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.


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[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.

1 comment:

  1. The fact that two of the images are from political cartoons, and the third is from a French book on shipwrecks serves to emphasize your point: The first two are hyperbolic, as shown by the fact that a neglected Naval Veteran is depicted as a quadruple amputee, and the third likely depicts a Sailor who has survived a shipwreck. This leaves the last image: A disabled Sailor who, in the middle of winter, and dressed in a large fur hat, still has only a short, sparse beard.
    As a Georgian Reenactor, I shave, even though I wouldn't, otherwise. Were it just up to me, and not my efforts to pursue accuracy, I'd look like one of Bilbo Baggins' Darvish companions, braiding rings and beads in my long beard, for special occasions!

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