Journal Opinion March 9, 2022
“Not many years ago it was hardly respectable to wear a beard; but the beard movement is in, resisted and ridiculed at first, has conquered, and it grows more and more the fashion to grow on the face as full a covering of hair as can be coaxed out.” Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 11, 1879
This column explores how American men cared about beards and hairstyles over the years.. Vintage newspapers, the internet, and local interviews provided material for this piece. Christopher Oldstone-Moore’s book Of Beards and Men provided me a valuable insight into the topic’s history.
While the men of the earliest colonial period often wore heavy beards, they cut their hair short as it was considered “safe and godly.”
In the 18th century, the colonial elite often wore elaborate wigs or powdered their hair. Ordinary men rarely did either and, if they kept their hair longer, it was pulled back and tied.
In the new century, President Thomas Jefferson set a new standard avoiding the wig. This casual style and shorter hair was adopted widely. Men of fashion kept shorter cropped hair, often using an oil or pomade to create a look of “tamed wildness.” As hair was washed infrequently, housewives began to create covers to protect furniture from staining.
By the late colonial period, beards had disappeared in settled areas. Beards and long hair were considered signs of uncouth backwoodsmen and ran counter to community norms.
Leaders such as Ethan Allen, Jacob Bayley and Thomas Chittenden all of Vermont, and John Stark and John Langdon both of New Hampshire were all clean-shaven. At least as far as shaving was concerned, they shared in “the code of gentlemanly good manners.”
Most U.S. Presidents and the governors of New Hampshire and Vermont before the 1850s did not sport beards. In 1834, one magazine published, “An unshorn chin has a degenerating aspect, is only, if at all, excusable in the lowest laborer and mechanic.”
Few men dared to wear a beard. For some there were severe consequences. When Joseph Palmer of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, went to church with a beard in 1830, he was denied communion. He was determined to assert his right to be contrary. Later, he was assaulted by a group of men equally determined to shave him forcibly. He resisted but was charged with unprovoked assault.
Shaving was performed by straight or cut-throat steel razors. Men would sometimes go to a barber for shaves as those that tried it for themselves often suffered cuts. In the 1830s, advertisements appeared for personal razors, razor strops to keep instruments sharp, shaving brushes, and soaps.
In the 1850s, there was a new beard movement. The New York “Home Journal” observed, “Go where you will, the full, flourishing, ferocious beard presents itself!”
The beard was associated with manly dignity, authority, and good health. Some believed that the beard and mustache filtered bad air, “helped the body maintain its electrical balance,” and retained “vital energy.”
There was some opposition to this beard movement. In 1860 the St. Johnsbury Caledonian carried the story of one woman’s crusade against bearded men. She said the idea of kissing one was disgusting and that “only brigands, pirates, filibusters, and professional executionists” wore beards.
The political and military stereotypes of the rest of the 19th century reflected this beard movement. Virtually every President from Lincoln to Wilson sported a beard, mustache, or bushy sideburns. Every officer in both armies in the Civil War displayed the same. Union General Ambrose Burnside’s great whisker-mustache combination is the basis for the term “sideburn.”
During the period, governors in New Hampshire and Vermont mirrored the beard movement. This included Bradford’s Roswell Farnham, governor in 1880-1882. The Caledonian suggested that bearded men were “more likely to be trusted.” There were suggestions that the popularity of the manly beard was a reaction to the women’s rights’ movement.
In the 1890s, Bradford’s Union Opinion featured special illustrated editions on local communities. Of the three dozen local business leaders pictured, all had facial hair. There is no doubt that they felt full beards gave men increased status, respect, and power over non-bearded men.
In addition to following fashion trends, there were men who grew beards to provide warmth to their face during winter months, hide a receding chin, an overly youthful countenance, counterbalance a receding hairline or other facial feature, or because of lack of access to shaving implements or services. Shaving is painful for some men and growing a beard gives an excuse for not shaving.
One person told me her grandfather shaved with a straight razor until his hands became so shaky that he had to give it up and grow a beard.
There were also different norms among ethnic groups regarding hair. Native Americans were genetically pre-disposed against heavy beards. How hair was worn often distinguished one tribe from another. For religious or cultural reasons, Jewish, Sikh and Muslim men may follow rules regarding their hair and beards. Amish men let their beards grow once they are married, but do not grow mustaches.
These differences from the white majority have, over the years, led to discrimination and bias. When, in the 19th century, Chinese male immigrants arrived with their traditional queue or pigtail, it was a source of ridicule and regulation.
Prior to the 20th century, barbers learned their trade by being an apprentice to a master barber. The first barber school opened in 1893, and, in 1897, Minnesota became the first state to license barbers. That same year, an act to regulate the practice of tonsures, i.e. barbering, in New Hampshire was considered “inexpedient to legislate.” No similar law was discussed in Vermont for decades. Now, both barbers and barbershops are licensed by state governments.
Barbershops were primarily male bastions. Usually one or two chair operations, with customers thumbing through magazines or newspapers while waiting their turn. It was not unusual for the walls to be hung with photos of sports or war heroes or prized hunting trophies. Conversation included talk of sports, politics, and local gossip. If your barber didn’t know what was going on, it probably wasn’t worth talking about.
