Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

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Exceptions always intrude to complicate neat generalizations. InJuIy, 1843, Cadet Ambrose E. Burnside entered the U. S. Military Academy with what came to be known later as “burnsides,” the bushy side-whiskers which he continued to wear throughout his life. His whiskery panache is as likely to keep the General in the American pantheon as his services as soldier and statesman. Hamilton Fish and Walt Whitman were a bit ahead of their day with wreath beards in the 1840’s, and Sam Houston, who grew a beard in times of great emotional stress, sprouted whiskers when his second wife was pressuring him to join the church. In sharp contrast to these instances of vanguardism, however, are three resistant presidents of Harvard College—Edward Everett, Cornelius Conway Felton, and Jared Sparks. Although they lived on into a later, more hirsute era, all three continued to shave their faces, though Sparks did have tufts in front of his ears. This suggests that college presidents of a hundred years ago moved forward cautiously, happier to be last than first.

The trend toward beards did not really get under way until just before the Civil War. Then, suddenly, American men began growing goatees, imperials, spades, boxes, brushes, fans, mutton chops, sideburns—even the full-flowing panoply of patriarchal beards. President Pierce’s Cabinet in 1853 possessed not a single beard, and Buchanan’s in 1857 contained only one, a spade worn by Postmaster General Aaron V. Brown. By Lincoln’s time the trend was accelerating: in the Cabinet to which he read his Emancipation Proclamation there were three beards; Mr. Lincoln himself, who in 1858 had debated Stephen A. Douglas with a naked chin, had grown a beard between the time he was nominated for the Presidency and the date of his inauguration.

Various ingenious explanations have been advanced for the new vogue of beardedness. There was the interest in the great West and the influence of the gold diggings, where a man.had found it difficult to shave frequently; there was the arrival of the European liberals, which made the beard a badge of political maturity; and there was the example of President Lincoln. There was also an esthetic factor. It was observed that muttonchop whiskers filled out a thin face, while a full beard made a fat face seem leaner—and a weak chin stronger.

Whatever the reason, men went hairy on a national scale as the Civil War began, and continued so for a generation. Those in all walks of life conformed: railroad builders like “the Big Four”—Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker; professors like Longfellow and Lowell; theatrical figures like E. A. Sothern with his “Dundreary” whiskers. Military men like General G’fcster and Buffalo Bill strongly favored the pointed chin tuft with mustache, after Napoleon III. Every young doctor raised a beard as soon as he hung out his shingle; it quickly became an occupational badge, a sign of professional competence. (Quacks affected the “doctor” beard, men like Dr. David Hostetter of Hostetter’s Bitters and Dr. S. Andral Kilmer, who gave the world Autumn Leaf Extract for Females and the powerhouse laxative felicitously christened Prompt Parilla Pills.) Bankers found that face-fringe was equated with honesty. Outdoor men discovered that it helped prevent sunburn. Economical men soon realized that it saved the cost of neckties. The author of The Illustrated Book of Manners plunked for the Santa Claus beard over the topiary effects. The full beard was, he said, “most natural, most comfortable, most healthful, most expressive, dignified and beautiful.… Nature gave man a beard for use and beauty. … The gods and heroes wear beards.…”

But so did the villains. In the copious literature about shopgirls, there was always a seducer with mustache and side whiskers. The plot also provided an honest clerk or bookkeeper who appeared in the nick of time to rescue the maiden; he, too, was well equipped with ornamental hair. “The heroine, by some method or other,” wrote Edmund Pearson, who studied the sociology of the subject some years ago, “is able to differentiate the side whiskers of infamy from the side whiskers which are enlisted in behalf of the celestials.”

After Lincoln, all the Presidents wore beards until Grover Cleveland (except, of course, Andrew Johnson, and everyone knows what almost happened to him ). U. S. Grant had the bushiest, Hayes the longest. Grant’s Cabinet was the hairiest in American history.

This was the day of the beard triumphant, the day when, as the leading pogonologist Lewis Gannett has observed, “beards were in the air.” Periodicals were filled with advertisements for preparations that promised a thick beard in six weeks. In case white hairs appeared, gentlemen were urged to use Ayer’s Hair Vigor or Buckingham’s Dye. Because of the fashion for whiskers, etiquette manuals introduced new rules for dining, directed at those who were inclined to snarf down the goodies. “Never allow butter, soup or other food to remain on your whiskers,” said Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms in 1879. “Use the napkin frequently.”