These are dark days for the shaving industry. After experiencing a century of fairly steady growth, makers of razors and other shaving equipment have seen revenues level off or fall in the last few years. Beards are back.
One striking feature of this resurgence is that for the first time in well over a century, a growing number of the world’s business leaders are sporting facial hair. Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, Goldman Sachs’s chief executive, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and Marc Benioff, the billionaire founder and chief executive of Salesforce, are just a few prominent examples.
It’s easy to view the bearded business leader as a mere extension of the overall beard trend, or yet another sign that work environments are becoming more casual. But the tangled history of facial hair and capitalism suggests that deeper forces are at work.
Historically, beards in the boardroom have been a barometer of the relative vitality of capitalism and its critics. When capitalism has assumed a more swashbuckling, individualistic persona, hair has sprouted on the chins of entrepreneurs and speculators. But when forces bent on destroying capitalism have been ascendant — or when well-regulated, faceless corporations have defined economic life — beards have waned.
For most of the modern era, beards and mustaches grew only at the margins of society. In the United States, the founding fathers eschewed facial hair. The same cleanshaven look prevailed throughout Europe among the capitalist classes.
In Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, socialists, Chartists and other critics of capitalism began growing beards. As a young man, Friedrich Engels, who would go on to write “The Communist Manifesto” with Karl Marx, organized a “moustache evening” among his friends to taunt cleanshaven bourgeois “philistinism.” Marx himself cultivated a huge beard and thick mustache. A Prussian spy later sent to keep tabs on him reported with a mixture of awe and anxiety: “His hair and beard are quite black. The latter he does not shave.”
Beards were scary to capitalists. But after reactionaries crushed the violent uprisings of 1848 in Continental Europe, the threat of what the Times of London described that year as “foreign bearded propagandists” began receding in the capitalist imagination. In response, beards started to make inroads among the defenders of free enterprise in Britain and the United States. As one historian of the hirsute, Christopher Oldstone-Moore of Wright State University, has concluded, “fearful associations of facial hair dissolved, and respectable men were at liberty to let their beards grow.”
Indeed, beards became an emblem of bourgeois masculinity. Proponents of the new “beard movement” (yes, it was called that) argued that “the bondage of the beard to the dictatorship of an effeminate fashion” had yielded a world of “woman-faced men.”
Many factors contributed to this trend. In the United States, the gold rush that began in 1849 threw countless middle-class men into a get-rich-quick world of prospecting where shaving was discretionary. The Civil War must also be credited, as wide-eyed boys went off to war cleanshaven and returned as bearded men.
Notably, this is when we witness the rise of facial hair as an essential accouterment of the capitalist class. Jay Gould, the most feared financier of the era, grew a beard that concealed most of his face, making an already inscrutable countenance even more difficult to read. Other robber barons followed suit.
These men didn’t view themselves as conformists, much less corporate drones, but as rugged individualists who single-handedly built vast business empires. Their beards became part of their larger-than-life brand. Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, Collis P. Huntington, William Henry Vanderbilt and almost every other member of the vilified capitalist class sported extravagant facial hair.
But nothing lasts forever. From the 1870s onward, as the workers’ rebellion revived internationally, a new wave of labor radicals sported long, unruly beards. In the popular press, as the conflict between labor and capital turned increasingly violent in the 1880s, facial hair became a shorthand for the forcible resistance to capitalism. Illustrated newspapers covering the Haymarket bombing in 1886 in Chicago showed radicals wearing unkempt, tangled beards.
Cartoonists soon began depicting labor, and strikers in particular, as modern-day Samsons, pulling down the columns of an orderly society, killing their capitalist adversaries and themselves in the process. One barber quoted by this newspaper around the turn of the century put the matter bluntly, when describing various “cranks” and radicals: “They carry their banners on their faces, proclaiming them Populists or Anarchists, or some other sort of ists.”
Most “respectable” men, including capitalists, ran from this image. While the invention of the safety razor by King C. Gillette in 1901 is often blamed for the demise of the beard, businessmen (and labor leaders eager to avoid the taint of radicalism) had already gone for a neatly trimmed mustache before going entirely cleanshaven by the dawn of the new century. The changing fashion may also have reflected a shift away from the untrammeled, individualistic capitalism of the Gilded Age to something more corporate, faceless — and beardless.
In succeeding decades, beards and mustaches all but disappeared. The organization man of 20th-century America was cast as cleanshaven, his individuality subsumed into a larger, corporate identity. Iconic critics of capitalism — Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh — kept alive the identification of facial hair with leftist politics.
But with the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Communism, the groundwork for a scruffy capitalism was laid. In the semiotics of capital today, whiskers no longer code as a threat. With free market ideology essentially unopposed by any major power and energized by the entrepreneurial swagger of the technology world, beards are back in business.
Stephen Mihm is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, a regular contributor to Bloomberg View and the author of A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States.