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.


  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!

  2. Remarkably, as the subject of beards arises once again in the wake of historic sites and events trying to improve their standards, I've just heard of someone trying to present this very blog as evidence FOR beards on active sailors (and soldiers)!

    At any rate, here's yet more such pictorial evidence:

  3. I have been in the hobby for years. I have seen untold incidences of "farbiness." I have been bearded and clean shaven. This is an argument that will go on and on. I recall doing many Tea party reenactments with participants using 20th century colloquialisms, wearing buckskin coats, and Dunham workboots. Recently the powers that be in Boston have become anal retentive and facial hair is looked upon as repulsive. I use my facial hair as a learning tool with school groups asking them what about my appearance is not authentic. A unit should have a sense of humor about facial hair. As long as it's not Rip Van Winkle length, or lumberjack like, who cares as long as you have a cohesive unit on the field? For those who have researched it out, great! You have proven a point. GW liked his men clean shaven, but a short growth was acceptable in given situations.I have yet to see people rebuffed at a major event due to a beard. Small venues like Battle Road, the Tea Party, and The Massacre, prohibit it, I get it, and choose not to participate in those. It's just comical to me that for years they let anyone do anything at those 3 events and now the NPS has become the be all end all for historical accuracy. Hypocrisy is boundless.

    1. I'm having a lot of trouble following your argument, particularly the last couple of lines. Improving standards for interpretation is always a good thing. If historic sites ask their volunteers to be more accurate in representing the past, and improve their standards to be more in line with historical evidence, that's not hypocrisy. That's progress.

      You may also be underestimating the visitor's experience and tangential learning. Museum volunteers are perceived as experts and professional representatives of the site, regardless of their actual strength of affiliation.

      Speaking as a museum professional:
      The National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study showed that museums and similar cultural organizations are some of the most trusted institutions in the United States, far above state and federal government, newspapers, and even above the universities that frankly provide us with much of our information. We therefore have a responsibility to be very clear in what is and is not true, even on little details like facial hair. Talking to the public about what is and is not true is fantastic, and should be our goal, but simply being there at all in eighteenth century clothing is informing the public. What we wear, how we carry ourselves, and our behavior all delivers a message whether we intend it to or not.

      I also find it telling that you refute the "anal retentiveness" of historic sites by declaring "Who cares as long as you have a cohesive unit in the field?" Military organization is frankly unimportant or of secondary consideration for many sites, and even for two of the three events you pointed to as evidence: there were no soldiers at the Boston Tea Party, and the Boston Massacre had less than ten soldiers, with the vast majority of the participants being civilian. Individual interpreters matter, not just the group as a whole.

      The only reason the argument "goes on and on" is because there are those that will not accept overwhelming historical evidence. Frankly, if an interpreter is unwilling to accept the truth on something as trivial as facial hair, I am very, very worried about their ability to tell the truth about objects of far more import during my programs.

    2. Kyle, wholly agree, well said!

  4. Alex Burns, "Soldiers and Facial Hair in the Kabinettskriege Era"

  5. Adam Hodges-LeClaire, 'More Than White Wigs'; Military Hair-care and hair removal, c. 1755-83

  6. Me and other re-enactors in the Netherlands: "Hey, as sailors in the 17th century, we can sport beards!"
    Documents of the VOC in archives, dug up by one of us: "Every man shall shave on Saturday..."
    Me and other re-enactors: "Oops..."
    I did find prints showing civilians with beards in the Netherlands in the 18th century, and it's over all only the poor and the elderly that sport full beards, plus men from a certain religion, such as Jews and Mennonites.