November is a Month for Silly Affectations

It’s finally November, which just means many of us are rethinking our grooming options. That’s right, we’ve reached that one month out of the year when for some inexplicable reason, otherwise clean-cut men (and sometime women, too) decide not to shave.

beardless lincoln
Lincoln in 1858, in need of a beard. By T.P. Pearson, Public Domain

And really, do we need a reason not to shave? Sure, smooth skin might be nice, but shaving takes a lot of time—time manly men all over the world could spend washing and combing and stroking thoughtfully the facial hair that is their genetic legacy. They don’t need an excuse.

But at least one famous man did. On October 15, 1860, a little girl from Westfield, New York gave him one when she wrote to then presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln that he would “look a great deal better” if he let his whiskers grow. Lincoln responded to eleven-year-old Grace Bedell within a few days inquiring whether she thought “people would call it a silly affectation” if he were to begin a beard at this point.

There’s no record of whether she wrote to him again of this matter, but like so many men of the last few years, Lincoln stopped shaving that November. By the time he took his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. the new president’s face was sporting some stylish hair. And with it, he’d picked up a pretty adorable story.

An artist’s best guess. Original portrait by T.P. Pearson, Public Domain. Beard added by my 14-year-old son, used with permission.

Not particularly pleased about the development were the portrait artists working to make a buck off the famous visage of the newly elected leader. Before the days of presidential Twitter feeds and helpful Instagram filters, the rumor of recently sprouted whiskers were all many artists had to go on, and so they had to guess.

But Abraham Lincoln certainly has gone down in history as a bewhiskered gentleman, his signature close-trimmed beard possibly the most recognizable in US history. Still, historians don’t all agree on his motivation for taking Bedell’s advice.

Bewhiskered Lincoln in 1863. It takes a wise president to embrace criticism about his hair. By Alexander Gardner, Public Domain

He did make a stop along his inaugural journey to show little Miss Bedell his whiskers, which surely won him some favorable press. It’s always possible he could have just reflected on the advice of a concerned citizen and realized that she might have had a point.

It’s also true that in Lincoln’s day, close-trimmed facial hair was common among the highly sophisticated gentlemen of US cities and Honest Abe probably wanted to shed his rep as kind of a country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere in Illinois.

Or it could be that Abraham Lincoln was a man ahead of his time and he just decided November is not for shaving.

“Throw Away Your Razor” November

In 1895, a young man named King Camp Gillette stood in front of his shaving mirror contemplating some recent advice he’d received from work at the Crown Cork and Seal Company, manufacturers of bottle caps. The advice was this: “Invent something people use and throw away.”

King Camp Gillette sporting an impressive mustache for the month of Movember.
King Camp Gillette sporting an impressive mustache for the month of Movember.

That seemed like a sound idea to Gillette who thought about it so long and so hard, he nicked himself with his razor. He grabbed a towel and cursed as he attempted to stem the bleeding and clean himself up. Then he grabbed the strop he used to sharpen the blade so he could get good clean nicks the next time he shaved too. That’s when it hit him. What he’d really like to do instead is just throw the darn thing away.

And maybe, he thought, just maybe, other men, men who were tired of tearing up their skin for the sake of a fashionably close shave, might feel the same way. He wasn’t wrong, because about a hundred years later, men stood up in great droves to throw their razors away for an entire month in an effort to tell the world that men’s health and well-being matters.

Evidently babies don't participate in No Shave November. photo attribution:
Evidently babies don’t participate in No Shave November. photo attribution:

It was in the late 1990’s that “No Shave” November (or “Movember” if you prefer a mustache to a beard) began to emerge. The idea is that for a whole month, men (and sometimes women) agree not to shave in order to raise awareness and, in some cases, research funds for health issues specific to men.

I should say, I certainly have nothing against the beardless, even in
November, but I do like the event. I think it’s a fun way to talk about some serious stuff, because, though I really don’t care whether the men in my life sport whiskers or don’t, I do care very much whether or not they look after their health needs. And I realize that too often, men don’t. So, please, Gentlemen, visit your doctor occasionally (or get a doctor, if that’s where you’re at) and take care of business.

razor patent
A great November 1904 leap forward for men’s health.

Now, to be fair, Gillette didn’t think the answer to his problem would be to throw away his razor forever and just stop shaving at all. Instead, he got down to business, found himself a knowledgeable partner (William Nickerson), and applied for a patent for his disposable safety razor in 1904 on the 15th of “Throw away your razor” November.

