A Hirsute History of Beards

Older man with a beard
Image credit: Doug Maloney on Unsplash

Here in the first week of Movember, I face the same question I do every year when winter is around the corner: Should I give in to the perennial temptation of growing a beard? Since adolescence, I have at various points answered this stubbly siren song only to be disappointed with the scraggly and unruly results. No amount of growing, pruning, and pomading has ever been able to correct nature’s unfortunate course. With every passing attempt, I hold out hope that this time around I’ll manage to grow something resembling James Harden’s impressive facial foliage, only to come out the other end looking more like a Teen Wolf with low T.

Regardless of my own beard-growing disappointments (or perhaps because of them) I have long been fascinated by beards — which, if the long history of beard growth is anything to go by, can also be said of humankind as a whole. While archaeological evidence suggests that men have been removing their facial hair from as long ago as 100 000 BC (albeit by plucking rather than shaving, since blades with a sharp enough edge didn’t arrive until the Bronze age), the historian Christopher Oldstone-Moore, author of the book Of Beards and Men, reckons there have been four distinct periods in which beard-growing has flourished in more recent millennia. The first beard movement came in the second century AD under the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who grew a beard as a statement of his manliness and duly sparked a trend. This also happened in the Middle Ages among kings and knights and again during the Renaissance beginning in the 1500s. The fourth and final bearded age arrived in the late nineteenth century when bushy Victorian beards of every description flourished, from goatees to mutton chops to chin straps.

Discussions of the history of beards often have a military focus since martial contexts have long dictated the fashions for growing facial hair. Alexander the Great in 323 BCE is said to have instructed all of his men to go to battle clean-shaven so that enemy soldiers couldn’t gain purchase on their beards in close combat, although his instruction may also have had something to do with his own youthful visage and a wariness of having his authority challenged by pileous older men. After the heady, hairy days of the late nineteenth century, the clean-cut look became the norm again during WWI since gas masks couldn’t form a protective seal on unshaven faces. While the navy has long let sea-going soldiers and submariners grow well-kempt whiskers, a general ban on facial hair persists to this day in many armies around the world, including in the US, where beards can only be grown with the permission of one’s Commanding Officer (with exceptions usually being made on medical or religious grounds). 

Vintage sailors with beards
Image credit: Australian War Memorial / No known copyright restrictions

World leaders throughout history have also acted with apparent pogonophobia — a fear of furry faces, that is. Henry VIII (who was himself bearded), Elizabeth I, and Peter I of Russia all placed a tax on wearing beards, with the latter making his bearded subjects wear a medal that read ‘Beards are a ridiculous ornament’. Abraham Lincoln grew a beard at the behest of a young supporter who wrote to him saying she thought it would help him get elected, only for the president to be accused of ‘putting on airs’ for doing so by his detractors when he eventually won the race. It seems a taboo surrounding bristled politicians persists since there hasn’t been an American president or a UK prime minister with a beard since Benjamin Harrison and Lord Salisbury of the 1890s.

While anything more than a day’s worth of stubble seems to rub voters up the wrong way, it’s hard to know exactly why since beards carry so many different connotations. There are long-standing connections to manliness and virility, of course, but there are also associations as disparate as religious devotion and countercultural rebellion, or sage wisdom and poor hygiene. Say the word ‘beard’ and you’re liable to conjure an image of any number of distinct groups be they philosophers or revolutionaries, Vikings or biker gangs, hippies or hipsters, lumberjacks or lumbersexuals, old-timey writers or present-day athletes. It’s as likely to be Karl Marx as Charles Darwin, Socrates as Santa Claus, Duck Dynasty as ZZ Top, or countless other famous beardos besides. 

All of this can leave a potential beard-grower feeling somewhat uncertain about how their snowballing stubble might be perceived. As Josh Sims puts it, ‘a definitive style of “face furniture” has always made some kind of statement, although not necessarily one under the wearer’s control’. Rest assured in knowing that whatever style and shape you end up choosing, though, you’re all but certain to elicit a response. 

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