The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard

“Washes and razors for foofoos," scoffed Walt Whitman. But the story of 19th-century facial hair is more tangled than modern nostalgists may realize. 
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Let me declare what many already know: 2013 was a landmark year for men’s facial hair. From flamboyant beards to the proliferation of “old-fashioned” shops, evidence of the trend abounds, embracing groups as diverse as the Boston Red Sox, the men of Movember, and the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty. In dens of hipsterdom, one can hardly throw a PBR without hitting a waxed moustache. And the online craft marketplace Etsy now sells a limitless variety of wares imprinted with images of mustaches, from wine glasses to electrical outlets.

This is not the first time in recent memory that American men have sprouted facial hair in great numbers. The 1960s bristled with sideburns and beards—pared down, in the 1970s, to the decade’s iconic mustache. But one characteristic distinguishes this revival from previous ones: Today’s facial-hair enthusiasts share an affection for the ornate practices of the 1800s—the exuberant beards and ostentatious moustaches, as well as the elegance and “manliness” of the shops where those styles were cultivated.

What follows is the lost story of American facial hair. Like countless other histories, it is rife with contradictions. It begins with white Americans at the time of the Revolution who derided barbering as the work of “inferiors.” It continues with black entrepreneurs who turned it into a source of wealth and prestige. And it concludes with the advent of the beard—a fashion born out of desperation but transformed into a symbol of masculine authority and white supremacy.

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It may seem strange that barbering, which required practitioners to hold razors to their customers’ throats, was dominated by men of color in Revolutionary America. But the reasons for this were simple. Before the American Revolution, free white workers were few and their was labor expensive—especially in the southern colonies. So slaveholders in need of grooming often turned to their enslaved workforces.

"A Barber's Shop at Richmond, Virginia," from The Illustrated London News, March 9, 1861

After the Revolution, a different set of factors compelled African-Americans to work as barbers. In a new country that prized personal independence, service work seemed abhorrent to many white citizens. At the same time, the Revolution caused many Americans to rethink the morality of slavery, which led to emancipation in the Northern states and waves of manumission in the South.

Thus, thousands of former slaves—many with experience as valets, manservants, and barbers—were foisted upon a market that offered them little in the way of employment, apart from dangerous jobs in manual labor and demanding positions in household service. One of the few jobs that presented even faint hopes for prosperity was barbering. Not surprisingly, it was open almost exclusively to men.

Barbering was hard work. High-end barbers labored long hours and mastered a range of skills from shaving, cutting, and styling to making and marketing hair and body products. Barbers also typically made and repaired wigs. Even after elites abandoned the powdered wigs of the colonial era around 1800, barbers continued to do a healthy business in toupees as well as false whiskers, although they now fitted these in discreet side rooms. They even groomed the dead.

But barbers’ most difficult work was cultural in nature. Especially in the upscale venues for which African-American barbers were best known, customers demanded a high level of gentility from their surroundings. Thus, barbers were also expected to excel as interior decorators. The best of these shops were what historian Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr., author of Knights of the Razor, a painstaking history of African-American barbers, called “first-class.” And they looked much as their modern imitators reimagine them.

Barbers cultivated personae to match these surroundings. Refined in dress and graceful in movement, the best offered practical instruction in the gentlemanly arts. They were also expert conversationalists, engaging and entertaining their customers while they worked. A Salem, Massachusetts, barber, according to the Salem Gazette, was “the essence of good-nature … [His] conversation consists of what Wordsworth calls ‘personal talk.’ He deals with men, not principles. Every flying bit of news, every anecdote, and in fact, every good thing said by the leading wits of the day, seems to come right through his shop window, and to stick to him, like burs to a boy’s jacket.”

Not every interaction was so amiable. If barbers’ embodiment of gentlemanliness was too seamless, their knowledge of politics too extensive, or their jokes too pointed, customers might accuse them of overstepping racial boundaries—with potentially disastrous consequences. A Nashville, Tennessee, barber, for instance, found himself sharply rebuked by a customer when he had the temerity to ask about a piece of legislation his customers were discussing. Chances are, he didn’t make the same mistake again.

But appearance and conversation were just the tip of the iceberg. One of the barbers’ most vexing tasks involved maintaining order in their segregated workplaces. While the gentility of many shops helped restrain customers’ worst behavior, lapses were frequent. In moments like these, white patrons might squabble over politics, grow belligerent when “full of drink and insolence,” or even light each other’s hair on fire.

Keeping the peace required the lightest of touches. The laws of white supremacy—both written and unwritten—effectively forbade men of color from giving orders to customers or physically restraining them. Besides, many barbers understood the cruel reality that customers’ ability to flagrantly disrespect them was part of the space’s appeal.

