The period following the Crimean War and until the end of the First World War marks an interesting time for men’s fashion and health.
This war consisted of a number of armed conflicts between Russia and Turkey, as well as Turkey’s allies (England, France and Sardinia).
While stationed in the Crimean Peninsula, many men in the British Army began to grow beards.
Partly a fashion statement, long “Crimean beards” (pictured below) also had the practical advantage of keeping soldiers warm in the local winter environment. When the war ended and British troops returned home to England, the public adopted the look with great enthusiasm.
Although Crimean War veterans can be credited with the resulting popularization of the bearded masculine look, interest in growing beards was already starting to gain momentum within academic and political circles back home. However, with the return of successful soldiers sporting thick beards, the style became a common fixture of the modern, masculine Victorian man for approximately the next fifty years.
This kind of tool would have been used by health care providers to shave patients’ faces before safety razors were invented in the early twentieth century.
Museum of Health Care #19 In North America, by 1901 the beard was considered a public health issue.
The contamination of milk supplies in New York became an international headline when it was argued that facial hair could harbour farmyard dirt or tuberculosis, which could then end up in the milk, infecting it with deadly bacteria. Consequently, the Milk Commission of the Medical Society of the County of New York put into place a regulation which ensured that only clean-shaven men would be allowed to milk cows and deliver their product to distribution centres. This new rule also extended to doctors.
Just like dairymen, doctors were exposed to bacteria and diseases which could become trapped in their facial hair, leading to suspicions of an increase in mortality rates among their patients. By the First World War (1914-1918) removing facial hair had once again become common practice.
Many people began to explore the benefits of growing and maintaining facial hair during the nineteenth century. Tom Robinson, an English physician who published an article entitled “Beards” in in 1881, links the beard to historical and contemporary research, and encourages men to grow facial hair to help prevent illness. According to Robinson, who drew on medical literature dating back to the Renaissance, as well as contemporary studies from France and England, medical conditions such as loose and sore teeth, nasal catarrh (excessive mucous production in the nose, related to irritation of the mucous membrane), and facial neuralgia (sharp pain associated with nerves in the face and head) could all be prevented or even treated with the growth of facial hair. In one example, he highlights a French study in which railway workers from Lyons were asked to shave their beards and the participants’ health was observed.
According to the original author of the study, Monsieur Szokalski, of the 53 men who shaved, only 14 maintained good physical health. Some of the shaved men also demonstrated uncooperative and rebellious behaviour. Another observation included in Robinson’s article notes that soldiers with facial hair were less likely to be admitted to hospital with respiratory ailments such as bronchitis because it was believed that the hair could sift out harmful particles in the air. As a result of these reports, in addition to other pro-beard endorsements, many men chose to grow their facial hair, sporting styles which ranged from large moustaches to long beards.
Participants in this trend included farmers, judges, lawyers, sailors, politicians and even those who provided health care services (pictured below). This composite photograph of the graduating class of the University of Toronto’s Medical College from 1888 demonstrates the popularity of the beard even among doctors and medical students in Canada (click on image to enlarge).