Combing Masculine Identity in the Age of the Moustache, 1860–1900
In March 1875, The Saturday Evening Post, one of the most popular American magazines, wrote: ‘The comb marks the course of refinement, and travels wherever the untutored savage is brought to yield to the benign influences of civilization.’ During the late nineteenth century, racial tension became inextricably linked with facial hair as Social Darwinists turned to the body—and specifically to hair—for signs of greater masculinity and racial superiority. Increasing sociological conflict propelled social theorists to address concerns that modernisation had rendered white men too tame and, thus, unfit to defend themselves against rival races. The moustache, or facial hair tamed, embodied a physical and aesthetic interface, mediating ideas of barbarism and civility. While examination of historic facial hair fashions has recently gained greater attention both in academic and popular literature, studies have yet to address facial hair as viewed through the lens of an artefact. A late nineteenth-century moustache comb in the collection of the New-York Historical Society inspires this study of the intersection of material culture and the stylistic evolution of facial hair according to changing constructions of masculinity. Designed to be carried in a pocket, the moustache comb materially parallels debates in society. That is, it unfolds to reveal the complexities and racial tensions of late Victorian manhood. Moustache combs simultaneously projected a cultivated, yet animalistic, masculine identity. As a civilizing implement made for and carried on the body, these objects exemplify the manifestation of cultural and social changes in the hirsute adornment of the ideal aggressive, yet civilized, man. Building on her Master’s thesis and subsequent research, the author argues how the moustache represented ideal manhood on an increasingly diverse American face.