Monday, July 23, 2018

Beards and Facial Hair

Given the mountain of evidence and research regarding facial hair in the eighteenth century, and the years of debate over whether and how prevalent beards were during the period, it shouldn't surprise anyone that the debate has been settled.

Beards aren't a thing.

Perhaps more appropriately, I should say that beards aren't a thing sailors chose to wear, except in the most dire circumstances. In the hundreds of images I've examined, only four clearly show beards.
Without._from the London Gazette of 11 June, 1757, T. Ewart,
Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
A new way to pay the National-Debt, James Gillray, 1786, British Museum.
Plate from Histoire des Naufrages, engraved by Marillier, 1788,
John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.
Frost on the Thames, Samuel Collings, 1788-1789, Yale Center for British Art.
In all of these situations, sailors are depicted ashore and worse for wear. The beards represent their rock-bottom situation. The first two shown here are political cartoons in which the artist is specifically calling out the ministry for neglecting the sailors that protect their nation, and so condemning them to poverty.

This appears to be the case in what few references there are in sailors' memoirs, too. Ebenezer Fox, writing many decades after his experiences, claimed that prisoners on the hulk Jersey had 'their beards never cut, excepting occasionally with a pair of shears, which did not improve their comeliness, though it might add to their comfort.'[1] Despite their condition, they still sought to cut away what facial hair they could.

I've found only one case in which a sailor chose to wear a beard in this period. When John Nicol learned that a press gang awaited him back at port, 'I had allowed my beard to grow long and myself to be very dirty to be as unlikely as possible when the man-of-war boats came on board to press the crew.'[2] He believed, perhaps rightly, that the Royal Navy had no interest in taking a dirty, bearded soul that might infect their ship. While it is likely that Nicol did more than grow a beard to appear disheveled and undesirable, it was the only specific action he relates in this goal. Nicol thought that the beard was essential to looking 'very dirty.'

Beards continue to be depicted in movies, television, and video games about the eighteenth century, and continue to be worn by historical reenactors portraying average sailors. Some of this is obstinacy, with more than a few online forums being inundated with bearded fellows who refuse to give up against historical evidence. Some of it is genuine misunderstanding of historical evidence. The word 'beard' could sometimes be misleadingly used as referring to what we might recognize as scruff or a five o'clock shadow. In Hannah Snell's memoirs, she is said to have been ridiculed by her fellow tars (who were unaware she was a woman posing as a man) 'for want of having a rough beard as they had.'[3]

Some sailors undoubtedly did wear sideburns, as depicted by Copley in his masterpiece Watson and the Shark.
Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley, 1778, National Gallery of Art
The average Jack Tar went clean shaven. He might be forced to grow out a beard when wrecked on a distant shore, or destitute on the street, but by far the overwhelming majority of sailors took a razor to their facial hair.

[1] Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, Boston: Charles Fox, 1847, page 108.
[2] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 162.
[3] Snell, Hannah, The Female Soldier; Or, The Surprising Life and Adventures of  Hannah Snell, London: R. Walker, 1750, in The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot, Tucson, Arizona: Fireship Press, 2008, page 26.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Book Review: Warships in the Age of Sail

Two things I want to get out of the way right off the bat: I highly recommend this series, and it is not for everyone.

Rif Winfield has done a phenomenal job with the shockingly huge body of information collected into three series. The most well known and most relevant to my work is his British Warships in the Age of Sail. Winfield catalogs every warship of the British Royal Navy. This effort was broken up over four volumes: 1603-17141714-17921793-1817, and 1817-1873, all of which are currently published by Seaforth.
In his second series, Winfield was joined by Stephen S. Roberts to document French warships. Published by the Naval Institute Press, this series consists of two volumes: 1626-1786 and 1786-1862. The latest in this series is a volume on the Dutch navy, focusing on 1600-1714, and is the first in which Rif Winfield had no hand, being written by James Bender.

All of these books are of excellent quality, but are hyper focused. If you are expecting an narrative crammed with yardarm to yardarm sea battles, you'll be disappointed. These are strictly reference volumes, preceded by a brief history of the conflicts in which the warships took part, often reducing entire wars to a single paragraph. Each ship's tonnage, armament, designer, and sometimes a bit of extra information is described in a few short sentences before a rapid fire list of information on their career. These include where she served, what vessels were taken, and how she was decommissioned, captured, or lost.

Think of this as an encyclopedia of warships.

This is very useful to those of us who need a handy and quick reference to a variety of vessels. The citations plentiful, but require a bit of practice to master. Such a body work does not come cheap, and these are pretty pricey books. But if you need a set of top notch reference books to explore the careers of warships in the age of sail, there's really no better source.