Saturday, January 9, 2016


There's been a lot of commentary on beards lately, like this. Possibly generated by Paul Ryan's new beard, or the revelation of the strategically political or commercial beard-growing of the Duck Dodgers Dynasty boys, or the Mast Brothers.

I've looked at the book cited in that article, but it disappointed me. Instead of a history of the beard, it's a collection of portraits of men with beards. What I want is to know not about any individual beard, but about beards in general, their rise and fall, and why. I'm particularly fascinated by the Wave of Beards that swept across Europe and the U.S. in the late 19C. Why did it come? Why did it go? Why was its arrival not met with the obloquy that greeted the very tiny revival of beards in the 1960s and 70s?

I've read possible answers to the first two questions. The previous Wave of Beards, in the Renaissance, disappeared coincident with the arrival of the powdered wig, so perhaps beards were thought a follicle too far. When the wigs went out in the early 19C, facial hair reappeared, first in the form of increasingly elaborate muttonchop whiskers, and then beards.

As for why they disappeared, I've read the simple cynical answer that it was because King Gillette wanted to sell razors. Once he'd sold razors to all the men, in the 1910s he created a new market by inventing women's underarm shaving, previously practiced only by the occasional courtesan.

I'm not sure how accurate or full these explanations are, but if I can't trace the reasons, at least I can gather facts. I have this database of U.S. senators from 1789 on, see, and when the Congressional Biographical Directory added portraits of all the senators (they now have most of the House members, too), I thought: this would be a useful database, large enough to be meaningful but not so large as to be wearisome to compile, of the rise and fall of the beard. Of course it says nothing about when the man grew his beard or whether he always kept it, but it has some value as an approximation. What's striking is the rise and fall of the sideburns (alone, without mustache), the beard, and the mustache (with or without sideburns, but without beard), in that order. It's even visible on as rough an approximation as birth decade:

birth   sideburns beards    mustache   US Presidents (for comparison)
1770s      6%        1%                Harrison (shaven)
1780s     13%        1%                Van Buren (sideburns), Taylor (shaven)
1790s      8%        7%                Tyler (shaven), Polk (shaven), Buchanan (didn't need to shave)
1800s      8%       21%        5%      Fillmore (shaven), Pierce (shaven), Lincoln (beard), Johnson (shaven)
1810s      9%       44%        6%
1820s      4%       67%       15%      Grant (beard), Hayes (beard), Arthur (mustache)
1830s      1%       49%       42%      Garfield (beard), Cleveland (mustache), Harrison (beard)
1840s               27%       46%      McKinley (shaven)
1850s                9%       50%      Roosevelt (mustache), Taft (mustache), Wilson (shaven)
1860s                5%       38%      Harding (shaven)
1870s                          6%      Coolidge (shaven), Hoover (shaven)

After that the mustache continued to trail on in occasional use through men born in the 1910s, but with one exception of 1910s birth (and he didn't actually grow it until around 1970), the beard didn't reappear in the Senate until a very few men born in the 1940s had them.

But note how ubiquitous facial hair was among men serving between the 1860s and 1910s. A third of men born in the 1800s and 1860s wore facial hair, rising above half in the intervening decades, reaching an astonishing height of 91% of those born in the 1830s.

Beards that I see today are most commonly the neatly-trimmed oval around the mouth, like PNH's, and one sees the occasional wildman (which was once respectable), but my aim in a beard is to emulate General Grant. I emphatically do not view my beard as an ornament. I'm not often asked why I grow a beard, but when I am I say, "I don't consider that a meaningful question. The meaningful question is, why do so many other men shave theirs off?" I stopped shaving in college, because I couldn't think of a reason why I should continue wasting my time at it every morning. Consequently I don't shave around the beard either - what other men do is up to them, but to me both shaving and having a beard would be the epitome of pointlessness - but I do keep it short, because cutting it with scissors every couple of weeks is a lot less trouble, and a lot less messy, than having it get in the way all the time. I wash it with soap and water, like the rest of my face. (Only once did I try shampooing it: I had forgotten that the beard lies below the nostrils, and that was a bit much, so another reason to keep it short.) I did shave it off entirely once, about 20 years ago, because I was curious as to what I looked like underneath. I soon grew it back.

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