The Face of the Modern Man: the Facial Hair of Lanarkshire’s Early Provosts

10 min read

The Lanarkshire Look

In their portraits, the provosts of Motherwell, Airdrie, and Coatbridge look like quite a serious bunch. Perched stiffly in their chairs, their expressions betray the intense determination of men with something to prove.

Like much of North Lanarkshire, the burghs (chartered towns) were newcomers to Scottish civil life. Airdrie was only established as a burgh in 1821, Motherwell in 1865, and Coatbridge not long after that in 1885. Industry and immigration in the 1800s had quickly turned these small, sleepy hamlets into bustling iron and steel towns. With new money and a growing population, they needed new leadership. And their provosts (equivalent to a mayor or town council president) needed new portraits.

The paintings in the collections of CultureNL chart the rise of these three burghs. Yet as we scan through the faces of these local leaders, we can see another change as well. Moving through the canvases, we see a radical shift in the way these men shaved. Through beards, moustaches, and careful trims, we can read the story of a century: of changing masculinity, technology, philosophy, and war.

To modern eyes, these men may look stuffy, stiff, and serious. Yet in their times, these men were something more. These men were leaders. These men were decision-makers.

And these men were stylish.

Want to learn more about historic hair? Check out:In Pursuit of Beauty: Hair, Hair!

Clean Faces and Clear Minds

The story of facial hair in North Lanarkshire began long before these men donned their official regalia. Well back into prehistory, men and woman were tending to their faces. Stone tools were as good at scraping human chins as they were at removing the rough bristles of wild animals. Shellfish not only make a delicious snack, but their shells worked remarkably well as tweezers. Even shark teeth could be used if you could find them.

In Scotland, this story of stubble reaches back to early Roman accounts that tell of moustachioed Britons. It traces its way through the pointed beards carved on Pictish stones and the clean-shaven faces of early Christian missionaries. It includes James Graham’s signature moustache and many an (allegedly) scraggly Jacobite beard.

We will begin our story, however, a century or so before the rise of Airdrie, Motherwell, and Coatbridge. The large landowners of these hamlets looked quite different then the politicians who would replace them.

The lords of the 1700s were men of the Scottish enlightenment. They believed in rationality, self-improvement, and gentility. A well shaven face was a symbol of this forward-thinking ideology. It was a testament to scientific progress, polite civility, and the symbol of the modern man.

Consider the portrait of Sir Charles Edmonstone, Baronet (1764-1821). A Dumbarton native and an Eton alumnus, he would have immersed himself in a culture that prized a sensible, gentle, and clean-shaven appearance. In this look, he was emulating the great men of the age, such as Sir Walter Scott, David Hume, and Adam Smith.

Want to learn more about the Edmonstones? Check out: Colzium House

It would take a skilled hand to maintain the smooth surfaces of an enlightened man’s face. The safety razor would not appear on the market until the end of the 1800s, so this smooth look would have been achieved with straight razor. For those who could afford it, a skilled barber became essential. But as for Sir Charles, he was unlikely frequenting the barbershops of North Lanarkshire. Like other wealthy men, he was probably shaved at home by a servant.

For those with less income to spend, a daily or weekly trip to the barber shop would have been impossible. Instead, they would have to shaved themselves: a task made easier with an advancement in industry in the middle of the century.

Better Steel, Better Shave

Before 1740, steel blades were weak, brittle, and expensive to produce. They were made with blister or shear steel and would frequently need sharpening with a leather strap.

All that changed in 1740, when Benjamin Huntsman discovered a new technique to produce crucible steel. This new metal was not only stronger and cheaper, but more attractive as well. It could be polished to a beautiful shine and could be used in everything from surgical equipment to back braces.

A further boon to the casual shaver was an exciting new range of shaving products. The badger-hair brush, for example, could whip up a thick shaving lather for a smoother shave. Spread across the face, this was the precursor to the modern shaving cream still popular today.

The Era of the Bushy Beard

As the Enlightenment drew to a close, so too did fashion for a close shave. To the Victorians, there was nothing more manly, more sophisticated, and more modern than a big bushy beard. The bigger and bushier the better.

This is clear in the portraits of the first provosts of Motherwell. James Russell (who served from 1865 to 1868) was a boilermaker who served as the first provost of Motherwell. In his portrait, his well-maintained white beard gives him an air of wisdom and dignity. His successor, William King (who served from 1868 to 1877) was a grocer, publican, and stone quarry master. His beard tumbles widely down his chest in a sea of curly white.

Both men have groomed themselves in a style similar to the famous Charles Darwin. In fact, in Darwin’s 1871 book The Descent of Man, he argued that the beard evolved to attract a mate. Like a toucan’s beak or a peacock’s feathers, a long and healthy beard would supposedly charm the opposite sex. In such a world, these two men would surely be irresistible.

Yet, it was far more than just Darwinism that brought the beard so quickly and powerfully into fashion around this time. Returning soldiers from the Crimean war sported thick beards that were quickly seen as a sign of bravery and military heroism. This coincided with a Victorian concern that the modern age had made men weak. This rugged new look struck a chord with the public. The beard quickly became a necessary accessory.

