Podcast #311: The Meaning of Beards

The ability to grow a beard is what separates boys from men and except for a few rare instances of bearded ladies, men from women. Because it’s a uniquely masculine feature, facial hair has played an important role in forming our ideas about manhood. Today on the show, I talk to a cultural historian who specializes in the history of facial hair about the cultural, political, and religious history of the beard. His name is Christopher Oldstone-Moore and in his latest book Of Beards and Men he takes readers on a tour through the history of facial hair starting with cavemen and going all the way to the hipster beard of the 21st century. 

We begin our conversation talking about why male humans grow beards in the first place and then take a look at the spiritual and political significance of beards and shaving beginning with the ancient Sumerians through medieval Europeans. We then discuss why the Greeks were big on beards until Alexander the Great and why the Ancient Romans were bare-faced until the days of the early empire. We also discuss Jesus’ beard and why many early Christians actually depicted him as clean shaven. We end our conversation talking about the great beards of the 19th century, why clean shaveness took precedence in the 20th (and no, it’s not because of the military’s use of gas masks) and the cultural meanings of facial hair today. Whether you’re bearded or bare-faced, this podcast is going to leave you with lots of new insights about the hair that grows on your masculine mug.

Show Highlights

  • How a professor of Western civilization came to specialize in facial hair
  • Christopher’s own feelings on being bearded
  • Why humans have facial hair in the first place
  • Why did men start shaving?
  • The signals that a large and lengthy beard sent in the ancient world
  • Why having your beard forcibly shaved off was a humiliating punishment
  • Why shaving came to represent godliness and power
  • How Roman emperor Hadrian ushered in the first resurgence of the beard
  • The history and portrayals of Jesus’ beard
  • Beardedness in the Middle Ages
  • The up and down nature of the popularity of facial hair throughout various historical ages
  • Why Romanticism embraced the beard faster than any other era
  • How facial hair came to have a bit of a generational divide
  • How Abraham Lincoln’s beard came to be
  • The cultural significance of the mustache — especially in the military
  • The perfect storm of science, culture, and corporate work environments that led to the clean-shaven men of the 20th century
  • What’s the status of the beard today?
  • The role of the beard in society today

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Of Beards and Men is utterly fascinating. After you’re done reading it, you’ll never look at beards the same way. Pick up a copy on Amazon.

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