But perhaps barbers’ most difficult challenge was the simple intimacy of the shop: the physical closeness of barber and patron. Here, men of color listened in on the schemes and foibles of the American elite, keeping their secrets in confidence.

Little did his customers suspect that Natchez, Mississippi, barber William Johnson was studiously recording the rumors that permeated his shop—from vicious acts of violence to white citizens’ gambling losses and marital infidelities. Johnson’s diary even refers to a moment of unexpected intimacy between two townsmen: “Mr [Blank],” Johnson confided, “attempted to suck Mr [Blank]s El panio.” Just as Johnson had intended, no one discovered this record until long after he had died.

That barbers successfully navigated these situations speaks to their discretion and grace—though many of America’s most-influential free people of color often proved harsh critics. Frederick Douglass, for example, wrote a scathing critique of the tonsorial profession in an 1853 edition of Frederick Douglass’ Paper: “To shave half a dozen faces in the morning and sleep or play the guitar in the afternoon – all this may be easy, but is it noble, is it manly, and does it improve and elevate us?”

Despite these criticisms, a number of 19th-century barbers parlayed their work into economic independence, and in a few cases, investments that brought them extraordinary wealth. In a number of U.S. cities, African-American barbers ranked among the richest and most powerful members of the free black community. By 1879, James Thomas, a former St. Louis barber who had become a real estate mogul, possessed an estate worth $400,000 (some $10 million in contemporary terms), making him the richest man of color in Missouri. His friend and neighbor, another former barber named Cyprian Clamorgan, was similarly affluent, penning a paean to black wealth and respectability entitled The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis.

Barbers were also figures of considerable influence. Despite Douglass’s criticisms, barbers occupied positions of authority in African-American organizations. They accounted for 13 of 45 delegates to Ohio’s 1852 African-American state convention. Boston barber John Smith welcomed Massachusetts antislavery Senator Charles Sumner into his shop. And countless others played humbler but crucial roles in churches and community organizations.

But barbers did more than that. They made the barbershop an iconic American space, with an appeal that, as historian Quincy T. Mills documents, endures to the present. Thus, when we think of the “old-fashioned” shop, we ought to recall the likes of James Thomas, Cyprian Clamorgan, William Johnson, and thousands of others—men who, despite fearsome limitations, shaped an American institution and left their mark, quite literally, on the men who patronized their shops.

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White men’s fondness for their black barbers didn’t last. The reasons were varied: The temperance movement and the evangelical religious revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” caused many customers to frown upon the barbershop’s liquor-fueled conviviality.

An 1846 lithograph promoting the temperance movement (Nathaniel Currier/Library of Congress)

A series of urban public health crises also had dire consequences for the shop. Sanitation in American cities remained haphazard to say the least. In New York City, for instance, monstrous pigs continued to bear responsibility for garbage disposal throughout the early 19th century. Not surprisingly, cities were ravaged by epidemics, making many Americans newly cautious about interpersonal touch. Health writers D. G. Brinton and George H. Napheys advised men to shave themselves, for “it is not pleasant to be lathered with the brush which the minute before has been rubbed on the face of we don’t know whom.”

The most important explanation for whites’ anxiety about the shop, however, involved black barbers’ growing wealth. For many, the success of leading African-American barbers seemed to threaten the social order. As white customers were shaved by men with fortunes worth many thousands of dollars, some must have wondered who was serving whom.

But the real problem ran deeper. During the 19th century, intellectuals increasingly subscribed to pseudo-scientific theories of race. Some even believed that people of different races had been the result of separate acts of creation. The German biologist Karl Vogt called whites and blacks “two extreme human types” and wrote that people of African descent “remind us irresistibly of the ape.” All of this helped buttress notions of African-Americans as primitive and intrinsically violent. 

White fears were further fed by a string of slave rebellions, from present-day Haiti to Nat Turner’s Virginia. For many whites, these seemed to confirm not the injustice of slavery but blacks’ “innate” propensity for violence. As a result, some white customers began to cast a wary eye on their barbers, who commanded resources and occupied positions of authority within their communities. Few seemed better poised to lead an insurrection.

These fears were made powerfully manifest in American fiction, where the figure of the murderous black barber became a fixture during the 19th century. Among the character’s more vivid appearances was a little-known 1847 vignette entitled “A Narrow Escape,” in which a wandering sailor enters an Alabama barbershop and watches helplessly as the shop’s barber slashes the throat of a customer. But the figure also appeared in better-known works of fiction, including Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno.

The results of these fears were dramatic. Between the turn of the century and 1850, American elites abandoned black-owned barbershops in considerable numbers. In major American cities, the number of barbers relative to the populations they served declined dramatically, as demand for their services plummeted. Ambitious young African-American men began to view barbering as a dead-end career.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the social spectrum, immigrant barbers—many of them Germans—catered to a growing population of working-class customers: men too poor, and in many cases too resentful of black barbers’ success, to patronize the best black-owned barbershops. Thus, while whites, according to Douglas Bristol, constituted a mere 20 percent of Philadelphia’s barbers in 1850, by 1860 they represented a near majority. A handful of elite black barbers continued to prosper, but the days when African-Americans dominated the trade were coming to an end.