It also came at a time when the gap between men and women was narrowing. As women fought their way onto the factory floor and into the public sphere, there was sudden concern about what this meant for men. Suddenly, the difference between men and women was less clear. At least a robust set of whiskers was one thing the average women could not achieve.

Predictably, with this uptick in whiskers many new products appeared to accommodate them. Moustache guards, beard ties, and moustache cups could assist a beard owner in the difficult task of eating. Books of manners offered advice on fraught task of eating soup while whiskered. And for those without a thick crop of hair, many a patent remedy offered relief from the cruelties of nature.

Yet by the end of the century, the fashions were again beginning to change. Young people were no longer interested in the flamboyant facial hair of their parents and grandparents. With the invention of the safety razor and the outbreak of war, a new era of facial hair was on the horizon.

Changing Trends

In the early 1900s, the new, sleek moustache became the symbol of the modern man.

Examining a photo of the opening ceremony of the New Poorhouse in 1905, you can see how strongly this new facial hair took hold. Some older men are still sporting a bearded style. Some have opted for a cleanshaven look. But the most common facial adornment, by far, is the moustache.

The provosts were certainly not immune to this trend. Sir James Knox, the provost of Airdrie from 1905 to 1911, has a wonderfully iconic twirled moustache. A hat-maker and a founding father of the Airdrie Savings Bank, Knox worked hard to raise the fortunes of his community. He shared this style with Airdrie Provost John Kennedy who served from 1921 to 1924. Like Knox, Kennedy also worked in the textile business and was president of Airdrie Savings Bank in the 1930s.

Want to learn more about the Airdrie Saving Ban: Check out: The Triumph of Thrift: the Airdrie Savings Bank

Even into the 1930s, the moustache persisted. Coatbridge provost Robert Irvine, who served from 1928 to 1931 has a much more restrained moustache than his Airdrie predecessors. Instead of curing at the ends, it lies flat on his face. Irvine was a business owner, master tailor and proud member of the Society of Free Gardeners. He was extremely active in the community up until his death in 1951 at the age of 83.

These new styles in facial hair were also aided by new breakthroughs in shaving technology. American King C. Gillette’s patented “safety razor” appeared on the market during the first few years of the 1900s. These razors, with their disposable steel blades, made shaving cheaper and easier than ever before.

But perhaps the greatest influence on this upper lip ornament was war. In 1860, shaving the upper lip was formally forbidden by the Army regulations. Soon, the army moustache, like the bright red uniform, became a symbol of the Army and the British empire as a whole. Though the requirement was dropped in 1916, growing a moustache continued through both world wars. It persisted as a rite of passage, a mark of soldierly identity, and a vehicle for control. Motherwell Provost Lieutenant Colonel Gavin Black, who served as provost from 1930 to 1934, has kept his carefully styled moustache long after his service in the first world war. Like his sabre, his uniform, and his prominently displayed medals, his choice of facial hair announces his bravery to the world.

Yet by the Second World War, the moustache was losing its popularity. When the fighting finally ended, the men came home, and the moustaches largely came off.

Hair and Back Again

There is a regality to the portraits of Airdrie Provost David Bonner (who served from 1945-1949) and Motherwell and Wishaw Provost Bernard Brogan (who served from 1950-1956). In their velvet and ermine robes they look more like local kings than heads of a city council.

Each man looks out of frame and into the distance. It is as if they are looking towards the future. Their eyes gleam with determination of their spirits and their chins gleam with the closeness of their shaves.

By this time, the beard seemed old-fashioned and un-modern. It was a symbol of a bygone era before war had changed the world forever. Once again, the clean face was a symbol of the civilized, modern man who valued education, clean living, and scientific progress.

But it was not just about the men. Women had an increasing say in the world of male grooming. Relationships between men and woman were becoming ever more equal in the post-war era. And after a century of bristly kisses, the modern woman could finally put her foot down. The moustache, it seemed, had to go.

Shaving companies leaned into this connection between shaving and progress. New electric razors began to appear on the market in the 1950s and 1960s. They were marketed as a sleek and modern feats of engineering. Remington electric shavers produced in Lanarkshire and steel blades produced in Sheffield were touted for their precision, engineering, and craftsmanship. Shaving was science. Shaving was technology. Shaving was the future.

Until it once again became the past.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

It is here that we leave our provosts. In 1975, the local councils were absorbed into the Strathclyde Region. In 1996, the burghs would be reordered again into the district of North Lanarkshire. The ermine robes were put away and the ceremonial chains were given to museums.

In the end, the burghs lasted a little over a century. Yet it was a century of enormous change. It is easy to see this change on the large scale, as borders shift and populations grow. But it is also possible to see this change on the small scale, too. In the simple act of shaving, we can watch technology improving, ideas changing, and the unexpected impact of world events.

In the years that followed, facial hair came and went. New technologies allowed for more experimentation. Television brought new styles into people’s homes. Looking ahead, it’s hard to know what the future holds. Yet whatever happens, we can take one last lesson from the provosts of North Lanarkshire.

Wear it with confidence, and it will never go out of style.

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