Woke on facial hair

The Atlantic Tweeted this link to an OpEd on Sunday.

The OpEd dates back to 2014, so I’m not sure why The Atlantic decided to recycle it, but this is the first time I’m reading it.

The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard

That is a lot of social justice gibberish in that sentence.

Let me declare what many already know: 2013 was a landmark year for men’s facial hair. From flamboyant beards to the proliferation of “old-fashioned” shops, evidence of the trend abounds, embracing groups as diverse as the Boston Red Sox, the men of Movember, and the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty. In dens of hipsterdom, one can hardly throw a PBR without hitting a waxed moustache. And the online craft marketplace Etsy now sells a limitless variety of wares imprinted with images of mustaches, from wine glasses to electrical outlets.

Yes, and it’s gotten worse since then.  Facial hair has replaced the Hipster trucker hat as the ironic accessory that Art Studies major trust fund kids wear to try to look “authentic” or blue collar while in reality, they don’t have the skill or knowledge to work a screw driver.

This is not the first time in recent memory that American men have sprouted facial hair in great numbers. The 1960s bristled with sideburns and beards—pared down, in the 1970s, to the decade’s iconic mustache. But one characteristic distinguishes this revival from previous ones: Today’s facial-hair enthusiasts share an affection for the ornate practices of the 1800s—the exuberant beards and ostentatious moustaches, as well as the elegance and “manliness” of the shops where those styles were cultivated.

OMG, it’s like styles change over time.  How observant.

What follows is the lost story of American facial hair. Like countless other histories, it is rife with contradictions. It begins with white Americans at the time of the Revolution who derided barbering as the work of “inferiors.” It continues with black entrepreneurs who turned it into a source of wealth and prestige. And it concludes with the advent of the beard—a fashion born out of desperation but transformed into a symbol of masculine authority and white supremacy.

What?   Seriously, what?  The beard has become a symbol of white supremacy?  How, in what universe?

Explain this to me.

It may seem strange that barbering, which required practitioners to hold razors to their customers’ throats, was dominated by men of color in Revolutionary America. But the reasons for this were simple. Before the American Revolution, free white workers were few and their labor was expensive—especially in the southern colonies. So slaveholders in need of grooming often turned to their enslaved workforces.

Thus, thousands of former slaves—many with experience as valets, manservants, and barbers—were foisted upon a market that offered them little in the way of employment, apart from dangerous jobs in manual labor and demanding positions in household service. One of the few jobs that presented even faint hopes for prosperity was barbering. Not surprisingly, it was open almost exclusively to men.

Barbering was hard work. High-end barbers labored long hours and mastered a range of skills from shaving, cutting, and styling to making and marketing hair and body products. Barbers also typically made and repaired wigs. Even after elites abandoned the powdered wigs of the colonial era around 1800, barbers continued to do a healthy business in toupees as well as false whiskers, although they now fitted these in discreet side rooms. They even groomed the dead.

But barbers’ most difficult work was cultural in nature. Especially in the upscale venues for which African-American barbers were best known, customers demanded a high level of gentility from their surroundings. Thus, barbers were also expected to excel as interior decorators. The best of these shops were what historian Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr., author of Knights of the Razor, a painstaking history of African-American barbers, called “first-class.” And they looked much as their modern imitators reimagine them.

Barbers cultivated personae to match these surroundings. Refined in dress and graceful in movement, the best offered practical instruction in the gentlemanly arts. They were also expert conversationalists, engaging and entertaining their customers while they worked. A Salem, Massachusetts, barber, according to the Salem Gazette, was “the essence of good-nature … [His] conversation consists of what Wordsworth calls ‘personal talk.’ He deals with men, not principles. Every flying bit of news, every anecdote, and in fact, every good thing said by the leading wits of the day, seems to come right through his shop window, and to stick to him, like burs to a boy’s jacket.”

I think it is clear that the author never worked in the high end service industry.  This is the effort that it takes to operate any business that sells an image of refinement.  The high class bar, the fancy tailor, the elite restaurant, all required consummate behavior for the staff as well as  proper decor.

Have you ever entered a Brooks Brothers?  That was modeled on the idea of the 1800’s gentlemen’s tailor.

These black barbers understood what they needed to do to make money and did it the same way other businesses did.  That is admirable, the way the author writes about them, the implication is that what they did was almost superhuman.

Despite these criticisms, a number of 19th-century barbers parlayed their work into economic independence, and in a few cases, investments that brought them extraordinary wealth. In a number of U.S. cities, African-American barbers ranked among the richest and most powerful members of the free black community. By 1879, James Thomas, a former St. Louis barber who had become a real estate mogul, possessed an estate worth $400,000 (some $10 million in contemporary terms), making him the richest man of color in Missouri. His friend and neighbor, another former barber named Cyprian Clamorgan, was similarly affluent, penning a paean to black wealth and respectability entitled The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis.

Last year, a journalist Tweeted a thread about how much money a Waffle House manager makes.  Iowahawk took him to task.

I get the same feeling in this last paragraph.  A hard working man in America, especially one who owns his own business, can make a lot of money.  That some of these men were black barbers goes to show you what entrepreneurship and a knack for business can get you.

White men’s fondness for their black barbers didn’t last. The reasons were varied: The temperance movement and the evangelical religious revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” caused many customers to frown upon the barbershop’s liquor-fueled conviviality.