Men often had their favorite barber who knew how they liked their hair cut and kept a standing appointment. When shaving was common, there might be racks of personal shaving mugs. Bottles of bay rum or other aftershave lotions were available. In the 1880s, haircuts were5 or 10 cents and a shave for 3. One towel might be used repeatedly, resulting in a concern over the transmission of diseases.
At first, barbershops were open every day. Around 1880, pressure against Sunday businesses increased and both states passed Sunday closure legislation.
The role of barbers changed with the invention of the safety razor, first as a single-edge and then, in 1904, as a Gillette double-edge. It promised one could “save time and money by shaving yourself.”
Cakes of shaving soaps were replaced by tubes of soft soap for home use. In 1919, shaving cream became available and was obtainable in pressured cans in 1949. Some men no longer needed shaving cream. In 1930, Joseph Schick offered the first electric or dry razor.
The history of local barbers includes the names of scores of men. As they were rarely included among the lists of prominent businessmen, it is difficult to know exactly how long a particular barber practiced or how popular they were. Still, a few stalwart examples emerge.
Fred Kenyon purchased a shop in Bradford in 1876 and practiced until his death in 1898. He advertised that he also cut ladies’ and children’s hair. When he was suffering from la grippe or influenza, it was reported, “the appearance of the male portion of the community shows Fred’s sickness in their faces very plainly.”
Frank P. Sherwell had a shop in Well River as early as 1900 and was still barbering in 1930. H.E. Prescott operated “Bradford’s Old Established Barber Shop in the early 1900s. His shop was adorned with the doe’s head, “a beautiful example of taxidermy.”
Clifford Bassett’s barber career began on Woodsville’s Central Street in 1914. He took over the shop in 1917 and continued until 1954. Over the years, he employed other men in his shop. He also sold washing machines and appliances. Upon his retirement, John Avila brought him out.
Elmer “Bus” Flanders opened a shop in East Corinth in 1939 and one in Fairlee in 1953. He operated both until 1981, a year before his death. As a young man, I was one of his faithful customers.
I switched my loyalty to George Hinman who operated a shop in Bradford’s Chimes Building. It was there that I was informed that Carolyn Martin, who worked in the dental office across the street, was a sweetheart and should be married. I followed my barber’s advice.
Lawrence Clark had a barbershop in Bradford for 28 years. He had taken over from Frank DeCosta, who ran a shop on the south side of the Bliss Hotel building. In 1978, he moved his shop near his home in Bradford Center. His son, Larry has been a barber in Wells River for 27 years.
Often as a cost-saving measure, family members provided haircuts for loved ones of all ages. I have heard seniors say that a parent cut their hair throughout their childhood. Through the 40s and 50s, my Dad cut the hair of the four Coffin boys. Songwriter Michael Kelly Blanchard’s song captured that practice.
“Daddy cut my hair. Didn’t care for style. He’d just snip and snip, then sweep it in a pile. I could not keep still, but he would understand. Some things are just known between a boy and a man. Right there in the middle of our kitchen’s cluttered floor.”
Some children got to go to a real barber. The late Richard Miller of Topsham recalled a 1924 trip to East Corinth’s barber Antony Foisy. The barber had migrated from French Canada in 1918 and owned his own shop overlooking the Tabor branch.
A board was placed across the arms of the barber chair, and little Richard was lifted up and draped in an “itchy piece of cloth.” Foisy chewed tobacco and, occasionally, sent a stream of brown juice toward a cuspidor in the corner. “He would pick up a comb and shears and very businesslike would get on with the cutting of my hair.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, the beard movement began to wane. After 1903, there were repeated references in Vermont newspapers to a handsome man as one who was clean-shaven. As there were shifts among business and community leaders, other men began to abandon their beards for economic or social advantages.
In 1912, one article raised the health concern that “every curl and wave of the beard has bacilli.” It was suggested that men with beards should avoid kissing babies and that doctors with beards were a possible danger to patients.
Between that time and the mid-1960s American men were clean-shaven. With the exception of the Clark Gable type mustaches, facial hair was uncommon. Short haircuts like the crew cut were common. In the main stream, there was a deliberate campaign against beards, including in hiring practices.
However, some groups began to use hairstyles to express rebellion against prevailing cultural standards. The long, loose hippie style, afros of the Civil Rights movement, skinheads, and punks with spiked mohawks all defied the mainstream’s neatly groomed styles.
Resisting their Dad’s haircut, younger men began to have their hair styled longer. They were more likely to have that done by women hairdressers. There were men who clung to their beard throughout the period, but they were in the minority.
Now, everywhere I look, I see men with beards. From mustaches and mutton chops to long beards, men are sporting facial hair. Once again, three-day stubble seems to be fashionable. That same spirit of individual freedom is reflected in hairstyle from shaved heads to manbuns.
The totalitarian regime of North Korea has ordered that all men must sport an approved hairstyle. Little variation is allowed. While I have never sported any but a traditional hairstyle, it’s great to live in a nation where variety reflects personal style and freedom.
If readers have a favorite barber who is not mentioned or a good barber story, they may use this site’s comment function and submit it.