A Pogonophilic Polemic

Daniel Engber reviews The Philosophy of Beards, a recently reissued 1854 manifesto:

Described by its U.S. distributor, the University of Chicago Press, as a “truly strange polemic” from 1854 that’s “[s]ure to be popular in the hipper precincts of Brooklyn,” it contains a lecture on the beauty and importance of the whiskered chin. The volume’s author, an Ipswich muck-a-muck and chief bank cashier named Thomas S. Gowing, lays out a vigorous Victorian defense 141203_BOOKS_BeardPhilosophyCOVER.jpg.CROP.original-originalagainst “the unnatural custom” of the razorblade. The beard “has in all ages been regarded as the ensign of manliness,” while “the absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness.” His argument appeals at times to history and liturgy, dwelling on a dictum in the Bible, thou shalt not mar the corners of thy beard, that’s often cited by Hasidic Jews in support of growing sidelocks. But Gowing’s just as wedded to claims by certain doctors that beards prevent sore throats and filter filthy moisture from the air. More than that, he says, the beard provides a natural framing for the manly face, “covering, varying and beautifying, as the mantling ivy [does for] the rugged oak.”

Since the book will be given and received in jest, perhaps one needn’t worry that it’s racist. Gowing holds the white man as a paragon of beardliness and contrasts him with the smooth-faced men of certain “degenerate tribes wholly without, or very deficient.” (These latter have “a conscious want of manly dignity, and contentedness with a low physical, moral, and intellectual condition.”) Nor should readers be upset by Gowing’s fulminations on the “effeminate Chinese.” Remember that he put this down on paper just two years before the British navy launched its largely unprovoked bombardment of Canton.