As someone whose face has not felt the razor for more than three decades, The Philosophy of Beards is a must read. I haven’t downloaded my copy yet, but the terrific website the Public Domain Review has posted a digital version of this sagacious 1854 tome. Here’s a sample of the book review for all of you hirsute readers:
It is Gowing’s ardent belief that the bearded are better looking, better morally and better historically than the shaven. To call him a huge fan of the suburbs of the chin would be an understatement. “It is impossible” he writes “to view a series of bearded portraits . . . without feeling that they possess dignity, gravity, freedom, vigour, and completeness.” By contrast, the clean-cut look always leaves him with “a sense of artificial conventional bareness”. Gowing’s apology for the beard makes frequent appeals to nature, some of them amusingly far-fetched: “Nature leaves nothing but what is beautiful uncovered, and the masculine chin is seldom sightly, because it was designed to be covered, while the chins of women are generally beautiful.” Sometimes his argument transforms from a shield for the beard into a swipe at the chin: “There is scarcely indeed a more naturally disgusting object than a beardless old man (compared by the Turks to a ‘plucked pigeon’)”.
Gowing was writing at a time when physiognomy — the art of reading a person’s character in their facial features — was still popular in Europe and America. So it is no surprise to learn that “the absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness”. Gowing also takes aim at the notion that beards are unhealthy. Far from being unhygienic because of their propensity to trap feculent particles, “the beards of foreign smiths and masons filter plaster dust and metal from the air, protecting the lungs.”