The American Beard Has Quite A Dark History


From America’s founding historical moments,
the beard choices of American men reveal deep-seated attitudes about the most basic stuff that
makes a civilization tick. So grab a beard comb, and let’s dive face
first into the bristly, dark depths of the history of the American beard. In all American history, the most famous beard
arguably belongs to Abraham Lincoln. And
even in his day, Lincoln’s beard was a matter of intense public debate. In 1860, Lincoln was clean-chinned, and still
seeking election to the presidency. An 11-year-old supporter named Grace Bedell
wrote to Abe, suggesting a beard might increase his chances. She explained that, quote, “All the ladies like whiskers and they would
tease their husbands to vote for you.” Improbably, Lincoln took her advice. He even made a point of meeting her in person
to thank her for the suggestion. The press reported on it. Rival candidates mocked Lincoln for his unbecoming
vanity. In 1860, long before social media, the presidential
hopeful suddenly faced a credibility issue because of his beard! Right as the US was about to tear itself apart,
a beard became a battleground for the future of the nation’s national character. It turned out that little girl was right:
the beard changed Lincoln’s face dramatically, making him at once both more authoritative
and more relatable. And thus, the Union was saved. The history of the American beard begins much
earlier than Lincoln, though. According to The Atlantic, in the years immediately
following the American Revolution, many newly independent citizens of the United States
found service work to be beneath them. Enter a wave of newly emancipated former slaves
to fill a much needed societal role as barbers. The noble art of barbering quickly became
an important avenue for a disempowered and marginalized group of people to pull themselves
out of poverty. Moreover, barbers occupied a strangely powerful
and high profile position in society. Barbershops were considered places of civility
a kind of beardy town square, if you will. “Is this a barbershop? Is this a barbershop? I mean, if we can’t talk straight talk in
a barbershop, then where can we talk straight?” For both better and worse, the stereotype
of the “black barbershop” gradually took hold in American culture and remained a prominent
cultural touchstone for many generations. As for Lincoln, his ascent to bearded glory
was no fluke. In the mid-1800s, the US had also entered
an active period of expansion, and beards became synonymous with vigorous national health. Capturing a prevailing attitude of the day,
an 1856 article in The New York Tribute announced that, quote, “The bearded races are the conquering races.” The Mexican-American War and successive waves
of Native American relocation were fueled, in some part at least, by the notion that
it was the national birthright of a virile nation. A beard was seen as the extension of a nation’s
soul, and like an empire, it was thought that a beard should be expansive, tough and unapologetically
unfettered by emasculating refinements. The giant bushy beard became a mark of moral
and cultural superiority, which is why so many presidents after Lincoln sported beards. But the present day beard isn’t tainted with
the smoke of battle and the musky sweaty-funk of the conqueror, is it? Well, not exactly. The idea that beards reflect virility, strength,
and power is hardly unique to 19th century America, though. It’s still deeply entrenched in many cultures,
which has led to some interesting quirks in recent U.S. foreign policy. During much of the 20th century, American
military personnel were, according to protocol, required to be clean shaven. But after 9/11, the United States became increasingly
engaged in the Middle East, where beards are very important symbols. In cultures where masculinity was mandatory
for getting a seat at the table, beards became a vital cultural passport for engagement with
the locals. Accordingly, Green Berets, Seals, and Rangers
were given approval by higher-ups to wear beards. An insider reporting for The New Tech Republic
said, “It’s difficult to overstate the cultural
revolution this spurred within the service. Wearing a beard soon meant whatever one was
doing must be of sufficient importance to buck the rule by which every other soldier
had been governed since basic training.” “What is this about refusing to shave? Who is refusing to shave?” “We are!” Back in the days of Lincoln, though the most
beard-forward period in American history facial hair wasn’t just about setting America apart
from other countries and cultures. It was also about setting men apart from women
in a very public and political way. Women, you see, were beginning to press for
the right to vote, and to be treated like fully equal citizens and human beings. And that kind of revolutionary talk scared
a lot of men. That launched what newspapers of the day called
the “Beard and Moustache Movement” shorthand for men who wanted to starkly distinguish
themselves from women and put a very public, hairy face on their conservative political
leanings. This was also reflected in a shift in fashion,
away from the elegant, closely tailored, and courtly look of late eighteenth century, and
early nineteenth century gentility and towards big, boxy, manly three-piece suits. As the century continued, beards got bigger,
becoming hairy ammunition in a seemingly intractable war over gender. Doubling down on the bushiness with big beards
and colossal side whiskers was a way of showing one’s masculine allegiance. A beard meant you sided with keeping the status
