One of the most important arguments of women’s history is that womanhood is historical. Ideas about who is a woman, what kinds of things are considered “feminine,” and the ways in which women are supposed to act, look, and think — these aren’t biological truths and they aren’t static over time. Beliefs and practices are specific to particular times, places, and cultures. Yet while this idea has essentially become dogma in women’s history, the same cannot be said for the history of masculinity.
In her 1995 book Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, historian Gail Bederman points out that much of the historical study of masculinity that preceded her book made a troubling assumption: that manhood means the same thing to all men, everywhere, all the time. This mindset prevents historians from really analyzing masculinity. If being a man meant the same thing to Metacom, Frederick Douglass, and Ronald Reagan, why bother investigating masculinity at all?
But as decades of women’s history have shown so clearly, what it means to be a woman has changed significantly over time, and is therefore worthy of serious historical analysis. The same holds true for the history of men and masculinity.
The nineteenth-century was a period of profound economic, political, and social change in the United States. In the first half of the century, Americans witnessed the rise of the capitalist market economy; the extension of voting rights to most adult white men; the beginnings of industrialization, which dramatically changed how people worked; the growth of major cities; and the construction of extensive communication and transportation networks. This change and disorder spurred new religions, such as Mormonism, as well as reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s rights. The social and economic roles of men and women changed, too splintering into distinct activities and spaces that could be organized under a system of “separate spheres.” Under this schema, men laid claim to public places like taverns and city streets, while women were confined to private spaces—namely, the home. Even though this binary is more of an ideal than a reflection of reality (as historians like Christine Stansell and Mary Ryan have shown), gender distinction gained a greater importance over the course of the century—particularly in the minds of white men, who began looking for ways to demonstrate a distinctly male identity.
They distinguished themselves from women in politics; a fundamental feature of the new universal manhood suffrage was, of course, the fact that it was only for men. But men also began exaggerating the physical differences between themselves and women. Men’s clothing styles shifted from a corseted, curvaceous look—one not dissimilar from a female figure—to the boxy silhouette of the three-piece suit. Men also began donning another distinct physical feature: facial hair—including side-whiskers, moustaches, and especially beards.
For more about the history of fashion, check out the Smithsonian’s fashion history blog Threaded
Why were men so concerned with crafting a distinct masculine appearance in the middle of the century? While many aspects of men’s lives were in flux during the nineteenth century—including the kind of work they performed and the political rights they were granted—men’s relationships with women were also changing in significant ways.
In the video below, Professor Richard J. Evans explores the history of Victorian facial hair in Great Britain:
During the antebellum period, women began pushing for greater rights and opportunities. They were participants (and even leaders) in religious revivals and reform movements—experience they translated into the burgeoning women’s rights movement. The famous women’s rights activist Lucretia Mott was an anti-slavery activist and Quaker minister before she helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.
At the local level, particularly in the nation’s growing cities, many American women increasingly became both physically present in public spaces and outspoken participants in the public life of their communities. These women walked the streets of cities and towns. They spoke their minds about important public issues. They became the explicit subjects of public laws and policies. In some cases, they even began agitating for the same kinds of social and political rights that men enjoyed. Overall, nineteenth-century women increasingly made themselves a vocal and visible part of the kinds of places and spaces men had previously claimed as their own—a development that challenged and troubled many men.
Viewed in this context, the measures American men took to distinguish themselves from women politically, socially, and visually make sense: boxy clothing and bushy beards were reactions to women’s changing role in American public life. Although men in Europe and the United States had long written—even in times of overwhelming beardlessness—about how beards marked the male members of their species as strong, manly, powerful, and wise, it was only once women began entering “their” public that American men started to cultivate the facial hair they had publically revered (but personally scorned) for generations. Facial hair was a visual and visceral way for men to distinguish themselves from women—to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, beards thus emerged as a key method for American men to demonstrate their masculinity to themselves, to women, and to each other.
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.
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. 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.”
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.” (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. 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. 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.
Facial Hair, Masculinity, and Uncle Sam: Straight Talk from Beard Historians
The nineteenth century was rife with amateur “beard historians” who composed passionate books, essays, and articles on the topic. There were even some books published before and after facial hair was popular. As early as 1786 and as late as the 1940s (one generation after the beard’s demise), European and American authors waxed philosophically about the virtues of facial hair. Reading these beard histories reveals the kinds of qualities nineteenth-century men associated with beards, such as power and masculinity.
Some beard historians looked to the past to demonstrate that beards were associated with power and strength. For example, King Alexander supposedly forced his troops to shave because their beards could be grabbed by enemies on the battlefield, but did not remove his own beard, because a bare chin “would detract from his dignity and he would fail to command the same respect that he did when in a bearded state.” A converse example proved a similar point: one beard history claimed that the most symbolic moment of King Edward II’s fall from power was when he was forcibly shaved with dirty rainwater.
