These days, beards are big, in all senses of the word. But most of those wearing them probably have little idea of their troubled history in the US—one that is inextricably linked with racism and sexism, writes Sean Trainor in the Atlantic. For free black men in the early 1800s, barbering was "one of the few jobs that presented even faint hopes for prosperity," Trainor explains. That led to a wealth of barbershops run by African Americans. But many whites grew wary of the barbers' growing wealth, fearing it could upset the day's social order. What's more, "pseudo-scientific theories of race" began to abound, and the black barber became a figure of evil in fiction.
By midcentury, many whites were leaving barbers behind completely. But the "temperamental" straight-razor left many men unable to groom themselves—so they let big beards grow. For some, the beards began to symbolize the power of white men over other races, as well as women. Shaving, a contemporary writer held, was for when men "began to be effeminate, or when they became slaves." In short, "the 19th-century beard … set white American men apart from smooth-faced foreigners as well as powerful women at home," Trainor writes. Considering a shave? "However troubling this history may be, it does not render today’s beards irredeemable," Trainor suggests. "In fact, today’s revival presents a chance to confront and alter the beard’s legacy." Click for his full piece. (Read more beard stories.)