quo: men should be men, and have the power, and women should be women, and be quiet. But that hirsute war over entitlement and
rights is long since dead, right? Well, not really. You’ll still hear odd cultural echoes if you
place your ear to the ground and listen hard enough. In 2012, a reality TV show called Duck Dynasty
burst onto A&E’s airwaves. The show followed the lives of the Robertson
family basically a group of men trying to find their cultural way in a world that was
rapidly changing. The show became a phenomenon, with the massively
bearded, self proclaimed “redneck millionaires” rapidly embraced as conservative role models,
thanks to their down home Southern values, devoutly Christian beliefs, and traditional
views on acceptable roles for men and women. The big, bushy Duck Dynasty beard echoes in
many ways the untamable, conservative, maverick beard of the mid-19th Century US. “Who has the longest beard?” “My beard is longer than all y’all’s beard.” So what does all this history show us? The sociopolitical chinscape of beards has
always been complex, but over time, it seems to have become more complex. In the mid-19th century, how a dude decorated
his chin was usually the product of just a few social tensions. It might have been a reaction for or against
female roles, for example. Or, in the case of the black barbershop, it
may have been a way for a disadvantaged community to find a socially acceptable place in society. Whatever it was though, it could be fairly
neatly summarized. Like a well-sculpted beard, it had defined
edges. Today, though, beards are conceptually fuzzy. The modern day American beard has many faces
and the only thing they really have in common is that they’re all covered with hair. Let’s take a look, beginning with… The “benevolent beard face” is epitomized
by the popular charity, Movember. A gentle and socially aware facial adornment,
the prototypical Movember mustache or beard is a mere shadow of its trailblazing bushy
ancestor of yesteryear. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! The Movember beard is a symbol for manning
up and starting those awkward conversations that need to be had about mental and physical
well-being. It is a benign and non-militant facial accessory,
cheerfully acknowledging the challenges of masculinity without getting all up in anyone’s
business about it. It is a beard of good intentions and a cheerful,
almost self-effacing masculinity so gentle, even kids can do it! And, of course, no discussion of the modern
beard would be complete without the waxed, combed, and impeccably edged beard of the
hipster. In the hipster beard, all the philosophical
and political ambivalence of the Swanson mustache is writ large in fashion form. The hipster beard is an assertion of masculinity,
and at the same time, a statement of gentile vanity. It’s a counter-cultural barbaric roar against
fashion while playing straight into fashion’s hands. Ultimately, the hipster beard is oddly and
intentionally ironic, a sarcastic statement about masculinity. Peter Furia, a hipster documentarian, said
on NPR: “What’s funny is that people who aren’t hipsters
generally express distaste for them and those who appear to be hipsters hate to be identified
as such. Everybody hates hipsters … especially hipsters. And the ironic part is that hipsters’ opposition
to pop culture has become pop culture.” So, what is the current State of Beard for
humans as a species? Beards have always been more than a handy
method for preventing unwanted flies from entering one’s mouth while plundering a Saxon
village. Viking conquerors were arming themselves with
an arsenal of beard grooming tools, including a standard issue bone comb, which they’d take
into battle should their manly foliation become befouled with mud or gore. A well kept beard was a symbol of self-respect
and the pride of any pillaging barbarian about town. And later, the elegantly trimmed and maintained
facial confections of the gentleman of the Renaissance was considered a rite of passage
from boyhood to manhood. The point is, beards are gestalt. They’ve always represented something more
than the sum of their bristles. And they likely always will. The modern American male’s chinscape is a
cultural war zone. At stake is not just our modern take on masculinity,
but the very stories we tell one another about what it means to be civilized. Perhaps ultimately it all boils down to evolution. According to BBC Science, researchers have
found that men with beards are perceived as older and stronger. Moreover, when presented with an angry face,
bearded men are perceived as being more angry than a male with a clean-shaven chin. Perhaps as a species, we’re just hard-wired
to give a guy with a beard a plus 10 to intimidation? Evolutionary biologists point out that dominance
over male rivals can act as a decisive short-cut to mating opportunities, citing as genetic
evidence the fact that around eight percent of Asian men are descendants of Genghis Khan. But age, strength and aggression aren’t the
decisive factors today that they may have been when Genghis was strutting his stuff
through present-day Asia. In fact, if anything, modern societies tend
to value youth, sociability, and education. It begs the question, are beards on the wrong
side of evolutionary history? A few generations from now, will the idea
of an imposing face of bristly hair be considered laughably uncouth? Will there, in fact, ever be beards on Mars? Only time will tell what the ultimate fate
of the American beard will be. Check out one of our newest videos right here! Plus, even more Grunge videos about your favorite
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