In addition to noting the historical association between facial hair and kings, these beard historians also linked beards with masculinity. They called the beard “the naturall [sic] ensigne of manhood,” or even “one of man’s last signs of unmistakable masculinity.” The 1894 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica helped to codify the link between beards and masculinity; its entry for the word “beard” stated that the beard functioned as “the outward and visible sign of a true man.”
Since beards conferred masculinity and power on their male wearers, it was logical to nineteenth-century American men that figures of male authority and wisdom would be marked with beards. Abraham Lincoln grew a beard during his 1860 presidential campaign, inaugurating fifty years of virtually uninterrupted presidential facial hair. Uncle Sam also gained a beard in the second half of the century. Although the first known image of Uncle Sam appeared in 1852, it wasn’t until the 1870s that prominent Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Sam his now-ubiquitous whiskers.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, American men had made it clear what it meant for a man to have a beard: it gave him power, it conferred authority, and it allowed him to demonstrate his masculinity. In other words, facial hair turned a man into a “true man.”
“Radical revolt against nature”: Barefaced Women and Masculine Power
Bare chins, on the other hand, were obvious markers of effeminacy and inferiority. Many beard histories pointed out that bare chins were historically used to indicate servitude, and that prisoners were often forcibly shaved to disgrace them further. But despite the looming presence of chattel slavery on American soil until 1865, beard historians were far more interested in demonstrating that women were not supposed to have facial hair.
Perhaps the most passionate argument about why women should not wear beards came from Horace Bushnell, a prominent theologian and preacher who, in 1869, published the brashly titled book, Women’s Suffrage: The Reform Against Nature.
Bushnell’s argument was quite simple: women’s rights advocates argued that they should have the same rights as men because they were equal to men, but no claim of gender equality could be valid, Bushnell believed, because “men and women are, to some very large extent, unlike in kind.” A person merely needed to glance at the two sexes, he said, for the differences between them were so immediately obvious.
The man is taller and more muscular, has a larger brain, and a longer stride in his walk. The woman is lighter and shorter, and moves more gracefully. In physical strength the man is greatly superior, and the base in his voice and the shag on his face, and the wing and sway of his shoulders, represent a personality in him that has some attribute of thunder. But there is no look of thunder in the woman. Her skin is too finely woven, too wonderfully delicate to be the rugged housing of thunder… Glancing thus upon man, his look says, Force, Authority, Decision, Self-asserting Counsel, Victory.
The message of this passage is clear: Beards (what Bushnell calls “the shag on his face”) indicated authority, only men had authority, and only men had beards, since women’s skin was simply too delicate to support facial hair. Even a women’s rights activist like Helena Marie Weber, who advocated that women be free to wear pantaloons, agreed with Bushnell, admitting that facial hair was “intended solely to men”—that it was, in fact, “the natural token of the sex.”
When Horace Bushnell rebuked the efforts of the suffrage movement, he again evoked the symbolism of the beard:
The claim put forward [by suffragettes] then is, and will be commonly allowed to be, a claim of authority; a claim by women to govern, or be forward in the government of men; wherein they deny, in fact, a first distinction of their sex. The claim of a beard would not be a more radical revolt against nature.
The fact that men grew beards was not just a boring fact of biology. For Bushnell and many of his contemporaries, women’s very lack of facial hair was sufficient evidence that women should not, would not, and could not be in power. A woman trying to be in power was as ludicrous and unnatural to them as a woman trying to grow a beard.
The Significance of the Beard in the Nineteenth Century
For nineteenth-century American men, facial hair was not simply something that happened when you forgot to shave, or when you got busy with schoolwork, or during the month of November. Facial hair was not passive—it was a deliberate choice that said something about what kind of person you were inside. In 1830, Joseph Palmer’s beard told his neighbors that he was someone to be scorned and feared. By the time of his death in 1875, Palmer’s beard went mainstream. In the 1870s, if you had a bushy moustache or an awesome beard, you were a strong man who deserved to be in control. Masculinity and authority were intimately connected, and the shag on a man’s face could signal both.
Between the 1850s the early 1900s, facial hair became a standard component of the adult American male’s appearance. Men credited moustaches, side-whiskers, and especially beards with holding a litany of powers: maintaining or amplifying health, conveying dignity and respect, conferring masculinity, and even justifying the natural rule of men over women. Beards were not just a fashionable trend, but a powerful and resonant symbol of a particular social order. By wearing beards and writing constantly about why they wore beards, American men attempted to shore up their power in a time of increased economic and social instability.
The beard mattered deeply to nineteenth-century American men, and so it can tell us a great deal about their thoughts on gender, masculinity, and power.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for Gender History
Sarah Gold McBride is a PhD student in UC Berkeley’s Department of History, where she also received her BA. Her research focuses on race, gender, and popular culture in nineteenth-century America.