Article ID: CBB640289001

Alun Withey. Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England 1650–1900. (2022)


Joseph Roach (Author)

American Historical Review
Volume: 127
Issue: 3
Pages: 1477-1478
Publication date: 2022
Language: English

As the second title in the series “Facialities: ­Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Human Face,” Alun Withey’s Concerning Beards probes the ­history of the natural part of human physiognomy that, eyebrows excepted, is the easiest to change. This ­exceptionally well-documented study tells not one but three ­interrelated stories about how dramatically beard-wearing evolved in early modern and modern Britain. Building on part 1, “Contexts,” which provides an overview of the shifting fortunes of facial hair from its nadir in the clean-shaven eighteenth century to its luxuriant apogee in the second half of the nineteenth century, Withey organizes the following topical chapters into three more parts consisting of information-packed narratives covering the same time frame from different perspectives. The second part, “The Practice and Practitioners of Facial Hair,” documents the barbering profession and its relationship to hygiene and well-being. That includes detailed accounts of the medical practices of barber-surgeons as related to notions of healthy and unhealthy beards. Among the illuminating excursions in printed and archival sources, the reader gets a guided tour of a late seventeenth-century barbershop. Concerning Beards not only itemizes the tools and techniques of trimming and shaving but also specifies the diversity of other services offered to customers, ranging from bleeding to deodorizing, and, more surprisingly, from “tipling”—some barbers provided beverage service—to musical entertainment. “The barber,” Withey observes, remarking on the bonhomie of the homosocial space of the barbershop, “was an important figure in the lives of early modern men” (109). The barber was, after all, the blade-wielding professional to whom patrons were willing to trust not only their beards but also their necks.

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