Monday, December 1, 2014

History Unshaven: Mustaches, Beards, and Mutton Chops, Oh My

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
One of the best parts of working in a museum is that you often accidently happen across really cool stuff.  A couple of weeks ago I was looking through our photograph collection for a photo for our Twitter page when I found something pretty strange (and naturally, irresistible): a photo of the 1954 Elmira Mustache Club.  A Mustache Club!  Glorious!  I knew that I had to do something with this item, so I'm dedicating this blog post to an examination of men's facial hair trends and technology.  The timing of this is somewhat serendipitous since we've just finished "Movember," a movement where men are encouraged to grow a mustache during the month of November to raise awareness for men's health issues. 
The inspiration: Elmira Mustache Club, 1954
Just like clothing or hairstyles, facial hair is fashion, and as such, it's styles go in and out of vogue over time.  There is a wide range of facial hair choices, more so than I initially realized (this is a handy illustrated list).  The popularity of these styles is influenced by politics, technology, religion, and other factors.  In American history, our earliest European explorers were generally a beardy sort.  Take a look at Henry Hudson, or Samuel De Champlain, or Giovanni da Verrazzano.  So much facial hair!  However, from Puritanical America on into the 18th century, facial hair fell out of fashion.  Take a look at some of the Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Ben Franklin... so little facial hair. 

Things started to turn around in the mid-19th century, however.  Many cite Abraham Lincoln's presidential chin beard as the catalyst for a hairy renaissance of sorts.  By the late 19th century, facial hair was everywhere and in all forms: full beards, mustaches, goatees, sideburns (thanks, General Burnside), mutton chops, and more.   Mark Twain got in on the trend too with his epic 'stache!  Take a look at some of these examples from our collection.  These date from the late 19th century and show the impressive range of face fringe that local men were sporting.
A solid beard-mustache combo
"Your beard is good" (any Flight of the Conchords fans out there? Anybody?) Some nice forking at the end of this beard.

A wispy chin strap beard
A bushy chin strap beard

A handlebar mustache

A mustache.  This one looks like baleen to me.  Dude could filter some krill if he wanted.

Some nice mutton chop sideburns

Umm... I'm not fully sure what to call this....
Yet, the whiskered wonder of 19th century didn't last long.  The early 20th century, became a dark time for the hirsute.  In 1911, the Elmira Star Gazette published a special report on how Cornell banned freshman and sophomores from having mustaches, a privilege reserved for juniors and seniors only.
With fuzzy faces under fire, the Star Gazette even published the following anecdote suggesting that women would in the future outpace men in the facial hair game:

This fresh-faced trend was certainly due in part to changes in technology.  The straight razor gave way to safety razors, and then electric razors.
Straight razor (a bit too Sweeney Todd for my liking)

Duram Duplex trimmer circa 1920s

Gillette Tech razor, 1940s-1950s

Electric razor
By the 1950s and 1960s, the unshorn look started to come back in style (see the mustache club picture for evidence), and was embraced by the hippie movement.  Also, another strange beard revival happened across the country as cities celebrated centennials or other anniversaries.  Men joined the "Brothers of the Brush," a group who grew out their facial hair for these special local celebrations.  In 1961, the bewhiskered brothers helped Chemung County celebrate its 125th anniversary.

Brothers of the Brush pin
Today, beards, mustaches, and other forms of facial hair are again all the rage.  From the highly-stylized beards sported by hipsters to beard growing competitions (watch the show Whisker Wars), facial hair is again in the mainstream. 




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