Neck Beards for Sale at The Belfry
Open in Pioneer Square for just over a year, The Belfry is a lean but airy space with bright windows, deep gray walls, and a tidy stock of natural oddities, religious artifacts, and Victorian-era collectibles. They've got an old grave marker ($22); an antique portable children's embalming table ($425); and loads of vintage taxidermy (bear rug with full head mount, $625; teeny piglets with fawn-striped fur, $650). The curiosities in jars are either stacked into neat, dry piles (miscellaneous animal vertebrae and jawbones, $5–$10 each) or suspended in clear liquid (fetal cat, $62; monkey's paw, $68). And there are chain necklaces strung with replicas of bird skulls, including owls, kingfishers, and quails ($18–$26). "We try to have crows too, but they always sell out right away," says co-owner Christian Harding.
The cabinet cards ($8 each) are fun to flip through. These show portraits of the well-to-do in their best funereal attire, partly because it was trending, and partly because they're in mourning. Their eyes are flat and pale, and they seem to brace for their own early death in a time of endless human devastations. Some of the subjects look brave, some are sweetly gloomy, some are matter-of-fact. The women wear voluminous black gowns with high collars trimmed in lace and floppy silk bows. Their hair is carefully scraped back, then topped with a mound of tight-curled bangs, recalling high-school cheerleader styles of the early 1990s. Meanwhile, on the far wall, a Victorian mourning wreath ($1,600) is made from dead people's hair. To build it, the hair was boiled, altering its texture, and then shaped into intricately swirled patterns, for an effect both delicate and crude.
Also on display, an 1880s–90s charcoal portrait of a Victorian man ($180) features a young gent with a blandly elegant expression, a short and kempt hairdo, and a traditional black jacket and tie. He has a neck beard, which was acceptable for the era, but to you and me, the look triggers an innate repulsion. It's interesting to explore why. Perhaps it's the distortion of the human shape, suggesting the bloat of iodine deficiency. Maybe infectious agents can cling to whiskers, exposing us to pathogens. Maybe it's because neck beards have since come to symbolize a particular type of guy, such as a sunburned meth-cook carnie in dirty leather overalls.
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