collections

The Philosophy of Beards (1854)

The Philosophy of Beards: A Lecture Physiological, Artistic and Historical, by Thomas Gowing; 1875; Ipswich: J. Haddock.

Thomas Gowing felt the mighty yet fragile English Beard to be threatened with extinction by an invasive foreign species, the Razor. So he set out to defend the furry face mammal in every conceivable way. The resulting lecture was received so enthusiastically by a bushy-faced audience in Ipswich that it was soon turned into The Philosophy of Beards (1854) — the first book entirely devoted to this subject.

It is Gowing’s ardent belief that the bearded are better looking, better morally and better historically than the shaven. To call him a huge fan of the suburbs of the chin would be an understatement. “It is impossible” he writes “to view a series of bearded portraits . . . without feeling that they possess dignity, gravity, freedom, vigour, and completeness.” By contrast, the clean-cut look always leaves him with “a sense of artificial conventional bareness”. Gowing’s apology for the beard makes frequent appeals to nature, some of them amusingly far-fetched: “Nature leaves nothing but what is beautiful uncovered, and the masculine chin is seldom sightly, because it was designed to be covered, while the chins of women are generally beautiful.” Sometimes his argument transforms from a shield for the beard into a swipe at the chin: “There is scarcely indeed a more naturally disgusting object than a beardless old man (compared by the Turks to a ‘plucked pigeon’)”.

Gowing was writing at a time when physiognomy — the art of reading a person’s character in their facial features — was still popular in Europe and America. So it is no surprise to learn that “the absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness”. Gowing also takes aim at the notion that beards are unhealthy. Far from being unhygienic because of their propensity to trap feculent particles, “the beards of foreign smiths and masons filter plaster dust and metal from the air, protecting the lungs.”

In the last section, Gowing gambols through the ancient and modern past, attaching a beard or lack thereof to thousands of years of heroism and cowardice, honour and deceit. Viewing history through the prism of the beard makes things nice and simple: “The bold Barons outbearded King John, and Magna Charta was the result,” … “Henry the 7th shaved himself and fleeced his people”. Napoleon I only allowed men in his empire to have an “imperial”, an upturned triangle of a beard, as a way of letting them know “that they were to have the smallest possible share in the empire”.

At the end of his apology, Gowing issues further rebuttals of the key objections he has heard levelled against the chin curtain. It is not fair to call the beard unclean, he claims, as it takes even longer to shave it than clean it. And anyway, “the process of combing and brushing the Beard, instead of being tedious, uncertain, and often painful, like shaving, confers a positively delightful sensation, similar to that which one may imagine a cat to experience [when stroked].” Finally, he dismisses as “a foul libel” the idea that ladies don’t fancy a beard. He declares, presumably without much survey data to hand, that “Ladies, by their very nature, like everything manly,” and cannot fail to be charmed by a fine flow of curling comeliness.”

By now it will be obvious that The Philosophy of Beards is of its time and place. But while the book may be male-centric, macho-centric, Anglo-centric, and chin-centric it is also very eccentric and more than a little tongue-in-(hairy-)cheek. We have not been able to find a portrait of Thomas Gowing, but there is every reason to believe that when he wrote his book, hiding behind the thick carpet around his mouth, there sat a pair of smirking lips.

If you’d like a copy of The Philosophy, The British Library republished it in 2014, for the first time since 1854.