The Atlantic has an article on “The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard“. The article is a case-study for race realists to read-between-the-lines. This paragraph in the introductory section, it makes me want to grow a beard.
What follows is the lost story of American facial hair. Like countless other histories, it is rife with contradictions. It begins with white Americans at the time of the Revolution who derided barbering as the work of “inferiors.” It continues with black entrepreneurs who turned it into a source of wealth and prestige. And it concludes with the advent of the beard—a fashion born out of desperation but transformed into a symbol of masculine authority and white supremacy.
We learn that, both before and immediately after the Civil War, blacks began to make some big bucks as barbers:
…In a number of U.S. cities, African-American barbers ranked among the richest and most powerful members of the free black community. By 1879, James Thomas, a former St. Louis barber who had become a real estate mogul, possessed an estate worth $400,000 (some $10 million in contemporary terms), making him the richest man of color in Missouri. His friend and neighbor, another former barber named Cyprian Clamorgan, was similarly affluent, penning a paean to black wealth and respectability entitled The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis.
Subsequent criticism of this newfound black barber wealth came from… white supremacists. Oh, wait. It didn’t. It came from black progressives:
That barbers successfully navigated these situations speaks to their discretion and grace—though many of America’s most-influential free people of color often proved harsh critics. Frederick Douglass, for example, wrote a scathing critique of the tonsorial profession in an 1853 edition of Frederick Douglass’ Paper: “To shave half a dozen faces in the morning and sleep or play the guitar in the afternoon – all this may be easy, but is it noble, is it manly, and does it improve and elevate us?”
Despite these criticisms, a number of 19th-century barbers parlayed their work into economic independence, and in a few cases, investments that brought them extraordinary wealth. In a number of U.S. cities, African-American barbers ranked among the richest and most powerful members of the free black community. By 1879, James Thomas, a former St. Louis barber who had become a real estate mogul, possessed an estate worth $400,000 (some $10 million in contemporary terms), making him the richest man of color in Missouri. His friend and neighbor, another former barber named Cyprian Clamorgan, was similarly affluent, penning a paean to black wealth and respectability entitled The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis.
But, back to our article’s preferred narrative: evil ‘white supremacism’ as the root cause of, well, everything bad:
White men’s fondness for their black barbers didn’t last. The reasons were varied: The temperance movement and the evangelical religious revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” caused many customers to frown upon the barbershop’s liquor-fueled conviviality.
There was also this going on:
A series of urban public health crises also had dire consequences for the shop. Sanitation in American cities remained haphazard to say the least. In New York City, for instance, monstrous pigs continued to bear responsibility for garbage disposal throughout the early 19th century. Not surprisingly, cities were ravaged by epidemics, making many Americans newly cautious about interpersonal touch. Health writers D. G. Brinton and George H. Napheys advised men to shave themselves, for “it is not pleasant to be lathered with the brush which the minute before has been rubbed on the face of we don’t know whom.”
Ummm…. the above wouldn’t be the product of ‘white supremacy’…
But, onward we must read!
The most important explanation for whites’ anxiety about the shop, however, involved black barbers’ growing wealth. For many, the success of leading African-American barbers seemed to threaten the social order. As white customers were shaved by men with fortunes worth many thousands of dollars, some must have wondered who was serving whom.
But the real problem ran deeper. During the 19th century, intellectuals increasingly subscribed to pseudo-scientific theories of race. Some even believed that people of different races had been the result of separate acts of creation. The German biologist Karl Vogt called whites and blacks “two extreme human types” and wrote that people of African descent “remind us irresistibly of the ape.” All of this helped buttress notions of African-Americans as primitive and intrinsically violent.
Ahh, now we are at the causal nexus. Our author can’t find any specific evidence of ‘white supremacy’ being connected to the demise of the black barber, so he must resort to the generalized explanation that early 19th century theories of race (read by how many mainstream whites of the time?) is the proximate cause.
White fears were further fed by a string of slave rebellions, from present-day Haiti to Nat Turner’s Virginia. For many whites, these seemed to confirm not the injustice of slavery but blacks’ “innate” propensity for violence. As a result, some white customers began to cast a wary eye on their barbers, who commanded resources and occupied positions of authority within their communities. Few seemed better poised to lead an insurrection.
Violent slave rebellions, I would proffer, is a much more satisfactory thesis than 29th century phrenology.
These fears were made powerfully manifest in American fiction, where the figure of the murderous black barber became a fixture during the 19th century. Among the character’s more vivid appearances was a little-known 1847 vignette entitled “A Narrow Escape,” in which a wandering sailor enters an Alabama barbershop and watches helplessly as the shop’s barber slashes the throat of a customer. But the figure also appeared in better-known works of fiction, including Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno.
Was there any factual basis for such fears? Were there incidents of black barbers murdering their white customers? Seriously, I don’t know. The author doesn’t address this.
The results of these fears were dramatic. Between the turn of the century and 1850, American elites abandoned black-owned barbershops in considerable numbers. In major American cities, the number of barbers relative to the populations they served declined dramatically, as demand for their services plummeted. Ambitious young African-American men began to view barbering as a dead-end career.
Here is, arguably, the most important paragraph to ‘read between the lines’:
Meanwhile, at the other end of the social spectrum, immigrant barbers—many of them Germans—catered to a growing population of working-class customers: men too poor, and in many cases too resentful of black barbers’ success, to patronize the best black-owned barbershops. Thus, while whites, according to Douglas Bristol, constituted a mere 20 percent of Philadelphia’s barbers in 1850, by 1860 they represented a near majority. A handful of elite black barbers continued to prosper, but the days when African-Americans dominated the trade were coming to an end.
So… lower income whites, unable to afford the high prices of black-owned barbershops, went to lower-priced barbers who happened to be German (and white.) This sounds like the dynamics of the free market to me.
The author, however, implies racism — pure and simple — as the cause of the decline of black barbers. No consideration whatsoever is given to the Schumpeter’s notion of ‘creative destruction’, the organic and natural process by which some businesses (and sometimes entire industries) die, replaced by new ones.
There’s also this, further evidence of Schumpeter’s thesis:
At the same time black barbers were falling out of favor, many elite white men were radically changing their views on grooming. Where the enlightened 18th century had favored a civilized, clean-shaven look, men of the mid-19th century preferred the untamed appearance of the rugged conqueror. But while facial hair ultimately became a potent symbol of mastery, it didn’t start out that way. If anything, men first adopted beards in a desperate attempt to alleviate the painfulness of their morning toilet.
Without the assistance of their former barbers, shavers had to contend with the 19th-century straight razor. A delicate and temperamental tool, its paper-thin blade required regular, careful maintenance. Even the simplest misstep could ruin it, turning the morning shave into a tug-of-war between men and their facial hair. Still, this was preferable to the alternatives. Men were known to die of tetanus after using an ill-kept blade—Henry David Thoreau’s brother John was one of them. And many lived in fear of cutting their own throats.
Even those who mastered the razor faced other trials. Despite the proliferation of pamphlets on the subject, straight-razor shaving remained a craft secret, largely confined to barbers. And home-shavers lacked many of the materials necessary for a comfortable shave—from clean water and good lighting to quality accoutrements like creams, oils, and brushes.
So it should come as little surprise that many men began avoiding shaving. Between 1800 and 1810, a mere 23 percent of grooming-related articles featured complaints of painful shaving. By the 1840s, that figure had ballooned to 45 percent. What had once been a mere annoyance turned into a veritable scourge. It was time for radical solution: Men eschewed razors in numbers and embarked, for the first time in centuries, on an era of beard-wearing.