The Powers That Beard

Social acceptance and curiosity shape the facial hair trends of the Queen City


f you’ve ever wondered what life in Cincinnati looked like in the early 1900s, just ride your self-repaired bicycle to the Mariemont Barber Shop for a quick grooming with a straight razor. Inhale the aroma of oiled baseball gloves and aftershave, as talk of streetcars and mustache wax dissipate above independently owned, micro-brewed gastropubs. It appears not much has changed in the past century. Masculinity, it seems, has been cultivated, then matured through the 5 million hair follicles on each of the 140-some thousand Cincinnati men within the last few years. 

Of course, there’s no way to number how many beardos inhabit the Queen City, as we aren’t in charge of the U.S. Census, and the U.S. Census only asks irrelevant questions about topics like race and income. Yet it’s easy to see the power of the beard encroaching Cincinnati’s chin — which probably begins in Over-the-Rhine. 

Just ask Procter & Gamble Chief Financial Officer Jon Moeller. The Cincinnati Fortune 500 company, which acquired Gillette in 2005, reported a 16 percent loss in net income from October through December 2013. Moeller points his finger at you, quirky hipster twentysomething who opts for disposable razors over Gillette’s replaceable cartridges. Or perhaps, no razor at all.

That’s Matt Bischoff’s style. The local musician and BMX entrepreneur hasn’t shaved his beard in a decade (unless you count an irrational minor shave for a beard contest in 2012). He dreadlocks his approximately foot-long whiskers for ultimate growth, as dead hair intertwines with the new, forming a sort of super-beard, whose strands read like the tree-ring of a mighty Redwood. It’s those same follicles that were soaked with the salted Caramoan waters and kept him (most likely willingly) out of a “pretty people” alliance on Survivor’s 26th season in 2013.

“That was when my dread was in its infancy,” Bischoff says of his baby. “The elements helped it dread even more. But sand fleas bit my face.”

Bischoff prefers sand fleas to the grooming his pre-2004 beard required, which included daily trims of split ends, conditioning and combing. His survival instincts help him to adapt to everyday, long-bearded life. He secures his whiskers in his shirt when he sleeps to avoid entanglement; he tucks his single dread beneath his armpit at the urinal to avoid splatter. When the colloquial, “Sick dread, man,” shoots toward Bischoff, his inner 16-year-old, envious of a Layne Staley goatee, smiles.

“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Do I think it’s lame that everyone has a beard?’” Bischoff theorizes. “But, ultimately, I like beards, so who am I to judge?”

Well, a beard expert, according to countless local and national beard organizations, who ask Bischoff to judge competitions. That includes Cincinnati’s Beard Barons, a unified tuft of 50 bristled men that convene monthly at local bars and restaurants to drink, talk and flaunt facial hair. They also raise money for charity, like most facial hair organizations and contests. Their inaugural mane tournament, which coincided with Oktoberfest 2013, raised $2,800 for Fernside Center for Grieving, a subsidiary of the Hospice of Cincinnati, which supports young people who have experienced death. Here, the power of the beard helps the community, which reinforces positive beard stereotypes.

“It shows that people with facial hair aren’t bums,” says Conor Moore, a Beard Baron member (all members remain titleless, as beardos are also unapologetically democratic). Moore and fellow Barons want to prove to the city that they aren’t homeless or hillbillies or Duck Dynasty wannabes or ZZ Top cover band members.

Phil Jones of St. Bernard (aka Taxi Phil) hasn’t seen his upper lip in 26 years, nor an epoch as open to facial hair as now.

“It’s more acceptable for all walks of life,” says the 56-year-old Jones. “In the ’60s, beards were just for dirty hippies — now you see more groomed beards.”

It’s all part of the roller coaster ride of men’s facial hair trends. In 15th century England, long, curled brush equated to dignity. By 19th century America, sideburns signified Civil War vets. In 1976, an economist dressed as an anthropologist counted the number of sideburns and beards featured in a pictorial London newspaper over a 130 year period. It proved that 90 percent of men in the 1900s wore facial hair and that facial hair growth is directly proportional to the rise in artisan bread shops. Post-World War eras boasted revitalized innocents of baby-faced vets and the rise of a clean-shaven middle class. Then the counter culture shock of hippiedom, now hipsterdom, settled, where the Big Red Machine sideburns championed the World Series as effortlessly as the beard-tugging Boston Red Sox last fall. 

But what makes today so beard-friendly? Parental disobedience? Economic calamity? Stephanie Sadre-Orafai, assistant professor of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Cincinnati, attributes trends to social acceptance and curiosity.

“Trends come in and out of style as generations rediscover and re-articulate the ones that they didn’t have direct experience with before,” Sadre-Orafai says. “A beard in the 1970s does not mean the same thing as it does now.” 

Today, it could mean individualism, masculinity, even sex. Tomorrow it may not. By next decade, your mustache keychain may be lost with your Chia Pet, and the laser-removal of your ’stash-tattooed index finger may commence.

Most Beard Barons live outside this trend, like Jones, who started growing his 17-inch-long mustache in 1987 as a doorman for what is now the Hilton Netherland Plaza. It was a sort of Emerald City gatekeeper homage, equipped with horse-of-a-different-color references for adolescent guests. Today, he’s a local ’stache celeb — people ask for photos with the iconic follicles, or to touch them, or to taste.