A series of urban public health crises also had dire consequences for the shop. Sanitation in American cities remained haphazard to say the least. In New York City, for instance, monstrous pigs continued to bear responsibility for garbage disposal throughout the early 19th century. Not surprisingly, cities were ravaged by epidemics, making many Americans newly cautious about interpersonal touch. Health writers D. G. Brinton and George H. Napheys advised men to shave themselves, for “it is not pleasant to be lathered with the brush which the minute before has been rubbed on the face of we don’t know whom.”

Not an unreasonable fear in an era when women died after child birth because the physician didn’t wash his hands.

The most important explanation for whites’ anxiety about the shop, however, involved black barbers’ growing wealth. For many, the success of leading African-American barbers seemed to threaten the social order. As white customers were shaved by men with fortunes worth many thousands of dollars, some must have wondered who was serving whom.

See the Iowahawk quote from above.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the social spectrum, immigrant barbers—many of them Germans—catered to a growing population of working-class customers: men too poor, and in many cases too resentful of black barbers’ success, to patronize the best black-owned barbershops. Thus, while whites, according to Douglas Bristol, constituted a mere 20 percent of Philadelphia’s barbers in 1850, by 1860 they represented a near majority. A handful of elite black barbers continued to prosper, but the days when African-Americans dominated the trade were coming to an end.

Or, it could have been that the Germans have a beard culture.  Consider that the best razors in the world come from Solingen, Germany.  The steel making capital of Europe could be known for swords and armor, but it’s known for razors.  That has to mean something.

At the same time black barbers were falling out of favor, many elite white men were radically changing their views on grooming. Where the enlightened 18th century had favored a civilized, clean-shaven look, men of the mid-19th century preferred the untamed appearance of the rugged conqueror. But while facial hair ultimately became a potent symbol of mastery, it didn’t start out that way. If anything, men first adopted beards in a desperate attempt to alleviate the painfulness of their morning toilet.

Without the assistance of their former barbers, shavers had to contend with the 19th-century straight razor. A delicate and temperamental tool, its paper-thin blade required regular, careful maintenance. Even the simplest misstep could ruin it, turning the morning shave into a tug-of-war between men and their facial hair. Still, this was preferable to the alternatives. Men were known to die of tetanus after using an ill-kept blade—Henry David Thoreau’s brother John was one of them. And many lived in fear of cutting their own throats.

Even those who mastered the razor faced other trials. Despite the proliferation of pamphlets on the subject, straight-razor shaving remained a craft secret, largely confined to barbers. And home-shavers lacked many of the materials necessary for a comfortable shave—from clean water and good lighting to quality accoutrements like creams, oils, and brushes.

Doofus here left out that this was the era of westward expansion.  Going to a barber made sense if you lived in a East Coast City.  Once you got onto the trail headed west, that became less likely.

The change in style he referred to, the rugged explorer, was a result of westward expansion.

It’s like he tries to prove that men going to black barbers less was more a result of racism than the greatest national undertaking since the Revolution.

But the “manly appendage,” as one commenter grandly called the beard, also served a number of important functions closer to home. As historian Sarah Gold McBride contends, beards were one response to a growing women’s rights movement, typified by the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Faced with threats to their prerogative, men grew beards “to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.” The 19th-century beard may have sprouted from a fear of razors and a distaste for black barber shops. But it grew into a symbol that set white American men apart from smooth-faced foreigners as well as powerful women at home.

The beard isn’t just racist, it’s sexist too.

This may not be the story bewhiskered moderns would like to hear. It’s easy to imagine the 19th-beard and barbershop revival as an homage to a quaint, innocent fashion trend. But today’s revival presents a chance to redeem the legacy of facial hair with a more complete understanding of the men who shaped it—a better grasp of what to keep and what to cut.

I’m not sure what to make of this.

It seems to me that this guy saying that if I choose to grow a beard, it’s because I am racist and don’t want go to a black barber.

Maybe that is too much of a stretch, and it’s only racist if I go to a high end men’s hair cuttery.

Either way I’m calling bullshit.

I wear a beard because I am a man.  It the manly appendage I can show in public (outside of San Francisco).  I’m also commanded to wear it in Leviticus.

I like my high end men’s  hair cuttery for the same reason my wife goes to the salon.  If I go to Super Cuts, the woman there screws it up.  You get what you pay for an a cheap haircut looks bad.

The idea that I have to consider the styles and motivations of what some guy in the 1800’s had when he decided to shave or not, is extreme beyond words.

The fact is, this article overlooked the two most important changes in shaving in in the modern era, changes that might as well wiped the slate clean.

King Camp Gillette invented the safety razor in 1901, using disposable blades made from strip steel.  That made shaving with a new, sharp, clean blade possible with minimal effort.

The use of gas warfare in WWI meant that soldiers needed to be clean shaven to seal a gas mask.

Prior to WWI, most soldiers were bearded.  It was too much trouble to maintain grooming standards in war.

WWI changed that, and the combination of military grooming standards and the safety razor made shaving at home by men the norm.  WWII reinforced this.

The modern beard is a rebellion against the norm, not racism.

But this guy is so keen on proving that white men wearing beards is racist that he pretty much ignored 1890-2010.

Just like everything else that’s woke, this article and its author are intentionally stupid.


4 Replies to “Woke on facial hair”

  1. I remember when “Hippies” were often referred to as “Bearded Wonders.” Yes I’ve sported a ‘stashe since college. But I’ve worked several jobs (yeah I know “white privilege”) where if one sported facial hair, it couldn’t interfere with a respirator seal.

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