The latest from my little column over at the SFist:

Victorian Whiskers

Whiskerless Waiters
at the Palace Hotel

In the middle part of the 19th century, a thick set of whiskers were an essential facial feature of every man of Victorian respectability.

These were not simply expressions of pride or masculine peacock vanity, but due to a whole rainbow of reasons, ranging from the fact that Man had been created in God’s image, to the “fact” that beards protected the wearer against tuberculosis, and even that shaving led to immorality, murder, and suicide!

In the late 1880s, however, a movement began to sweep towards San Francisco from the far-off shores of Europe.

No, it wasn’t Bolshevism — anyway, not yet. In the words of historian Oscar Lewis, “It was no less than a world-wide agitation in favor of whiskerless waiters” (“Whiskerless Waiters” — I respectfully offer that up as a name for an indie-rock band. No charge!)

But back to Gilded Age San Francisco.

Just about every high-falutin’ eating establishment in town followed the new, hygienic fashion; the Poodle Dog, Maison Riche, all began featuring clean-shaven waiters. All of them, that is, except for William Sharon’s Palace Hotel. The Palace remained proudly pro-moustache, in way that vividly recalls the social instability brought on by the Gold Rush:

“In the leading European hotels a waiter cannot wear a moustache, and the swell establishements in New York are imitating this fashion, but it will not do here. There is this difference: in Europe a man once a servant is always a servant, but in America the servant of today may be a millionaire tomorrow. We wouldn’t try to enforce such a rule at the Palace. We have trouble enough without trying to bring (that) on!”

I wish I could tell you that the Palace held out against the Anti-Moustache Menace, but that turned out not to be the case. The movement gradually gained momentum, and the Palace eventually caved in, issuing the following brand new dress code:

  • white jackets with black pants
  • turn-down collars
  • black ties for breakfast
  • white ties for lunch and dinner, and …

  • The waiters complained bitterly, but that was it — the end of a hirsute era.