Pearl on Withey, 'Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England 1650-1900'

Alun Withey
Sharrona Pearl

Alun Withey. Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England 1650-1900. Facialities: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Human Face Series. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. Illustrations. 344 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-12784-5.

Reviewed by Sharrona Pearl (Drexel University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (June, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

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How many books does it take to make a genre? There’s a bit of a thing happening with books about bodies in historical England, and if it isn’t quite a genre, it’s certainly a trend. Alun Withey’s monograph about beards—or at least sort of about beards—is the latest entry into this ... phenomenon. Withey’s thorough and penetrating account covers a lot of ground: moving smoothly from questions of class to health, medicine, commercialism, reproduction, social status, material culture, professional practice, public and private spheres, and virility, he uses facial hair (and, admittedly, head hair) as a way to explore broader questions of masculinity and the body across a broad sweep of time indeed. A lot changed between 1650 and 1900, and facial hair is as good a way as any to track these shifts.

Withey’s book stands alongside recent entries like Aviva Briefel’s The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imagination (2015), Kathryn Hughes’s Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum (2019), and Peter J. Capuano's and Sue Zemka's edited volume Victorian Hands: The Manual Turn in Nineteenth-Century Body Studies (2020). Each of these works argues that we must pay more attention to discrete aspects of embodiment, using specific bodily manifestations, appendages, and functions to reimagine a history that we perhaps thought we already knew. As these books all emphasize, the body itself has a constructed and changing history and must be understood as a complicated site where medical, physical, emotional, cultural, and social factors both converge and are negotiated. Withey situates facial hair firmly within this nexus, using its growth, care, grooming, symbolism, and value as a way to examine, in grounded ways, manhood and masculinity, health, and medicine.

Facial hair, Withey argues, is absolutely a part of the history of medicine. While this point may seem obvious, bodies are indexed to so many practices that the granular connections to health and health practices and professions are sometimes underexplored. In this deeply researched and beautifully organized book, Withey follows the hair and takes us deep into a rich body of literature and a fascinating history, tracking when and how facial hair ceased to be medicalized but rather became associated with a looser concept of hygiene and personal grooming. This was deeply connected to questions of authority and professional practice: who had control over the care of facial hair was deeply intertwined with what kind of object it was imagined to be. It is impossible to discuss facial hair without delving into the community of barbers, as both a part of and distinct from surgeons. Barbers were practitioners in their own right, with their own communal and underground practices, some of which saw them engaged in illegal and gray-area sales and engagements. And as this group underwent significant shifts, shaving itself became increasingly commercialized and commodified, with a whole range of products and indeed cosmetics associated with its practice. In a key point, Withey demonstrates that self-shaving practices did not meaningfully reduce the nature of barber practice or the centrality of their shops as homosocial spaces that served as a microcosm of broader practices, discussions, and changes.

The book is divided into four broadly chronological sections that map the key themes of masculinity and hygiene, professionalization and self-grooming, class, and commercialization. Withey’s attention to material culture is particularly helpful, as is the depth of his engagement with both qualitative and quantitative primary sources. His engagement with race and colonialism is thoughtful, but this is definitely a book situated in England and concerned with English practices. There is much scope here for a broader postcolonial analysis based on these powerful methodological tools and sources. Likewise, facial hair and disability raise a number of fascinating questions for which this book provides a valuable opening. Withey’s engagement with religion is equally gentle; one could imagine an entire other book concerned only with religious discourses around facial hair and their implications. Withey excavates the richness and heterogeneity of facial hair practices and histories, emphasizing the richness of facial hair as a set of practices in and of themselves as well as an index to broader trends. He moves beyond upper- and middle-class grooming practices to think critically about facial hair across society.

This book provides both grounded information and, in keeping with other books in this vein, a methodology around how to take body history seriously. Full of humor and powerful observations, Withey has situated facial hair as a central topic and one deserving of deep investigation. The book is ambitious and wide-ranging, drawing on a wide variety of sources, methods, and historical perspectives, and is well situated in the Facialitiesseries, demonstrating the power of hair in history.

Citation: Sharrona Pearl. Review of Withey, Alun, Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England 1650-1900. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL:

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