Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Anyone who believes that women are the fickle sex has only to look at the history of the American man and his beard to have that smug certainty shattered. The pageant of the American male physiognomy moves from the heavily bearded seventeenth century into the clean-shaven confines of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; then, around the time of the Civil War, the beard once more flourishes, only to disappear by way of the mustache in the early decades of the smooth-faced twentieth century. Along the way, the issue of whether to shave or not to shave became enmeshed in politics, manners, morals, business, and professional ethics.

America’s Atlantic Coast was explored and colonized by men who wore whiskers—Cabot, Champlain, the first Lord Baltimore, John Endecott with his soldierly “stiletto” beard. Edward Winslow wore a mustache and a thick, pointed beard. In Virginia, Captain John Smith was full-bearded at the time of the Jamestown settlement. Dominie Everardus Bogardus, a mirror of fashion in New Amsterdam who perished in the wreck of a Dutch ship on the coast of Wales near Swansea—an event piously characterized by John Winthrop as “the observable hand of God against the Dutch”—met his end with a whiskered chin.

Later in the seventeenth century, French fashions dominated the Western world. When Louis XIII began to lose his hair, wigs were “in” and facial hair ceased to be the mode: wigs and whiskers together seemed to be too much. In England, Van Dyck painted his aristocratic subjects with beard and ringlets falling shoulderlength, often with the lovelock, a long curl worn over the left shoulder, tied with a ribbon ending in a rosette. The barber-surgeon in the days of the Stuarts left only a tiny lip beard and mustache—the mustache a thin, mannered line, like that of a modern film star. The cascading ringlets and well-disciplined facial hair had social significance: they were associated with the court party. So the New England Puritans, being Parliament men, went “crop-headed.” Yet often enough, among those who were not fanatic in their outlook, custom had its way. Not all Puritans removed the hair from their faces or agreed with Saint Paul, who asked rhetorically (in First Corinthians), “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?”

The eighteenth century would have nothing to do with facial shrubbery. Washington and his generals were whisker-free. No signer of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution wore a mustache or beard, though Edward Rutledge of South Carolina wore his hair unusually long and brushed forward over forehead and cheeks so that it was visible in front of his ears. Whether this forward-thrusting hair should be considered a rudimentary beard or a part of his haircut is a close technical question; in any event, his chin and cheeks were clean-shaven.

Dr. Franklin considered it an eccentricity that Keimer, his first employer in Philadelphia, insisted upon wearing a beard, and Elizabeth Drinker wrote in 1794 that she had seen an elephant and two bearded men on the streets of Philadelphia. These were curiosities which she clearly regarded as equally deserving of mention.

If they removed all hair from their faces, eighteenthcentury gentlemen did not for a long time totally abandon the wig (though indoors they laid it aside, protecting their shorn heads from the chills with a little skull cap or turban). Terming himself “the Wonder of the World, an honest Barber and Peruke-maker,” John Still, late of London, arrived in New York in 1750 ready to supply wigs of all shapes and sorts: “Tyes, Full-bottoms, Majors, Spencers, Foxtails, Ramalies, Tucks, cuts and bob Perukes, also Ladies Tatematongues and Towers after the manner that is now worn at Court.”

But gradually wigs, too, began to go. In Revolutionary France the National Assembly banned social distinctions in dress. Short hair became the republican mode. It crossed the Atlantic, where it was promptly adopted by the followers of Thomas Jefferson and—eventually and reluctantly—by hard-core, tie-wig Federalists. It has been with us ever since. By the opening of the nineteenth century, American dandies linked in sympathy with French radicalism wore neither wig nor queue.

Nor beard. No President of the United States before Lincoln wore whiskers or a mustache. The national symbol, Uncle Sam, was depicted without them until about 1858. True, sideburns began to grow longer early in the nineteenth century. U.S. naval officers in the War of 1812, men like Decatur and Perry, wore sideburns, but half a century had to pass before the lux- uriant full beard shrouded the face of every respectable American male. In the 1840’s the beard was still unpopular. When Andrew Jackson was President, the only mustaches seen in Washington were those of the foreign ministers and ‘their suites. Louis Agassiz, the great naturalist, shaved his chin, though he adopted bushy side whiskers. The ubiquitous “razorstrop man” peddled shaving requisites through the back country, and the folk paintings of George Caleb Bingham demonstrate his success: beards were scarce among farmers, artisans, and frontiersmen in the early 1850’s. The nude chin still prevailed in 1857, when Harper’s Weekly made the waggish suggestion that New Yorkers were smooth-shaven because—as a consequence of too many cigars, midnight suppers, and lack of exercise —they didn’t have the strength required to produce a beard.