"He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man" – William Shakespeare.
A writer for the Tamaqua Courier used this quote from the man widely regarded as the greatest English writer in history for an opinion in May of 1911 titled "Whiskers vs. Bald Heads."
Men back then may have not had exposure to the "Just for Men" advertising commercials of our day, but newspaper advertisements proved there was still an obsession with whiskers and hair a century ago.
As for the whiskers and beard styles of the day, the Tamaqua writer said they were representative of a "philosophic temperament."
"While wearing a beard is usually considered merely a factor of fashion, certain underlying temperaments lead men to adopt or reject it," he explained. "Pure logic undoubtedly advises whiskers. The man with a long-flying beard gives an impression of calm retreat from strife and turmoil."
This may be one big reason why so many Civil War officers wore beards. But the writer said one great leader in history took a more practical approach to facial hair, especially when it came to the common soldier.
"The smooth face gives an impression of greater alertness," he said. "Alexander the Great instituted shaving so that his antagonists might not be able to grasp his soldiers by the hair."
He went on to explain that a big reason why a growing number of men were choosing to be clean shaven was because of the rapid changes throughout society.
"While the whiskerite can point to an unlimited number of illustrious examples, few young men of today are wearing whiskers," he stated. "It is an age for speed and a bewhiskered man running for the train gives an impression of a nature at war with itself and its surroundings."
His reference to "an age for speed" was well taken, given the great advances being made in communication and transportation. Telephones, automobiles and airplanes were certainly changing the way society moved and communicated. Time and the need for speed were becoming critical to building a modern America.
"It takes a great deal of time to shave oneself, or if one is too indolent, to propel the razor himself, he must pay a heavy tax to the barber," the writer explained. "In the latter case, the hours spent in the barber shop must in a year amount to nearly a week of working time."
At the same time the writer was lecturing about facial hair, readers of the Courier could find large advertisements about a hair restoration product called "Wyeth's Sage and Sulpher Hair Restorer." The Wyeth brand had been around for over a quarter of a century. An ad for "Wyeth's Hair Tonic" appeared as early as 1885 McKesson & Robbins catalog.
"The birthright of every man, woman and child – a full healthy head of hair," the ad proclaimed. "If your hair is falling, it is a full of dandruff, or it is faded or turning gray, it is diseased and should be looked after without delay."
The hair restorer promised to remove dandruff in a few days, stop hair falling out in one week and start new growth within a month. The ad went on to state that the product was not a dye, did not "soil the skin" or injure existing hair.
"It is an ideal hair dressing that will restore faded and gray hair to natural color and keep the hair soft and glossy," the ad stated.
The product came in 50-cent and $1 bottles, which were available in drug stores or could be ordered through the Wyeth Chemical Company in New York City.
Although the name would seem to indicate that the product was made of sulphur and sage, a government study showed that it actually contained sulphur, lead acetate, glycerine, and cayenne pepper. The most active ingredient – lead acetate – was a poisonous and dangerous substance.
As a result, the company was fined $50 for using a false and misleading brand name. Although it entered a guilty plea, the company said it was innocent of any wrongdoing and decided not to fight the charges in court because it felt the questions involved "would be purely academic."
The legal setback didn't keep Wyeth's sales from rebounding, thanks to a growing number of female consumers who were encouraged by the Roaring Twenties' emphasis on a youthful appearance. Women were willing to endure the hours of awful smells from sulphur compounds to achieve Wyeth's promise for a "look 10 years younger."
Once a person got by the smell during treatment, Wyeth explained that after applying "grandmother's old favorite recipe of sage tea and sulphur, no one can possibly tell that you darkened your hair. After an application or two, your hair becomes beautifully dark, thick and glossy and you look years younger. Wyeth's Sage and Sulphur Compound is a delightful toilet requisite."
To separate it from the many quack remedies during the period, the company tagged the ad with a notice that its product "is not intended for the cure, mitigation or prevention of disease."