It seems to me that this may well be “the year of the beard” - after all, there have been lots of other “the year of the …” so why not? Yep, beards appear to becoming fashionable again and not that three-day stubble that looks like the wearer is just coming off a binge or a long weekend of fishing with the guys — or both.
Nope, I’m referring to real, honest-to-Pete beards that have been deliberately grown. Beards can come in a variety of lengths and styles depending on the man’s facial characteristics and fancy. I favor the beard-mustache combination while my younger brother preferred the beard/no mustache look and one of our sons likes to sport a goatee.
I also keep my facial foliage trimmed — unlike the guys on “Duck Dynasty” who let it all hang out (or is it down?) uncut. History records a somewhat erratic role for beards. Sometimes beards have been symbolic of wisdom, power, or religious leadership such as we see in pictures of Biblical patriarchs who are shown with long, flowing beards. Whether they actually wore such beards makes no difference because the representation is what counts.
Harry Potter fans will also remember the long beard-mustache combination of the wise Dumbledor, headmaster of Hogwarts. In other configurations a beard has become associated with wrongdoers or just plain evil. The “Fu Manchu” look (named after the fictional arch-criminal Fu Manchu) is achieved by continuing a nicely trimmed mustache in a rather thin line down the sides of the mouth and culminating in a short, pointed goatee while the remainder of the face and neck are clean shaven.
The Devil is often shown with this facial feature as has been the diabolic Emperor Ming — foe of the Flash Gordon comic book character. Some of us still remember Flash Gordon whose comic strip continues to run today.
One of the most interesting historical episodes about beards happened back in the days of the ancient Egyptians. While there is strong evidence that facial hair was held in low esteem by the upper classes who were clean shaven, the beard was considered to be a divine attribute of the gods.
A number of surviving art pieces show the god Osiris, who was charged with judging the dead in the afterlife, with an obviously false beard - but so have likenesses of the pharaohs. Why did pharaohs wear these false beards while eliminating real ones? Well, according to the extremely smart people who study such things, real-life pharaohs donned their man-made beards with the aim of linking themselves to the god’s eternal reign by imitating his appearance. Kinda like reminding their subjects that the pharaoh was a god on earth.
Furthermore, this tradition was apparently gender-blind in that some female pharaohs, such as the great, long-ruling Hatshepsut, opted to wear false beards to preserve the air of divinity that had long-since become associated with their lofty office. How about them apples? The boss lady wearing a false beard.
The Egyptian tradition of having the highest executive of the country wearing a beard hasn’t caught on here. In fact, only four of our presidents had beards. Lincoln was the first - he had the beard/no mustache variety. Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln was assassinated, was clean shaven but then we had three bearded/mustached presidents in a row — Grant, Hayes, and Garfield (who was also assassinated.)
After Garfield we have had five presidents with mustaches but since 1913, a 100 years ago, all have been clean shaven. You know, the decline of beards or conversely the increase in clean shaven men might be well attributed to the advent of the safety razor. First described in a patent application in 1847 such a device was offered as an alternative to the “straight” razor which was expensive, difficult to maintain, and challenging to use without cutting the skin.
The big boost for the safety razor came when the Gillette company was awarded a contract for a total of 3.5 million double-edge safety razors along with 32 million blades to supply American troops in World War I as part of their standard field kits The returning soldiers were permitted to keep the razors and thereby easily retained their clean shaven look in civilian life.
Oops! Looks like I’m out of space for today, but I’ll continue next time with why I figure this might be the year of the beard. You may be surprised. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.