Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

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Yet by the mid-eighties there were signs that the tide had passed the flood. In 1884, beardless (albeit heavily mustachioed) Grover Cleveland defeated James G. Blaine for the Presidency, despite Blaine’s full complement of whiskers. Only one man with a beard was elected President after that—Benjamin Harrison, in 1888, and he failed to get a majority of the popular vote. Cleveland was back four years later.

The Yale and Harvard football teams of 1889 were beardless. (The mustache score was a tie—Harvard 5, Yale 5.) In the decade between 1880 and 1890, a small mustache was retained, as distinct from the recordbreaking kind developed by one Leonard Jerome at Hays City, Kansas—nine inches, tip to tip. In 1896, the American District Telegraph Company issued a decree forbidding its messenger boys, some of whom were pushing seventy-five, to wear any version of the hairy adornments favored by convention since Civil War days. Beards became not merely unfashionable, but sinister, a part of the cartoon stereotype of a new villain on the American scene, the bomb-throwing anarchist.

As many explanations have been advanced for the decline of whiskers as for their earlier popularity. Perhaps one influence was the male figure in the famous Charles Dana Gibson drawings, the clean-shaven, strong-chinned escort of the Gibson Girl, obviously successful in both love and business since he was able to go courting in a dress suit. And then came Gillette, the safety-razor man, who made the self-shave easy and safe. Yet he was more beneficiary than prime cause: the turn had already come.

The beard tradition held on longest in the arts and amone charlatans, showmen, and promoters who found it useful in creating an impression. Bearded likenesses of the Smith Brothers, Trade and Mark (actually their names were William and Andrew), gave an air of doctoral approval to the firm’s boxes of cough drops beginning in 1877; they still do, though William and Andrew have long since gone to their eternal reward. Another famous promoter was the intense and professorial Sherwin Cody, whose face, decorated with a splendid black beard, peered for over forty years from the advertisements of the Sherwin Cody School of English and asked an intriguing question: “Do you make these mistakes in English?” Then, in 1961, the professor and his beard disappeared from the public prints. Aficionados of advertising folklore wondered what had happened. The answer lay not in any attitude toward beards but in a new, relaxed approach to the English language: People, alas, were no longer anxious about making a grammatical faux pas in public, so the bearded portrait of Cody, the old grammarian, was finally turned to the wall.

Yet a certain titillation clings to the subject of beardedness. Men who shave like to flirt with the idea of whiskers, betraying a suppressed desire for escape from dull uniformity. Perhaps that is why so many of them are willing to go along with local chambers of commerce, like that of Deadwood, South Dakota, when they attempt to re-create the Old West. Similarly, when Hutchinson, Kansas, staged a grand powwow on its seventy-fifth anniversary, 250 patriotic citizens grew beards to mark the most spectacular event in Hutchinson history since the locust plague of 1874. And when Northfield, Minnesota, annually reenacts the attempted bank robbery by the JamesYounger gang in 1876, it does so in whiskered style, with beard-judging contests and a hot-rod show. Thousands of visitors come to dance in the streets and see the ear of Charlie Pitts, one of the robbers who didn’t get away; the ear was removed from the corpse and preserved by a physician with an unusual sense of history.

It all makes good copy, a fact to which the late Ben Hecht could have testified. As a member of the working press in the early years of this century, Hecht learned that lesson when his boss instructed him to go to the Chicago Beach Hotel and interview a fellow named Wilhelm Stekel, who claimed to be a professor from Vienna and “the colleague of somebody named Sid or Sam Freud.”

“Ever hear of anybody named Frood or Freud?” the editor asked Hecht.

Hecht had not.

“Ask him what the hell psychoanalyzation is. There may be a little feature story in it. And don’t forget to notice if our boy has a beard,” concluded the man on the desk.

As the Doktor talked to Hecht, the young reporter heard “the first trumpet peals of the Freudian conquest” —from a man with a splendid Vandyke. That day’s work helped Hecht formulate a valuable journalistic maxim: A Beard Always Belongs in the Lead.