Beards and Books: Thomas S Gowing, The Philosophy of Beards, British Library 2014 (1854)
Beards are, at least in some areas and amongst certain types of people, in fashion.
We live in a market capitalist system so when a trend is identified before long things start to appear which can exploit it in various ways.
You might argue that this is a bad thing as such but when it comes to beards it is actually mostly harmless since a beard can happily exist without the need to spend any money on it all, unless you want to.
Probably the most obvious beard products are those that relate to the grooming of the beard- beard oils and so on. Personally I prefer the occasional dipping of the beard in a glass of imperial stout which achieves much the same impact but at rather lower cost.
However, perhaps particularly with Xmas in mind, a number of books relating to beards have appeared.
The Philosophy of Beards by Thomas S Gowing was first published in 1854 and now together with some illustrations of beards from a 1922 volume has been brought out again by the British Library’s Publishing arm.
Politically correct it is not, although it may not have caused that much comment in 1850 on that basis.
It can be read as quirky social history, of its time, particularly in relation to its views of women.
However while little appears to be known about Gowing it would seem that he may well also have been the author of an 1838 volume on schools. Certainly a perusal of that book suggests a certain similarity of style with this volume.
The point is that Gowing appears to have been a reasonably serious chap rather than a satirist or humourist and that means that a fair bit of his commentary about beards remain broadly true today and can be read as a useful guide to at least some matters hirsute.
Gowing takes a number of angles on the beard from physiology to the Church and a quick summary of the beard in history.
Gowing correctly argues that different beard styles suit different faces- long or short- and underlines that the idea that shaving goes hand in hand with civilization is false. The Greek philosophers did not shave when it became the fashion in Ancient Greece.
Indeed Gowing gives credence to the politics of beard liberation when he argues that ‘with every attempt at freedom on the Continent [Europe] the beard re-appears (p75).
He finishes the book by dealing with common objections to the beard, some of which remain with us too. Beards are not dirty in the main, but regularly washed, and even if it takes as long to maintain a beard as to shave Gowing suggests that the practice of shaving exposes people to disease. Who can doubt it?
The book is to modern tastes perhaps somewhat eccentric and indeed Anglocentric but it is a good deal more than just a period piece. Gowing writes much good sense about facial hair, even if not all of his views and advice have stood the test of time.