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Why And When Men Grow Beards


For everyone with a hirsute family member, a bearded patriarch, a fuzzy metro-sexual, here's a great gift, a not-entirely-serious account of why and when men grow facial hair. It's called "Of Beards And Men," by Christopher Oldstone-Moore. It's a history of beards, which begins in ancient times and works its way to the modern day, demonstrating when beards were cool and when they were not. It's full of pithy quotes. "Jesus is the most recognizable bearded man in Western civilization," that's one. And here's another. "At the dawn of the 17th century, Italy produced the Copernicus of beard science, Marco Antonio Olmo, "of whom, I regret to say, I have never heard until now. But we have the modern practitioner of beard history with us. Christopher Oldstone-Moore, welcome to our program.


WERTHEIMER: First of all, what are the four great beard movements? I mean, I assume it's not up, down and sideways.

OLDSTONE-MOORE: (Laughter) Well, the first one's in ancient times. It got started with Emperor Hadrian, emperor of Rome, in the second century A.D. And that lasted for about a century or so. But then they reverted back to shaving. And then the second movement, you'd have to say, is in the Middle Ages, particularly we call the high Middle Ages, particularly what we call the high Middle Ages, 11th, 12th, 13th centuries, when noblemen and knights favored noble-looking beards. And then the Renaissance opts strongly for beards, and you can think of pictures of Shakespeare and other men of that era and later van Dyck paintings and the famous van Dyck beard. And then, by the middle of the 19th century, in the 1850s to about turn of the 20th century, we have our fourth beard movement, the late 19th century. And we're waiting to see whether we're going to have a fifth one.

WERTHEIMER: We in the United States were founded by the clean-shaven men of the 18th century who led our revolution. But it seems like - I mean, I get your - I get your idea of nature versus transcendence. But there doesn't seem to be much of a political connection here because when the South revolted, both sides were led by hairy men - Lincoln, Grant, Lee, all bearded.


WERTHEIMER: What does that mean?

OLDSTONE-MOORE: Well, I think the 1850s was driven by not so much the political excitement of the time but more - a more fundamental shift in the identity of masculinity in the middle of the 19th century. I think that at that time, there was such a major shift in the process of industrialization. The marketplace is more dynamic, and you have the evolution of democracy. These kinds of things mean that men evolve in the century a kind - a focus on self-reliance and individuality. And I think that beards represent that rugged individuality that the 19th century aspired to.

WERTHEIMER: Women don't have this kind of metric, obviously.


WERTHEIMER: Do you think? Or do they have something else? Do we have something else?

OLDSTONE-MOORE: Well, I think so. And I think that's going to be a challenge for other historians.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Well, what do you think is the situation right now? We're looking at baseball players who look like they sort of wandered out of an Amish colony. And the brand-new speaker of the House, he was sworn in and promptly forswore shaving.


WERTHEIMER: I mean, we haven't had - we haven't had a bearded speaker since those - you know, the 1850s.

OLDSTONE-MOORE: Well, a little later than that, but you're right. And I think that Speaker Ryan's choice not to shave is very striking and very telling - one of the strongest indications yet, I think, that we really are experiencing a shift towards spirits which, I think, might have larger implications about what we're experiencing today. I think that at this point, as I say, we're in a really experimental phase. We're kind of teetering between two options here. And I think men - men are a little bit uncertain about how to define themselves and how to present themselves. And I think it represents a larger uncertainty about masculinity in our day. And also, in this era of gender fluidity and - a lot of people who are transitioning from one gender to another are looking at facial hair as important to define their arrival. For example, if they're transition to masculinity, it's an important way to define their arrival to that status.

WERTHEIMER: Christopher Oldstone-Moore's book is called "Of Beards And Men: The Revealing History Of Facial Hair." Thank you for sharing, Mr. Oldstone-Moore.

OLDSTONE-MOORE: It's been a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.