“Women ask me how I keep my mustache up,” Jones says. “I tell them, ‘Viagra.’ ”

In actuality, it’s Clubman Mustache Wax from CVS. But he can tell customers anything, as owner of his own cab. He can grow any facial hair he wishes, like Bischoff, who works as a brand manager for three BMX companies, and Moore, whose groomed 4-inch beard meets requirements for his internal auditor position for the city.

For years, facial hair has been popularly tabooed in the hospitality industry, for hygienic reasons, and firefighting, for safety. Last year, the American Mustache Institute joined the Beard Barons on Fountain Square for a public discussion on their recent national study on facial hair discrimination in the workplace. It proved that times, they are a-changin’. More than 75 percent of those surveyed reported mustachioed coworkers as beneficial to their workplace (mostly identified as white collar). Manliness and firm handshakes were the most common adjectives for said employees, not negative stereotypes like dirty or lazy.

Some Cincinnati businesses — like the Horseshoe Casino — are known to be nonsensically anti-beardic. But at the Cincinnati Fire Department, it just makes sense.

“Beards are not something firefighters have,” says Fire Apparatus Operator Scott Pepler. For about 30 years, Cincinnati firefighters have been required to limit facial hair in order to secure an air-tight seal around their self-contained breathing apparatuses. Pepler says about 40 percent of the approximate 770 city firemen bear mustaches, which don’t fall below the corner of mouths, or sideburns that don’t parlay into mutton chops. Grooming is key, as stubble is banned.

That’s a far cry from the firemen of the 1800s, whose beard-riddled photos line the Cincinnati Fire Museum walls. Back before closed-circuit systems and gas tanks, bristled firefighters shielded smoke inhalation by draping whiskers over their mouths. Some even crammed handlebar mustaches into their noses.

Despite facial hair regulations, many firefighters don mustaches for Movember, or No Shave November, or that month when Procter & Gamble loses sales and publicly accuses hipsters. It’s when men forgo shaving to raise awareness and funds for prostate and testicular cancer. What the pink ribbon has done for breast cancer, the mustache is doing for men’s health, only in a trendier, more testosterone-filled way. It’s not just a Cincy thing, it’s a worldwide movement with more than $400 million raised through the global Movember Foundation since Movember’s inception in Australia 11 years ago. 

Last November sparked more than 70 retweets and 1,0000 Facebook posts about UC Health’s inaugural #CincyStache campaign. Remember that vertical, five-mustache banner that draped UC Medical Center tower last fall? It asked Cincinnatians to take “selfies” of their real or fake mustaches and post to UC Health’s social media pages, as per UC Health President Lee Ann Liska. The campaign raised awareness for UC Health’s prevention and treatment for prostate cancer — like the region’s first and only ultra-sound-MRI fusion and robotic catheter-less prostatectomy.

More than 1,000 fake mustaches were dispensed at U.S. Bank Arena for the Cincinnati Cyclones 2013 Movember event for the third straight year. Even assistant coach Matt MacDonald goes au natural for November, enrolling in the global nonprofit Movember’s website to monitor facial hair growth and raise funds. Best mustache sashes are awarded to a man and women on Thanksgiving Eve’s game, which coincides with one of the biggest bar nights of the year, which coincides with many beard aficionados’ favorite holiday eve.

The Tristate seems to lead the beard craze. It’s home to one of the largest national female beard organization, founded by Bischoff’s wife Tessa. More than 30 chapters of the Whiskerinas form extravagant fake beards for competitions and charities, using materials like bottle caps, leaves and fabric. This October, Dayton’s facial hair organization will manage a national competition in Gatlinburg, Tenn. 

In 2017, the World Beard and Mustache Championships will leave its European roots for the U.S. (Austin, Texas) for the second time in its 44-year history. America’s bristle growth is almost enough to make an old mustache soft.

“When I see a young person wearing a handlebar mustache, I think it’s the best thing in the world,” Jones says.

1837: William Procter: This chinstrap aficionado had no qualms about the open flames of the candles his now billion-dollar company produced at the time of its inception. If only Gamble could have been so hip.

1909: William Howard Taft: This Cincinnati native is the last U.S. president to don facial hair — specifically a handlebar mustache, which, perhaps, gave him the balls to bust trusts with Teddy.

1955: Skipper Ryle: The Chevron mustache of Glenn Ryle Schnitker entertained Cincinnati kids for 17 years on WKRC as one part Old Man and the Sea, one part Popeye.

1968: Charles Manson: As one of Cincinnati’s most egregious natives, Manson’s beard epitomized the dark side of hippie culture — or more accurately, psychotic, unsuccessful rockers.

1972: Bootsy Collins: You can’t get funked up without Bootsy’s Fu Manchu, which he’s sported from Parliament days to present.

1979: Ken Blackwell: This former councilman and mayor of Cincinnati broke facial haired-politician stereotypes when his Chevron mustache entered the statehouse, then the 2006 governor’s race.

1985: Dennis “Wildman” Walker: You could almost hear the scruff behind the wisecracks of this Cincinnati radio staple at WEBN, before his departure in 2011.

2007: Mr. Redlegs: The Cincinnati Reds have been notoriously strict about bristle — specifically when Jim Kern was traded in 1982 for a defiant beard. Somehow, those rules don’t apply to Mr. Redlegs’ handlebar mustache. Favoritism?

2014: Steve Horstmeyer: The current meteorologist for FOX19 has delivered Cincinnati Doppler reports behind a beard and ’stash combo for more than two decades.

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