Early in the fall semester of 1850 a group of students from the Class of 1852 sat around waiting for Professor of Greek William S. Tyler to show up for his class. At one point the small talk turned to the subject of shaving – what do you want to bet that one of them had cut himself that morning and was sporting a nice rip in his face? The others would have noticed it and teased him about it but they would all have had the same experience. Back then, shaving was a real chore. It required a straight razor, tools for honing and stropping, and a knowledge of how to keep a blade sharp enough to get a good shave. It would also take practice to get good at it and keep the nicks and cuts to a minimum. A man could go to a barber for a professional shave, but most of the time he probably had to fend for himself. On a winter day in a dorm room this could mean freezing water and stiff fingers wielding an unforgiving blade. No doubt the men waiting for Professor Tyler agreed that it would be nice not to have to shave at all. And so the Philopogonia Society – the Society of Beard-Lovers — was born that day.
A committee was formed – a committee must always be formed – to announce a resolution to forgo shaving for the term. The Committee of Vigilance put forth a broadside:
Seven men put their names to the document.
Herman Norton Barnum, a member of the Class of 1852, described the Philopogonia Society in a letter written in 1869 from Turkey, where he was a missionary:
“Early in the first term of our Junior year, we were, one day, assembled for our recitation in Greek, and as our Professor did not come, we remained for a little chat, when a motion was made and carried that a committee be appointed to collect and retain, till the vacation, all the razors in the class. The wearing of beards was not so common then as now. Another committee was chosen to draw up a constitution, and the class was formed into an anti-shaving society called Philopogonia. During the term, the society had a public celebration in one of the village halls, at which an oration and a poem were delivered, and the occasion was a decided success. This anti-shaving scheme caused a good deal of innocent fun in the College during that term, and gave the Juniors a good deal of eclat. All the members of the class, except some of the youngest, were fully bewhiskered; but at the close of the term the razors were distributed, and we were ourselves again.”
According to George R. Cutting’s Student Life at Amherst College (1871), “a grand supper was held in Sweetser’s Hall; on which occasion, Don Carlos Taft [in group photo above], having the longest beard, delivered an oration, and Seneca Hills, having the next longer, a poem. The literary performances are said to have been of a high order.”
The Archives is still looking for documentation of that supper, but we know that eight or nine months earlier, in January of 1850, Sweetser’s Hall had also been the site of a raucous meeting called to discuss the rum establishments in town and decide whether the town ought to close them down. By comparison, the meeting at the close of the year to celebrate the success of the Philopogonia Society must have seemed like tame stuff.
As the year is still “new” and resolutions still able to be formed, perhaps it is time for a new generation of Philopogonians. Anyone?