November 10, 2013

Horse 1567 - The Gillette Safety Razor and The End Of Beards And Moustaches (A Lament)

Wave of Beards
One of the most romantic aspects of the Elizabethan age was the wave of beards which suddenly swept across History and settled upon all the great men of the period. The most memorable of these beards was the cause of the outstanding event of the reign, which occurred in the following way.

The Great Armadillo
The Spaniards complained that Captain F. Drake, the memorable bowlsman, had singed the King of Spain's beard (or Spanish Mane, as it was called) one day when it was in Cadiz Harbour. Drake replied that he was in his hammock at the time and a thousand miles away. The King of Spain, however, insisted that the beard had been spoilt and sent the Great Spanish Armadillo to ravish the shores of England.
- W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That (1930).

All your dreams are made,
When you're chained to the mirror and the razor blade.
- Morning Glory, Oasis (1995).

There was a question posed on a motorsport forum which I frequent about the last time that people with either moustaches or beards had occupied all three places on the podium in a Formula One race. It happened at the Canadian GP this year when Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton finished in that order. Though to be fair, Sebastian's beard is kind of a bit wispy and sad, Fernando Alonso's face foliage has in recent races looked far more established and Lewis Hamilton appears to be going for some sort of 1950's do-wop chinstrap beard thing.
The weird thing is that although I could find World Champions like Nigel Mansell (1992), Keke Rosberg (1982), Graham Hill (1962, 1968) who had proper moustaches, finding three in any given race was a difficult task and I failed miserably - there might be some though. The most obvious explanation for this is that the so-called modern era of Formula One starts in 1950 which is well after Mr Gillette patented his safety razor.

King Camp Gillette whose name would be lent to the company which bore his name, had his patent accepted for the Saftey Razor in 1904. The company then achieved massive amounts of success when it won a contract to supply the US Army with 3.5 million razors and 32 million replacement blades during the First World War.

This might seem a little trivial but the last time that the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia all had mustachioed leaders was the year 1909 when Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, William Howard Taft and Alfred Deakin all led their respective countries. Admittedly this was before the First World War had even been thought of but it says something if before the war, finding beardy leaders was commonplace but after, not quite so much.
Gillette's contract to supply Doughboys during the First World War was more than likely the trigger which stroked beards and moustaches off of mens' faces and into the bathroom sink of history.

If we look at old photographs from the First World War, quite often the ranks of normal fighting men who were only 18-25 weren't old enough to grow proper beards and moustaches but the officer class, still had quite fine facial hair; Lord Kitchener immediately springs to mind as he points outwards from those recruitment posters. Though by the Second World War, the percentage of officers with facial hair also seems to have declined.
Certainly Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and John Curtin never sported facial fuzz but that doesn't seem to have affected their leadership at all. All three however had other distinctive trademarks: Churchill is famous for his cigars but was almost never seen at official engagements without a silken polka-dot bow-tie, the first a gift from Clemmy; Curtin deliberately chose his severe round spectacles because it distinguished him from other MPs and Roosevelt is perhaps more famous for the manner in which he delivered his 'fireside chats' rather than anything else (except polio).

Of course people like the fictional Dr. Fu Manchu and the very real dictators like Stalin and Hitler and seem to have ruined certain moustaches for everyone. Charlie Chaplin couldn't overcome the stigma that the real 'Great Dictator' had created for his toothbrush 'tache and he got rid of it. Not even comedian Richard Herring in his BBC Radio 4 series could successfully 'reclaim' the Toothbrush Moustache in the name of giving it back to Chaplin.

It has now been more than 100 years since Gillette's invention and there doesn't appear to be any signs that we'll see another wave of beards and moustaches in the near future. I don't for instance see another great beard like James A. Garfield's or Henry Parkes' making a comeback in a hurry.
It's a little sad that the last Prime Minister that Australia had with a moustache was Billy Hughes; in the UK it was Clement Atlee and in the United States, their last President with a moustache was William Howard Taft.
Even royalty succumbed in abandoning beards as George V was the last monarch to have a beard and neither Edward VIII, George VI grew them and the future kings Charles III, William V or George VII have not shown any inklings that they might grow one (though given that George is less than six months old that might be a bit difficult).

I don't know if Gillette's invention has necessarily made the world a happier place but I do suspect that when it comes to the way that we view history, the leaders of especially the last 50 yards who don't sport any facial hair, don't give the impression that they have the same level of authority that leaders of old did. I bet that if you saw Hughes, Atlee or Taft walking down the street, that you'd think just a little that 'hey there, that looks like someone'.
At the moment, Abbott, Cameron and Obama who hold exactly the same positions, just don't look to have the same perceived level of statesmanship that people who went before them did and I'm willing to bet that something as simple as growing a moustache, might be enough to change peoples' perceptions. Abbott and Cameron both present as kind of mousey and Obama is seen as a relatively weak leader, though a lot of that is because of the way in which the American political system works.

Okay, I completely concede that having more leaders with beards and moustaches won't change the world radically but at least we would get nicer portraits and it would make life a little easier for political cartoonists.

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