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The Art of Manliness Podcast Episode #5: The Cultural History of the Beard with Allan Peterkin

Posted By Brett On October 19, 2009 @ 6:35 pm In Podcast | 11 Comments

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Welcome back to another episode of the Art of Manliness podcast! In this edition, we talk about the history of beards and facial hair with Allan Peterkin, author of 1000 Beards: The Cultural History of Facial Hair [2]. Find out why popes are beardless, what psychologists have said your beard unconsciously says about you, and why politicians don’t have beards anymore.

You can buy a copy of Allan’s book from Amazon [2].

For excerpts of the book, check out Falcon Motorcycles [3].

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another episode of The Art of Manliness Podcast.

Now, when a man decides to grow a beard or mustache, he is taking part in a long and story tradition that goes back for millennia, but what he might not realize is that the decision to grow a beard comes with layers upon layers of cultural meaning. During different eras of time, beards have come to represent wisdom, goodness, evil, and social revolution.

And our guest today has written a book that investigates the cultural history of the beard. His name is Allan Peterkin, and his book is called One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair. When Allan isn’t writing about the glories of beards and mustaches, he is a psychiatrist and journalist in Toronto, Canada.

Allan, welcome to the show.

Allan Peterkin: Thank you very much.

Brett McKay: All right, Allan, so the history of beards and mustache, and particularly the cultural history of beards and moustache, is a pretty obscure topic. What inspired you to write about the cultural history of facial hair?

Allan Peterkin: Well, I was wanting to write a cultural history and that one hadn’t been done in a very long time, and I was walking to work, I walked to work at the hospital, I guess, you know, 1990 or so, and I started to realize in Toronto that almost every third face on the street had some kind of facial hair, and it seemed to be across races, across ages, and then when I traveled, I get to the states of a little bit and the rest of Canada and college campuses, I was finding the same thing. So I sort of asked myself, what’s going on, why is facial hair suddenly so popular and that led me to research the book.

Brett McKay: And do yourself had facial hair, is that something…?

Allan Peterkin: I do just now actually, because it’s so cold in Canada, I usually grow a beard over the winter. I call it my indolence beard.

Brett McKay: [laughter]

Allan Peterkin: Desire not to shave what it’s called basically.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And while I was reading your book, Allan, one thing I noticed is that religion has played a big role in the history of the beard. What are some examples that you can give of religion regulating or dictating how facial hair should be grown?

Allan Peterkin: Well, what you see over history is a real flip-flop. So, you know, men get their cues from their clergy, but they also take them from royalty. So, the royalty factor, the monarch factor is kind of in there as well, the political factor. But in terms of the religious beard and many of these rules of course still apply, you know, you have the notion that, for example, Hasidic Jews don’t shave their beards, Muslims don’t shave their beards, Amish men have a particular type of chin beard, you know, so that– you see that there are still instructions about not clipping facial hair. So those rules sort of stay pretty constant. What you find in Christianity though is quite a flip-flop. So you might have a Pope saying it was a good idea, and then another one coming along and saying that the beard should be taxed or penance should be paid, or that you should shave your beard off as an act of penance. So, for example in Roman Catholicism, you don’t often see a hairy clergy, but if you look at the Greek Orthodox Church, many of the clergymen there, many of the priests actually have facial hair. So those things persists, and again, I think believers follow their cues based on what those leaders are telling them.

Brett McKay: And why did Christianity flip-flop on the status of the beard?

Allan Peterkin: Well, again, I think it has to do with the link between again the monarchy and, you know, and religion and religious leaders, so they were probably following what the monarch suggested. But, you know, I think most of the betrayals of the devil for instance show him as being kind of a hairy beast, so that association that had become sort of devilish. It’s pretty arbitrary. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it. It’s just you know if a leader decided that it was saintly, you know, it was fine to grow it. If it was god-like, it was fine to grow it, and then another leader will come along and say, no we think it’s diabolical, we think it’s lustful, and it needs to come off.

Brett McKay: You mentioned taxation of beards. I thought that’s really interesting as well. Why did monarchs decide to tax beards and facial hair? What was up with that?

Allan Peterkin: Well, I think probably greed, the idea of filling up the coffers. I mean a good example is Henry VIII who wore beard himself, but taxed men for wearing beards. So I think sometimes it’s about, you know, a sign of being an aristocrat or being in power that you can have the beard and that the lowly men mustn’t have it, and you in fact have to tax them for having it. So it’s a form of kind of distinguishing classes, but also as I said just a bit of a money grab, I would imagine.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s fine, they pick up the beard, you know, it’s the one thing, I’m going to tax your beard.

Allan Peterkin: Yeah.

Brett McKay: All right. So, Allan, if the beard carries so much significant cultural meaning, I’m guessing deciding to shave it off does too, can you tell us a little bit about the history of shaving and its cultural meanings?

