Like a ton of dudes my age, I’ve had a beard most of my adult life. Beards, and maybe facial hair in general, have surged in popularity over the last few years. This happened before, but it’s been a while. In 1976, an economist at the University of Washington compiled a study published in the American Journal of Sociology which shows, quite plainly, a multi-decade beard explosion in the second half of the 19th century.
What was happening in the world during this period that might have compelled men to abandon a clean, diplomatic Roman look for a bold, wise Greek look? I’ll throw a couple things out there:
-First of all, the Second Industrial Revolution (evolution?) was happening. Society was trying to orient itself as it made the shift from agriculture to mass production, and in the US, the standard of living would not increase until the early 20th century. That means that instead of hunting and farming, lots of American men were going to work in factories, and they weren’t doing a better job than their fathers at providing for their families.
-In 1841 Ralph Waldo Emerson published Self-Reliance, a plea to emancipate the self from the corrupting forces society and its institutions.
-Third, this era was also influenced by the ideas of one Karl Marx, who identified the alienating nature of factory labor as one of the damaging and unsustainable characteristics of capitalism.
So, I propose that men of the second half of the 19th century let their beards grow out in an effort to reclaim their lost masculinity and individualism.
Could the current beard surge be for similar reasons? Maybe millennial men, helplessly anonymous in the desk jobs of corporate America, feel emasculated, especially because they know that their baby boomer dads were doing better as young yuppies? Millennials have been called the slash generation, as in “I’m a marketing specialist/singer” or “I’m a customer service supervisor/blogger.” This mass reclamation of individualism caught my attention years ago; proprietism is ultimately the economic manifestation of it.
We’re really divided right now. Let’s hope that beards are the only thing we have in common with the second half of the 19th century.
[Author removed a picture of American Civil War soldiers with 21st-century facial hair]
The two guys with mustaches were being ironic.
Thanks for the inspiration, DT!