The Internet has been a catalyst for a lot of changes in American society. People are able to share more things with larger groups of people than ever before. The biggest change? Seems pretty obvious, of course: now we can all share our love of trivia. In a world full of people with things to say, we finally have a place to say them. And, as crazy as it seems, the drive to esoterica is virulently contagious. Popular culture hasn’t had so wide a reach since the invention of the telegraph when cranky mothers could finally harass their children from across the world.
Allan Peterkin supports his chronology and analysis of the hairy arts with research culled from popular websites as though they represented an authoritative history of the world. He may be right in this, he may be wrong, but the passion with which he approaches the task is rewarding in itself. The book’s finest moments are both anecdotal and utilitarian. Peterkin is not a historian. This much is clear, but he offers information that is both useful and amusing. The final sections, packed with useful information on beard types and facial hair technology, are reason enough to buy his book. Included are such useful gems as “How to strop a razor,” “Where to order false facial hair,” and how to grow an “Amish (Dutch) Beard.”
As a self-proclaimed Amish Watcher, I’ve heard many theories on the birth and maintenance of the signature neckwarmer and chapped upper lips. They range from the need to keep the neck warm to a reaction against the ubiquity of the military ‘stache in the 1880’s when the pacifist Amish Schism took place. One Thousand Beards left me hanging on this front, but the chapter on “The Female Beard” left the doors of praise open.
The earliest citation of a book about the history of any kind of hair in this book is Once Over Lightly: The Story of Man and His Hair by Charles de Zemler (New York: self-published, 1939), and certainly Peterkin owes some debt to pioneers like him, but this project is clearly his own. I doubt, for example, that de Zemler had much to say about the history of female facial hair. And why should he have? Men are stubbly, women are smooth. But of course, few of us believe that and suddenly the categories break down: what if you’re a man who can’t grow a full beard (“follicularly challenged,” quips Peterkin)? Or worse: what if you are a woman with “unsightly facial hair?” Not that there are any of those out there, mind you, but just what if?
In its finest chapter, One Thousand Beards does clean justice to female troubles throughout history, citing anecdotal evidence of painful procedures (pumice, tweezing) and unusual solutions (P. T. Barnum’s bearded ladies and Hatshepsut’s Postiche—a ceremonial beard made of gold). He aptly points out that historical distinctions between the smooth and the rough are difficult to maintain and that there are always people interested in upsetting the fruitbasket (There is a wonderful sidebar about Clarissa “CJ” Lagartera, a.k.a. Carlos Las Vegas a.k.a. Karmalita Las Vegas, a Canadian queer activist/Drag King, whose gender-bending performances draw out the thinly veiled spectrum of male to female).
Taking into account Peterkin’s recipes for hair styling and the strong theoretical chapters dealing with gay culture, women and psychoanalysis, the collection of information from un-cited websites is less problematic than frustrating. Like the medium from which it is spawned, however, its strengths are not in its longevity or its comprehensive nature. I’m tempted to believe that Allan Peterkin wouldn’t have written this book without the Internet, and the world would certainly be a less entertaining place without this book. In spite of his tendency to think about hairstyles as if they didn’t mean something completely different 10 years ago, this book is a pleasing discourse on a subject that most men (and probably most women) will find entertaining and worth looking into during a spare moment.
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