Allan Peterkin: Yes, well, it’s a very enduring ritual, you know, and it’s a ritual we learn from our dads and our grandfathers, and, you know, it’s a ritual that’s performed every day, we have special implements to do it and the implements keep getting fancier, you know, there is a whole industry behind shaving now with five-blade razors and about five steps to the kinds of potions you should use on your face. So it’s a very enduring ritual that goes right back to Greek times, you know, that when a young boy first developed facial hair, it was something to be celebrated, you know, they would keep the first clippings of it and sometimes bury them or sail them down the river, it was a mark of manhood essentially that the facial hair was sprouting.

So, of course, very early times, you know, there was no technology to do it, it would have been very painful, there is some evidence of prehistoric men used clam shells to sort of pluck out the facial hair rather, which would have been kind of a very painful thing to do. And then, you know, you have the Bronze Age and you have implements thing created, and increasingly with every century basically better means to shave, better razors, better steel, less dangerous kind of procedure. There was a time, you know, in Rome where really only the wealthy could afford to go to barbers and that was quite a social hub. But being shaven so that you could afford it, as the technology has got better, of course, then it’s something that you could do at home, and the big development is King Camp Gillette who starts producing his razor in the early 1900s and you have men going to both I and II World War coming back clean shaven, and you know, that’s really were clean shaven that sort of took off. The last fuzzy era was Victorian times, but after both World Wars, the expectation was to be clean shaven and that clean shaveness was next to godliness. So it’s an interesting development.

Brett McKay: So that’s why today the beard has kind of waned in popularity?

Allan Peterkin: Yeah, I think, you know, in the 20th century, you know, in the 50s you saw beatniks, in the 60s you saw hippies, in the 70s you saw sort of swingers and the mustache, in the 80s you saw stubble, but then it was in the 90s that you saw kind of the grunge look, and then the real re-emergence of the goatee. And so that was about the time that I was interested in researching the book, because there were so many men wearing goatees and other kind of combinations of facial hair, not so often the full beard, but, you know, maybe a bit of stubble with a full moustache or sideburns and a, you know, a cookie duster or something like that. So, it’s just taken off since then and it seems like the permutations and combinations are endless, and it’s really showing no signs of slowing down.

Brett McKay: And going back to the kind of the cultural meaning of shaving, one thing I remember reading in your book was that people would often shave for religious reasons, but also they were in times of mourning, I remember, and also if a warrior was caught in battle, the captor would actually…

Allan Peterkin: Oh, yeah, that was Hadrian. The emperor told all of his men to shave because he thought that in hand-to-hand combat you would have your beard tugged on, and I don’t know if that’s a particular realistic humor things, but, you know, again here is an example of a leader saying, okay, this is the reason you got to shave, you better do it, and that’s exactly what happened. I think what you’re referring to with mourning is that it was more the opposite that a man would stop shaving and stop tending to his appearance when in mourning, and would often grow stubble and look a little more scruffy just to show the world that he was in mourning, so that– I think men have often grown beards to mark transitions, or shaven actually, to mark transitions, so, you know, a guy who is leaving a marriage or you think of Al Gore growing his beard after he lost the election, so that he was marking with his public safe kind of a change and a loss in his life I would expect. And similarly, you have men who had facial hair entering a new relationship and wanting a new face and, you know, to look a little more youthful and they shave their hair off. So transition seem to be important in men’s life as to the decision to grow or not.

Brett McKay: One of the interesting things I thought that you wrote about your book, you dedicated a section about the psychological theories of facial hair that men like Freud and others have come up with, can you explain some of these theories that they came up with that they thought facial hair represented or shaving represented?

Allan Peterkin: Yeah, that was a fun chapter to write, because it was a little over the top. I found a reference by Dr. Berg who was a psychoanalyst writing in the 50s, and he of course was very much into classical psychoanalysis and four-year interpretation and the oedipal complex et cetera, so he thought that growing facial hair was an expression of libido and sort of lust and drive and competiveness, and showing you are more of a man than the one next to you or than your father, so– but that would produce conflict in some men, because thought, oh, my goodness, I can’t compete with, you know, my boss, my father, et cetera, my authority figure, so the active shaving became kind of an active self-castration as you saw it, but you would actually be keeping all these impulses in check by going through the ritual of shaving every day. And I think that’s kind of farfetched, but it was certainly fun to read.

