No Shave November could cost you


A rust-colored coin with two lines of text, a frond around the edge and a depiction of a nose, whiskers and beard

No-Shave November, the annual cancer awareness campaign that urges men to forgo shaving for 30 days, will undoubtedly produce some sorry-looking stubble for some. You may encounter such fuzzy facial hair that you proclaim scraggly beards criminal. Alternatively, some men may produce such bountiful, beautiful whiskers that you will declare such beauty unlawful. Peter the Great, Russia's 17th-century autocrat, certainly had some strong opinions when he outlawed facial hair in 1698.

Peter I, who ruled from 1689 to 1725, tried to modernize and westernize Russia. He wanted his countrymen to be clean-shaven and wear western clothes like their European counterparts. So he imposed a hefty tax on beards. If you could afford it, you paid the tax and got a token to signify that you had paid for the right to have a beard.

This very hipster-looking coin, showing a mustache and beard on a floating, disembodied nose and lips, is a Russian beard token from 1705 that is part of the National Numismatic Collection (NNC), the Smithsonian's holdings of money and transactional objects. The NNC includes more than 1.6 million objects from around the world including coins, paper money, credit cards, and objects that reflect emerging digital monetary technologies.

Because the Russian beard tax remained on the books until 1772, several iterations of the beard token were created. The museum holds diverse samples, displaying two distinct styles. The annual tax dictated that a new coin be minted each year, which resulted in varying shapes, sizes, and designs.

A square piece of silver metal. There is some decoration around the edges and writing in the center.

Peter instituted the tax after returning from a grand European tour, where he met with European leaders, tried to gather allies against the Ottoman empire, and learned new technologies such as shipbuilding and city planning. He traveled incognito with an entourage of more than 200 nobles, soldiers, and workmen (though with a posse that large, few were fooled due to the rumors of Peter's travels, paired with his 6'8" stature and demeanor).

Upon his return to Russia, Peter declared facial hair illegal and, according to Lucinda Hawksley's 2015 book Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards, was said to have personally cut off the beards of the high-ranking officials who welcomed him home. He even empowered his police to forcibly shave men's beards in the streets. The decree was met with backlash from members of the Russian Orthodox Church, who cited Ivan the Terrible's opinion that shaving "would mean blemishing the image of man as God created him." Additionally, the last prerevolutionary patriarch of Moscow, Adrian, declared shaving one's beard "a capital sin." This proclamation by Peter forced Old Believers to renounce their faith in order to comply with the law.

Peter eventually relaxed his stance and instead imposed an annual, graduated tax on facial hair that depended on income. According to William Andrews's 2014 book At the Sign of the Barber's Pole: Studies in Hirsute History, the tax could range from 30 to 100 rubles annually. Peasants were exempt from this law. However, the wealthy bourgeoisie had to pay a considerable sum to keep their bushy beards.

Once the tax was paid, the bearded gent received a beard token to be carried at all times, indicating he had paid for the right to facial hair. The ban was taken rather seriously and, if you were caught without your beard token, your facial hair could be cut off on sight, as illustrated in this famous image.

Other coins and medals from the National Numismatic Collection offer additional information about about Peter's reign. Facial hair was not the only way Peter tried to westernize Russia, or even his own image.

A silver coin with a man's face in profile. He has curly hair, a crown of laurels and classical garb. There is text running around the edges of the coin.

This coin depicts Peter in profile wearing a laurel wreath around his head like a crown. Centuries earlier, Roman leaders commonly depicted themselves wearing laurel wreaths to liken themselves to the god Apollo. Here, Peter wears the laurel to appear like ancient Roman rulers. Peter even includes a Latin inscription taken from Ovid's Fasti, a book of poems explaining the origin of Roman holidays, published in 8 AD.

This coin is particularly interesting because in the portrait, Peter himself has a mustache. This is odd considering he wants all of Russia to be sans facial hair. However, the name "beard tax" indicates that thin and well-groomed mustaches were acceptable. The French fashion of the time was clean-shaven chins, according to Victoria Sherrow's Encyclopedia of Hair. Apparently, beards became smaller and smaller until they went out of style around 1720. Peter considered bushy beards to be a symbol of Russia's "backwardness," yet he tried to emulate the west by sporting a dashing mustache and a hairless chin in his portrait.

Beyond coins, Peter also produced medals depicting even more images of him in a western light.

A silver coin depicting a figure on a horse rearing up over what appear to be many fallen bodies

On this medal, a beardless, armor-clad Peter is seen on horseback in a victorious stance with the bodies of his enemies lying dead around him. Peter wants to be revered in this medal, to be remembered for the city he built and the battles he won.

Today, at the outset of another No-Shave November, Peter the Great of the Romanov dynasty will be remembered for making facial hair illegal, and causing unbearably cool beard tokens to be created. We can feel gratified that here in the United States in this age of "man buns" and big, bushy beards, current tax policy has yet to interfere with the fickle fortunes of facial hair.

Ali Forster completed a summer 2017 internship in the Armed Forces History division. She is a senior at Miami University studying History and Greco-Roman Antiquity.

The author thanks Dr. Stephen Norris for the translations.