*****

At the same time black barbers were falling out of favor, many elite white men were radically changing their views on grooming. Where the enlightened 18th century had favored a civilized, clean-shaven look, men of the mid-19th century preferred the untamed appearance of the rugged conqueror. But while facial hair ultimately became a potent symbol of mastery, it didn’t start out that way. If anything, men first adopted beards in a desperate attempt to alleviate the painfulness of their morning toilet.

Without the assistance of their former barbers, shavers had to contend with the 19th-century straight razor. A delicate and temperamental tool, its paper-thin blade required regular, careful maintenance. Even the simplest misstep could ruin it, turning the morning shave into a tug-of-war between men and their facial hair. Still, this was preferable to the alternatives. Men were known to die of tetanus after using an ill-kept blade—Henry David Thoreau’s brother John was one of them. And many lived in fear of cutting their own throats.

Even those who mastered the razor faced other trials. Despite the proliferation of pamphlets on the subject, straight-razor shaving remained a craft secret, largely confined to barbers. And home-shavers lacked many of the materials necessary for a comfortable shave—from clean water and good lighting to quality accoutrements like creams, oils, and brushes.

So it should come as little surprise that many men began avoiding shaving. Between 1800 and 1810, a mere 23 percent of grooming-related articles featured complaints of painful shaving. By the 1840s, that figure had ballooned to 45 percent. What had once been a mere annoyance turned into a veritable scourge. It was time for radical solution: Men eschewed razors in numbers and embarked, for the first time in centuries, on an era of beard-wearing.

In an 1853 Punch magazine sketch satirizing the "beard movement," an old lady is approached by helpful railway guards and "concludes she is attacked by Brigands." 

The beards of the mid-1800s were different from earlier styles of facial hair, including the mutton chops sported by Presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren. They were more unruly than the waxed mustaches and “wreath beards” of the 1820s, trends that had been inspired by the French aristocrat Count d’Orsay. Mid-19th-century facial hair was big and robust, reflecting a near-total independence from scissors and razor. 

At first, these untamed beards proved controversial. Many Americans continued to harbor 18th-century fears that beards marked maniacs, fanatics, and dissimulators. But by the late antebellum period, they were more widely accepted, thanks partly to a strenuous public relations campaign that reimagined the beard as a symbol of white, masculine supremacy.

A 21-part series in Boston’s Daily Evening Transcript, published in late 1856, was typical of such efforts. In these wide-ranging articles, pro-beard polemicists argued that the beard represented a rugged and robust ideal of manhood, proving white Americans’ dominion over “lesser” men and “inferior” races. The pseudonymous “Lynn Bard,” for instance, claimed that men took up shaving “when they began to be effeminate, or when they became slaves.” Ancient Britain’s manly Anglo-Saxons, he claimed, “wore their beards before the conquest; and it is related as a wanton act of tyranny, that William the Conqueror compelled the people to shave; but some abandoned their country” rather than submit.” (Incidentally, Victorian Englishmen were going through a beard revival of their own at that time, though for different reasons.) 

An anonymous “lady on beards,” writing in an 1856 issue of the New York Tribune, made the case even more succinctly. The “bearded races,” she proclaimed, “are the conquering races.” And in “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman transformed the case for beards into poetry: “Washes and razors for foofoos … for me freckles and a bristling beard.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the 
Seneca Falls convention 
(Library of Congress)

These appeals were especially persuasive at a time when America was in an active period of exploration and invasion, ranging from the U.S.-Mexican War to the ongoing Indian relocation and genocide. These projects were aimed primarily at peoples whom white Americans believed to be incapable of growing facial hair.

But the “manly appendage,” as one commenter grandly called the beard, also served a number of important functions closer to home. As historian Sarah Gold McBride contends, beards were one response to a growing women’s rights movement, typified by the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Faced with threats to their prerogative, men grew beards “to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.” The 19th-century beard may have sprouted from a fear of razors and a distaste for black barber shops. But it grew into a symbol that set white American men apart from smooth-faced foreigners as well as powerful women at home.

*****

This may not be the story bewhiskered moderns would like to hear. It’s easy to imagine the 19th-beard and barbershop revival as an homage to a quaint, innocent fashion trend. But today’s revival presents a chance to redeem the legacy of facial hair with a more complete understanding of the men who shaped it—a better grasp of what to keep and what to cut.

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Sean Trainor is a doctoral candidate in history and women’s studies at Penn State University.

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