I think some of the other things well, but because psychologists, more modern psychologists have actually looked at this question of facial hair, and they’ve done studies like how women rate photographs of men with or without facial hair, and invariably, women and other respondents including men will find that the bearded faces are more virile, powerful, masculine one, but then if you go a step further and ask the women if they would want to date the man in the picture, they tended at least in the 60s and 70s when these students were being done to say no that although it was very masculine, there was also something kind of threatening about it. And there’s this whole notion of kind of what could be evolutionary purpose of the beard being, and of course, apart from protecting our faces from the elements, there’s something about the beard making our jaw look larger and our cheeks look more prominent, and that goes back to apes who are– when they are in combat stick their jaws out, it’s called jaw jut and they show their teeth and stick their jaw and it makes them look more ferocious. So, there’s something also about the bearded face kind of lending a certain ferociousness, and that probably served us over millennia.

Brett McKay: Wow. And you talked a little bit about how the beard is on, or facial hair is on the rise, you know, it’s the trend that everyone is starting to grow beards and facial hair, but it seems that, you know, my kind of experience that when a man decides to grow a beard these days, particularly young men, they do it to be ironic.

Allan Peterkin: Yes.

Brett McKay: A hit thing. I mean so is this the future of the beard in Western societies are just irony, I mean what is the future of facial hair in post-modern society?

Allan Peterkin: Well, you know, I sort of thought about what the post-modern beard is, because, you know, as I said, we used to take our cues from the people at the top, clergy, monarchy, nowadays, we take our cues from popular culture, so it could be, you know, athletes, musicians, movie stars, porn stars, I mean, that’s where young men, you know, men in general kind of take their cues on how they should look, how their bodies should look, but I think for the most part, it really is both an act of rebellion and playfulness at the same time, and you know, it’s also I think significant that some of the men I interviewed said, well, this is something that I can do that women can’t do. So, you know, kind of maybe a bit of, you know, backlash to feminism on some, but again, I think quite playful. The young men I interviewed were all doing it just to kind of push the envelope, but I think what that suggests is that our culture now is more hospitable to facial hair than they have been for a while. So most men can work with facial hair with the exception of banking and politics, most work places are pretty tolerant, you know, IT, academia, the creative fields, the artistic fields are all fine with you having facial hair.

And part of what you are saying I think with facial hair is, I’m no corporate slave, I can do this. My dad, my granddad had to shave to keep their jobs, I don’t have to do that, and I can be playful, and then there’s a whole notion of it being kind of again virile, masculine, sexy, that I can be unabashed with all those things as well with my facial hair.

Brett McKay: As you mentioned politics there was a time, here in America, when a president could have beards or mustaches, we had several famous presidents that had beards and mustaches, do you think as beards and facial hair becomes more popular, that it will be able to make its appearance again into the political scene?

Allan Peterkin: You know, it’s really hard to say because, you know, in modern times, the beard has taken on sort of more connotations. So there’s the notion of it being revolutionary, communist, you know, people always think of Fidel Castro, and then after 9/11, of course, there was this whole notion of, you know, maybe he is a terrorist, if you, you know, if you are colored, et cetera, and has facial hair, then maybe he is a terrorist. And that was borne up by, for example, Indian and Pakistani men with beards being stopped more often at the border or at security gates at airports. So it’s taken on that, you know, that, ooh, this is sort of Bin Laden territory that we were talking about, so it’s still suspect. I think it would take a long while before you would see North American politicians, and even European politicians, wearing beards, because the whole notion is what’s he hiding, you know, there must be something a little suspect, a little sinister, you know, all of our leaders in the last century have been clean shaven, so at least, yeah, so the larger part of the 20th century have been clean shaven, so what’s going on with this guy.

Business is sort of the same thing that, you know, in banking you are expected to be part of a team and not to stand out and to kind of be predictable and uniform in your conduct, in your appearance. So, you know, if a guy started having facial hair, then maybe something is up, and actually, I got a call last week from the Wall Street Journal that an American banker came back from his holidays with a beard, and everybody said, aha, this must mean he is on his way out, and indeed he was, because you just don’t have facial hair in that arena.

Brett McKay: Very interesting. Well, Allan, this was a fascinating discussion. Thank you for your time and good luck with your book.

Allan Peterkin: All right. Thank you. Just to let you know, there’s another one coming which is going to be called, The Bearded Gentleman: A Guide to Shaving Face. And this is more about kind of styling, preserving, and then shaving it off and starting all over, and that’s also with Arsenal Pulp Press.

Brett McKay: Well, fantastic. We look forward to it.

Allan Peterkin: Okay, my pleasure.

Brett McKay: Take care.

Allan Peterkin: Thank you.

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Allan Peterkin. Allan is the author of the book, One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair. And you can pick up Allan’s book at arsenalpulp.com/1000beards [7].

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, check back at The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com [8], and remember, we got a book on sale too. It’s The Art of Manliness: Classic Skills and Manners for the Modern Man. You can but it at any major bookstore, amazon.com and our own website. So, for more information about the book, check out artofmanliness.com/thebook [9]. And until next week, stay manly.


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