Skip to main content

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

April 2024
11min read

In Jackson’s day you were damned if you wore a beard; by Lincoln’s, damned if you didn’t. Then beards were suddenly ‘out “—for good, it seemed. But were they?

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.

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.”

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.

But how does it go over with the ladies? The testimony is conflicting. For the negative we have Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing : “Lord! I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face: I had rather lie in the woollen.” On the other hand stands the regal, beauteous Miss Julia Gardiner, of the pedigreed New York Gardiners, the celebrated “Rose of Long Island” and future bride of President John Tyler. Julia promenaded at a White House reception on the arm of Colonel Thomas Sumpter, whom she described as being “sumptuously equipped— whiskers brushed to a turn—[in] a dashing vest of black velvet.”

Faced with conflicting views, let us turn to a scientist, Havelock Ellis. He said that the beard is a prominent indication of virility and sexual allure. (The same idea was expressed in a more casual idiom by a bearded man of literature, the late Ernest Boyd, who declared of whiskers: “Blondes go for them.”) Yet despite the undeniably wide appeal of fascinating, bearded Peter Ustinov, Mitch Miller, and the littérateur Rex Stout, most men, when tempted to lay down their razors, think of Fidel Castro, of the ordeal of dining out while growing a beard, of cornball jokes, of fleas and fire hazards—and decide to pass up the oriflamme. Even Ustinov, who has worn a beard since 1956, concedes that risks are involved. “A man who eats carelessly should not grow a beard,” he has said, “as he may find himself pursued by pigeons.” In non-bohemian circles, a feathered face remains a social and economic liability. Beards may be dandy for actors, artists, folk-singers, or protest-marchers, but if a bank teller appeared for work wearing one, his boss would undoubtedly start looking into his accounts.

Institutions of higher learning currently take a dim view of whiskers. In South Orange, New Jersey, not long ago, a Selon Hall University senior was given the choice of keeping his scholarship or his beard, which was ruled by the authorities to be incompatible with “university dignity.” He chose the scholarship. A University of Pennsylvania student, Bruce Bern, proved to be made of sterner stuff. Dern, a promising runner on the Penn two-mile relay team, and grandson of the Secretary of War in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Cabinet, turned in his suit rather than obey an order to shave off his sideburns, which the coach regarded as non-Ivy. “It doesn’t make you a hoodlum,” Dern said earnestly, “just by wearing sideburns.” Obviously, he had never taken Sherwin Cody’s course.

In 1963 a teacher at John Muir High School in Pasadena, California, made headlines when he went to court to preserve his Vandyke and sideburns. Told to shave both chin and cheeks in compliance with a regulation requiring teachers to “practice the common social amenities,” Paul S. Finot pointed in vain to a bust of the bearded naturalist and explorer in the building named in his honor.

Those who scan the horizon for signs of social change are always announcing that the beard is about to return. So far, they seem premature. Yet of one thing we may be sure. There are deep subterranean currents in human affairs which produce the beard cycles. Eighty years have now passed since bearded James G. Blaine went down to defeat. Who wear the beards today? Young men. It may be later than we think.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.