Beards are back in style — but this isn’t the first time they have made a comeback.
In the 18th century, “men were almost entirely clean-shaven,” writes Alun Withey, a medical historian at the University of Exeter. “The face of the enlightened gentleman was smooth, his face youthful and his countenance clear, suggesting a mind that was also open.”
Growing a beard was a rebellious act, reserved for outcasts and renegades.
All that changed in the 19th century, when, Withey writes, “the beard came back into fashion with remarkable swiftness.” Beards became trendy, in part, because they signified the Victorian ideal of rugged manliness.
But that wasn’t all: “By 1850, doctors were beginning to encourage men to wear beards as a means of warding off illness.”
Withey, citing the work of Christopher Oldstone-Moore, explains the reasoning behind this peculiar medical advice:
The Victorian obsession with air quality saw the beard promoted as a sort of filter. A thick beard, it was reasoned, would capture the impurities before they could get inside the body. Others saw it as a means of relaxing the throat, especially for those whose work involved public speaking. Some doctors were even recommending that men grew beards to avoid sore throats.
In fact, in an 1892 letter to the Gloucester Chronicle, a man named William Johnston claimed that he grew out his beard for health reasons — with great results, he adds — and that the trend caught on like wildfire, all throughout the Gloucester area.
Here is Johnston’s letter, presented in an 1894 volume with the theory that Gloucester beards actually set a more widespread trend:
I believe that I was the first individual of the city of Gloucester (and perhaps in the county) to grow the beard and moustache. I was induced by my medical man, the late Mr J.P. Hearne, about 42 years ago, to give up shaving and let my beard and moustache grow. I had been a terrible sufferer for a good many years with very sore throat. I was just getting the better of a very severe attack when the old doctor remarked to me ‘Johnston, I advise you to give up shaving and let your beard and moustache grow, which, if you do, I believe you will not suffer again with such bad sore throat.’
I took his advice, and have not had a sore throat since, and it was the opinion of many of my friends and acquaintances in Gloucester that the moustache and beard was a great improvement to my looks and added immensely to the dignity of my countenance, so much so that a great many of them began to cultivate the beard and moustache, and amongst them a very prominent druggist (Mr Tucker) and woolen draper (Mr F.C.Newman) and within a very few years beards and moustaches were cultivated by hundreds in Gloucester and neighbourhood, and are now almost universal.
Unfortunately for shaggy-faced men of the modern era, there is little evidence to support the advice of Johnston’s “medical man.”
One recent study in Behavioural Ecology points out that “hair on the face and body are potential localised breeding sites for disease-carrying ectoparasites.” And a London dermatologist told The Guardian that since “facial hair is more likely to trap bacteria and food… there is actually more chance of infection with a beard than a clean-shaven face.”
Growing beards to ward off colds isn’t recommended, at least until more specific research is done.
Still, while the actual immune benefits of beards are hazy at best, the perception of thick facial hair as a sign of healthiness seems to have persisted. A 2013 study in Evolution and Human Behaviour found that while women see heavy stubble as the most attractive facial hair option, men with full beards are seen as the healthiest — and the most manly.
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