Though not the first encased blade razor on the market, it was the first with a replaceable head and within a few years, men were sold. Gillette had successfully invented something that people use and throw away and had become a well-shaved millionaire in the process. The company that bears his name, though now owned by Proctor & Gamble, continues to move forward behind the mantra, “There is a better way to shave and we will find it.”

This November, millions of men have come together to declare that at least for a couple more weeks, that better way is not to shave at all. But my hope is that long after November has run its course and a lot of menfolk have returned to their regular shaving routines, they will remember how their manly plight was made better by King Camp Gillette. And I’m hoping that every time they throw away their razor blade, the men in my life, and the men in yours, will remember that it’s important to the people they love that they look after themselves and take care of business.

A Hairy Tax Scheme: Ridding Society of Superfluous Burdens

As Englishman John Perry walked through the streets of Veronezh, Russia at the tail end of the 17th -century, he encountered a man he had known for some time, but whom he hardly recognized. The man was a carpenter with whom Perry, an engineer who served in the court of Peter the Great, had worked before. For as long as Perry had known him, the carpenter, like most Russian men of the day, had worn a long beard and untrimmed mustache. Fresh from the barber, the carpenter now had a smooth face.

Perry exchanged a few pleasantries with the man and then asked what he had done with his beard. In response, the clean-cut carpenter pulled the beard from his breast pocket and explained that he would keep it someplace safe and that one day it would be placed back upon his face in his coffin. That way, when he reached the pearly gates, St. Nicholas (who as we all know has a beard that’s long and white) would know him.

The carpenter had become the latest victim of the tsar’s beard tax. Peter the Great had recently returned from what Wikipedia calls an “incognito” tour (meaning, I can only assume, that he wore a big bushy fake beard) through Europe in an attempt to drum up international support for his military campaign against the Ottoman Empire. His efforts failed (because obviously 17th-century Europeans hated beards), but Peter had learned his lesson and on September 5, 1698, he issued a beard tax on the men of Russia (thus, essentially outlawing “No shave November.”)

Peter I, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russi...
Peter the Great sporting a highly fashionable (and completely legal) mustache (portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And it was hefty, too. Wealthier citizens were required to pay 100 rubles per year (that’s something like, well, a lot of rubles, I bet). The rest of the citizens had to pay a Copek (which is also probably a lot of Copeks) for the privilege of sporting a beard. In addition to the right to keep their whiskers (and incur the wrath of the tsar), payment of the tax also bought the unshaven a medallion they had to wear as proof of their legal right to bear registered whiskers. Evidently, concealing a beard inside your breast pocket did not require additional licensure.

English: A beard token, received for paying th...
The beard token contained the roughly translated words: “The beard is a superfluous burden.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only men exempted from the law were the clergy who were allowed to maintain long beards and traditional dress, as the rest of the country embraced modern fashion trends. Even so, the clergymen were pretty hacked off about the whole thing and launched a pamphlet campaign, claiming that Peter (the Great Heretic) had gone much too far.

Like often happens with poorly handled calls to conservative ideals, the young men of Russia thumbed their noses at the outraged clergymen and happily got up early for work so they’d have time to shave every day. The real reason, of course, for the radical support of the misguided policies of the tsar was that the young ladies of Russia responded positively to the change.

I doubt such a tax would ever fly today, though, at least not here in the US where the beard has now taken on social icon status and the men who wear them are far more likely to carry a duck call and a shotgun than to wear a medallion.

And I can’t speak for all ladies, but for me personally, I don’t mind so much. Now, I’m not a big fan of long bushy facial hair, but a nicely trimmed beard tells me that while a man cares at least something for personal hygiene, he is also practical and confident enough to forego the daily ritual of shaving. I wouldn’t want to begrudge him that option.

So I asked my husband (a handsome and neatly trimmed bearded fellow) what he thought about a beard tax. His anger at such a concept was as swift and unyielding as was that of the pamphlet-wielding Russian clergymen of old. I have to admit, the tax does seem remarkably unfair because men who wear beards already have to make great sacrifices in order to do so.

For example, this past weekend, when our family cooked out at the grandparents’ house, we made s’mores, which we all enjoyed immensely. All, that is, except for my husband, who when questioned by our boys as to why he wasn’t eating one of the gooey treats, replied by explaining that a bearded man must avoid melted marshmallow when he is far from his own shower.

S’more: well worth a close shave, I’d think. (Photo credit: Christopher S. Penn)

Historians have suggested that the Russian beard tax was a part of Peter the Great’s attempt to modernize (meaning Europeanize) his country, but there may have been a few practical advantages to the law as well.  Regardless of his motive, Peter’s tax was more or less successful. And it wasn’t finally repealed until 1772, by which point John Perry’s carpenter friend had probably long since carried his beard into Heaven.