Allan Peterkin’s One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair filled my arsenal of oddball facts and trivia to bursting. I now know that there exists an actual organization called the Beard Liberation Front (an interest group that campaigns against beard discrimination), that somewhere in this world lives an enigmatic contraption called a moustache bra, and that Peter the Great of Russia made it impossible for men to wear beards unless they paid 100 rubles per year for a beard license. Truly. A beard license.
One Thousand Beards was born out of what Peterkin describes as “one of those perverse moments of inspiration.” Devoted to the who, what, when, where, and why of facial hair, it contains chapters that progress from the early history of the beard to the beard in the 20th century, with sections on everything from shaving to psychoanalysis in between. It offers something for every reader, and although the book aims to be part cultural history and part psychological investigation, it is neither at the expense of fun or entertainment.
In his introduction, Peterkin claims that while writing his book he had hoped to uncover, “the unconscious reasons we wear beards” and the statements we make with the facial hair we choose (women included – Peterkin writes an entire chapter on the feminine beard that, for me, was one of the highlights of the book). The book does address these and other tough questions about why we wear facial hair, but provides few answers. Instead, One Thousand Beards is saturated with facts, statistics and stories, giving readers the information and freedom to draw their own conclusions. While I wish there had been more space devoted to the author’s own ideas and opinions, the volume of information provided and the pace at which it’s presented tells me that any answer to these questions would require an entirely different kind of book.
One Thousand Beards gives readers the understanding that there is much, much more behind facial hair than the mere biological ability to grow it. Over time, beards have been forbidden, required, taxed, and forcibly removed, and between every man (or woman) and his (or her) facial hair lies an emotional attachment, personal belief, fashion statement, and worldview. It not only opened my mind to the stories behind facial hair, but to the potential history behind other everyday objects and items of personal style.
Quirky, did-you-know kinds of anecdotes have always filled my nerdy heart with glee. Thanks to One Thousand Beards, I can now joyfully tell people that most men will spend a total of 5 months of their lives shaving, and that hundreds of thousands of dollars of beer is wasted every year trapped in beards. And really, this is the kind of information that can only make life happier, funnier and a little bit more full. It not only freshly stocked my cache of trivia, but it opened my mind to the wealth of stories I can find in all of the places I would never have thought to look.
A few of my favourite things:
• Separate from the main text, each page has side columns devoted to facial hair facts, quotations, images and illustrations that don’t quite fit anywhere else.
• The final chapter not only contains detailed instructions on how to plan, grow, wash, dye and wax your facial hair but also contains an illustrated list of how-to’s with instructions on how to shave your facial hair into twenty distinct styles.
• The bibliography is nine pages long. Though the book itself is more of an overview than an in-depth look at facial hair, it provides tons of resources for readers interested in digging further.
One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair by Allan Peterkin, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001
reviewed by Hailey Siracky