women rated men with facial stubble as tough, mature, aggressive, dominant and masculine, and judged them as the best romantic partners either for a fling, or for a longtime relationship With endorsements like that, it is not surprising that the wearing of stubble spread around the globe like a porcine flu.

It is ironic to contrast the current glamorization of stubble with the attitude towards five-o’clock shadow in 1960. For the first televised debate, presidential candidate Richard Nixon spurned the use of makeup to cover his five-o’clock shadow. He lost badly and it is generally agreed that his appearance that night contributed significantly to that loss. And as for importance of the debate, we should note that in the general election Nixon received only 0.2 percent fewer votes than Kennedy.

Over the span of history, we’ve seen the fashion in beards swinging back and forth, even within the 140 years of our club. Were you to be required to make a prediction, would you expect such oscillations in style to continue through the next 140 years?

Phone by dawkeye, used under Creative Commons License.

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