Hold on to your beards: Voyageurs likely didn't have facial hair

Beards have been a growing part of the Festival du Voyageur tradition since the festival’s start 49 years ago, but a local historical interpreter says it’s only modern-day voyageurs who wear a hairy face.

Despite modern image of heavily bearded voyageurs, historical interpreter says it's not true

Two contestants in Festival du Voyageur's 2018 Beard Growing Contest show off their furry faces, but a local historical interpreter says voyageurs likely didn't actually have beards at all. (CBC)

Beards have been a growing part of Festival du Voyageur tradition since the annual winter festival started 49 years ago, but a local historical interpreter says it's only modern-day voyageurs who wear hair on their faces.

Claire Sparling says her research shows voyageurs didn't actually have beards.

"Historically speaking, men in that time period did not wear beards, it was not in fashion and it was not considered hygienic by both Aboriginal and European communities," explained Sparling, who is in charge of all the costumes seen at Festival du Voyageur. "Shaving was actually a very important part of the ritual, men would shave twice a week if not more often.

"The European fashion of the time was clean-shaven, at least chins, if not sideburns too."

The voyageurs who inspired Festival were active in the early 1800s, and although Sparling says the common interpretation of the voyageur is that of "men off in the bush," in actuality, she says they were more like employees on a business trip.

"So they weren't off the radar, they were supervised, they had a structure to how they were living their lives and one of the ways you keep from going crazy on trips is you have a routine, and one of the routines was shaving," she explained.

"When you look at paintings, all the depictions of voyageurs were clean-shaven."

A judge at Festival du Voyageur's 2018 Beard Growing Contest takes a feel of a beard. (CBC)

Sparling says voyageurs were like modern-day truckers, bringing traded goods to and from various places. While they didn't have much room for personal items on their trips, a razor was among the few items voyageurs carried around.

"There is documentation of them stopping about a half a day's journey outside of the fort in order to clean up before they have their big arrival … to make sure they were presentable," she said.

"There's always individuals who don't adhere to the standard, but if we're looking at the men that were in the canoes in the 1815 time period, the depictions we have of them and the information we have of them suggests that they would not be as hairy as we think."

As the head of wardrobe at Festival du Voyageur, Sparling co-ordinates all of the historical costumes worn at the festival, and it's through the research she's done for that work that she learned the truth about voyageurs' lack of face fuzz.

'Elements of folklore'

So where does the myth of the bearded voyageur come from?

Sparling isn't exactly sure, but she can say the look we often now associate with voyageurs is actually that of the coureurs des bois, unlicensed fur traders found in Quebec a few decades before the time of the voyageur.

"The image of that character is of the bearded man with the flowered shirt and the sash," she explained, adding she thinks that image may have been adopted over the years for the voyageur. "There's a lot of elements of folklore that come into play, so because this is the way grandpa did things, we like to believe this was the way great-great grandpa did things too.

"There's a distortion that happens with oral traditions… but [the beard] is a very important part of the Festival as it is now."

The Festival du Voyageur's annual Beard Growing Contest has grown into one of the festival's most popular events over the years. 

Now in its 35th year, the contest includes four categories and participants who sign up to try to grow the biggest and bushiest beard also raise money for the Heart & Stroke Foundation.