The beard has been used as a symbol of masculinity for centuries and beards are now just as popular as ever, seemingly attached to just about every twentysomething male face you see. But why is beard so popular nowadays? Is it because of the so-called “crisis of masculinity?”
Dr. Alun Withey, an expert in medical history from the University of Exeter, believes that men subconsciously use their ability to grown facial hair as a way to reassert their masculinity:
“Growing a beard is the only way a man can publicly display his manhood, without getting thrown in jail for indecent exposure!”
When did beards first suffer their first great decline, and what caused it? It was about 1770 when the so-called safety razors were first made available to buy and according to Dr Withey a culture of neoclassicism was stirred up across the Western world, men began to admire and idolize the clean-shaven faces of Graeco-Roman statues.
Bearded men were not a common sight before the Victorian era of the mid-1800s and the eighteenth century had been one where men were almost entirely clean-shaven.
The beard came back into fashion by the mid-Victorian period. What caused this? This period of the human history is known as the age of exploration, of hunters, climbers, and explorers. This caused a change in the ideals of masculinity and people started to imitate the great explorers and adventurers of the nineteenth century who were known to have beards.
Another much more interesting element of the rise of the beard in the mid-Victorian period was the supposed medical benefit of facial hair.
Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, facial hair had been viewed as a form of bodily waste. Facial hair was seen as the result of heat in the liver and reins and was partly a signifier of a man’s virility.
Having a thick beard suggested that lots was going on down there and because of that the beard was considered a reliable marker of virility and sexual potency.
Around 1850 doctors encouraged men to wear beards as a means of warding off illness. According to Dr. Alun Withey beards were actually prescribed by doctors as a remedy for common ailments such as a sore throat, and were thought of as natural air filters.
A thick beard, it was reasoned, would capture the impurities before they could get inside the body. During this period a range of new books emerged telling men that beards were the ultimate, natural male accouterment.
It is not known whether the beard seemed to prevent illness or not in the Victorian era, but we are sure that it sparked a new trend in facial hair.