Have you been persecuted for your beard? February 16 2015

A small excerpt from the History Scene

A Brief History of the Beard in the Western World

Beards have fallen in and out of fashion throughout human history. They were rare in the thirteenth century, popular among European nobility in the fourteenth and fifteenth, taxed in England and banned in France in the early sixteenth, very popular until the close of the seventeenth, and virtually unseen throughout the eighteenth. The eighteenth century was a rare moment in history when “almost total beardlessness” was the norm. None of the American founding fathers wore beards. ((Allan D. Peterkin, One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001), 27–36. Richard Corson, Fashions in Hair: The first five thousand years (London: Peter Owen, 1984), 302– 303. Edwin Valentine Mitchell, Concerning Beards (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1930), 67 and 74))


Caption: Joseph Palmer, Bearded Massachusettsian


Beards were so unusual during this period that a veteran named Joseph Palmer suffered an attack for wearing a beard. In 1830, Palmer moved from his farm to the town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where he found himself to be the only bearded man in the entire community. The residents of Fitchburg harassed him for what they deemed “his eccentricity.” Kids threw stones at him and called him “Old Jew Palmer.” Women crossed the street when they saw him approaching, while men “jeered at him openly” and smashed his windows. The local reverend even refused to grant him communion at church. ((“Persecuted Joseph Palmer,” Boston Daily Globe, December 14, 1884. Stewart Holbrook, “The Beard of Joseph Palmer,” The American Scholar 13, no. 4 (1944): 453)) Finally, a group of four men—armed with soap and a razor—seized Palmer in the street. As a journalist later recounted the story, “They told him that the sentiment of the town was that his beard should come off and they were going to the job there and then.” ((Ibid, 454))

Palmer struggled to defend himself against the attack, but he was arrested and sent to prison for more than a year, where other prisoners also attempted to remove Palmer’s whiskers. When Palmer died in 1875, his tombstone was inscribed with these words: “Persecuted for wearing the beard.” ((Ibid 454–458)) (Maybe Brian Wilson, the former relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, was inspired by Palmer when he told opponents to “Fear the Beard”?)

A major shift occurred in the nineteenth century, when facial hair began to enjoy unprecedented popularity. One scholar calls this period “the bushiest boom in facial hair history,” for by the end of the century men in Europe and the United States wore facial hair was worn almost universally. ((Peterkin, One Thousand Beards, 39)) Side-whiskers gained popularity first, becoming commonplace in Europe by 1810. Moustaches followed close behind, and by the 1830s, beards, too, became increasingly mainstream. Once the renegade statement of French revolutionaries and radicals, beards soon spread from France to Britain, and then, in the 1850s, to the United States.

The U.S. presidents illustrate the brief but powerful reign of facial hair in the second half of the nineteenth century. From Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, through the end of William Howard Taft’s term in 1913, every president—excepting just two, Andrew Johnson and William McKinley—sported a significant beard, moustache, or both. Since 1913, and before 1860, not a single president wore a beard or moustache of any kind.

It is difficult to figure out exactly how facial hair spread across the Atlantic Ocean. It is possible American men were inspired by the beards of visiting Europeans. One scholar suggests that Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth may have inspired American men to grow beards after he toured the country in 1848, since ‘Kossuth hats’ and cloaks became popular in his wake. ((Encyclopedia of 1848 Revolutions, s.v. “United States and the 1848 Revolutions,” by Timothy M. Roberts, accessed January 24, 2013, http://www.ohio.edu/chastain/rz/usa.htm))  The international men’s fashion press, which was published in France and Britain and then reprinted in the trade magazines used by American tailors, possibly inspired both clothing and facial hair trends. Historians do not know for sure how the beard came to the United States, but whatever its origins, what is exceedingly clear is that by the early 1850s, beards could be found on faces across the United States. Yet it is not the origins of the beard that are important for understanding the relationship between facial hair and masculinity in the United States — instead, what is more revealing are the explanations American men gave for why beards were so fantastic.