I'm not sure why this topic entertains me so much: I have no particular interest in facial fuzz on men of the present day, and even less when blokes try to grow "crazy" beards for a laugh, but for some reason I'm fascinated by the non-specialist hair-growers of the past who happened to live in an era when big beards were commonplace and therefore presumably thought they looked absolutely unremarkable - when in fact they look very remarkable indeed.
Nor am I talking about long plain beards that simply hang there, in the style of Charles Darwin/ZZ Top*. No. I'm talking about facial hair that does stuff, goes places, says something, even if what it says is "I have no idea what I was thinking of when I grew this". But the easiest way to show you what I mean is to share a few star samples from my collection.
Great Facial Hair of History
A Spotter's Guide
Who he? Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher (1844-1900)
What's the look? Nietzsche's moustache needs little introduction, but I'll give it one anyway. In his younger years, he seemed to aim primarily for width, with a little number that looks like it could be used for measuring particularly narrow doorways. In later years, he added length and bushiness, suggesting the classic philosophical stance known as "a rabid Tribble is trying to tunnel up my nose".
Trimmings of trivia: In 1875, one of Nietzsche's students wrote that "the iridescent glasses and deep moustache gave his face that impression of intellectuality which often makes even short men somewhat imposing". In other words, Freddy may well have been compensating for his lack of inches in other areas. Say no more.
Who he? Jules Ferry, French politician (1832-1893)
What's the look? Quite magnificent sideburns (or rouflaquettes, as the French call 'em). I'm particularly intrigued by the fact that his left one looks much longer and bushier than his right one. Did he spend a lot of time with his head turned to the side like this, in the hope that perspective would do the job that his barber failed to manage?
Trimmings of trivia: A popular French comedian of the late 19th century used to do an impression of Jules Ferry by holding bunches of hay next to his face. This attempt at sophisticated political humour had audiences hooting with laughter, but Ferry himself was apparently not amused. Poor old Jules.
Who he? Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian playwright (1828-1906)
What's the look? The mighty mass of curls in his youth were impressive enough, but the idea of removing the middle bit to create pendulous triangular sideburns was a masterstroke, especially when teamed with sticking-up electro-shock hair.
Trimmings of trivia: His rival, the poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, described Ibsen as having a "coal-black, preposterous beard" in his youth. Personally, I prefer his more mature look, which has a delightfully Father Jack air: "Drink! Feck! Arse! Hedda Gabler!"
Who he? Henry David Thoreau, American writer (1817-1862)
What's the look? The style is what's known as a chinstrap beard. Some might say that it's not so much a beard as a really hairy neck. Note also that he's teamed it with a weird curly/quiffy thing on top of his head, as if to provide a sense of balance.
Trimmings of trivia: Hilariously, Louisa May Alcott (of Little Women fame) commented that Thoreau's facial hair "will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man's virtue in perpetuity." In response, Thoreau claimed that the ladies were actually crazy for it, so NYEH, but frankly, who would believe him?
Who he? Joseph Dalton Hooker, British botanist (1817–1911)
What's the look? This is Thoreau's under-chin fringe taken to the next level, jutting out proudly at all angles with some excellent bushy eyebrow action thrown in for good luck.
Trimmings of trivia: When playing with his son, Hooker used to refer to himself as the Old Lion, and his son as the Little Lion. Given that he really did look like an old lion, this fact is particularly cute.
Who he? Ludwig Boltzmann, Austrian physicist (1844-1906)
What's the look? I think the most striking thing here is the time-lapse effect: as he got older, it looks like his hair and beard changed places, with the up-top bushiness of youth being replaced by down-below luxuriance in middle age. We can only hope that the same fate does not befall us all.
Trimmings of trivia: Boltzmann published a stinging critique of the philosophy of Schopenhauer, saying that he refused to take Schopenhauer's theories seriously because Schopenhauer hated beards. And quite right too.
Who he? Peter Kropotkin, Russian anarcho-communist (1842-1921)
What's the look? Beard anarchy is loosed upon the world! Bigger than the rest of his head and coming at ya from all directions - just imagine what this baby would look like in 3-D. In his later years, the added whiteness gives an extra touch of coral-like organic solidity.
Trimmings of trivia: Kropotkin first grew his beard as a disguise when he was a fugitive. It's hard to imagine a world in which a beard like that would make you less conspicuous, isn't it?
Who he? Friedrich Engels, German political theorist (1820-1895)
What's the look? The moustache alone is a thing of wonder, moving as it does from sleek dark droopy-faced walrus in his youth to fuzzy grey droopy-faced-walrus in maturity. But it's also backed up with some solid chin growth that adds statemanlike grandeur to the beached sea-mammal topping.
Trimmings of trivia: Engels's BFF Karl Marx is also renowned for his beard, but it tended towards generic bushiness rather than really branching out. Engels's beard also boasts its own Facebook fan group, but I'm not sure whether that says more about Engels or about Facebook.
Who he? Hans Hoerbiger, Austrian engineer and mystic theorist (1860-1931)
What's the look? The classic "mad prophet" look in action. Likely to win "Looks Most Like It's Detachable" AND "Does Not Match Hair" prizes at any tonsorial gathering.
Trimmings of trivia: Hoerbiger had a crazy theory that the entire universe was made out of ice. I'm surprised he didn't believe it was made out of bushy bits of hair.
Who he? Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, French painter and sculptor (1815-1891)
What's the look? "My facial hair is answering the call of Cthulu", perhaps? Undoubtedly a god-like beard of positively mythical proportions.
Trimmings of trivia: As you might suspect, Meissonier was no facial hair dilettante. He proudly cultivated his beard, growing it to waist-length and deliberately styling it into straggly points for maximum impact. He was also fond of wearing a black velvet robe to set it off. Beat that, Lady Gaga.
So that's my very subjective Top Ten, but this is an ongoing project and very open to future revision. If you have any favourite historical beards you'd like to share, do let me know and I'll consider whether they deserve a place in the pantheon....
* A team-up responsible for the popular hit "Every Girl's Crazy 'Bout A Sharply Defined Theory of Universal Common Descent".