15 Incredible Moments in the History of Facial Hair
Take a stroll through a trendy neighborhood or flip through a fashion magazine and you may notice that hirsute faces are all the rage. Despite their trendy status at this point in time, beards are so much more than a passing fad. History has shown us that facial hair has been present in crucial moments of war, politics, and evolution. Whether you rock a mustache, sideburns, or a pair of on-fleek eyebrows, these historical highlights just might deepen your appreciation for facial hair.
1. OUR EARLY ANCESTORS LEARN TO SHAVE (OR PLUCK, RATHER).
Today shaving is viewed as an aesthetic choice, but for our early ancestors during the last ice age it was a survival tactic—a frozen beard could potentially lead to frostbite. To avoid this outcome, some historians estimate that early humans were clearing their faces roughly 100,000 years ago. The tools they used were considerably cruder than the quadruple-bladed razors available to modern man. Evidence suggests that humans first learned to deal with pesky facial hairs by plucking them with clamshells, like tweezers.
2. THE FEMALE PHARAOH WHO SPORTED A BEARD
Facial hair was a confusing territory to navigate in ancient Egypt. Rulers of the time kept their faces free of any fuzz, but on top of their clean-shaven chins they sometimes wore long, metallic beard substitutes. The reason behind this puzzling fashion choice was religion—the god Osiris was often depicted with a false goatee protruding from the bottom of his face and, as the story goes, pharaohs wanted to model their looks after him. The trend wasn’t limited to Egypt's male leaders—many female pharaohs also adopted beards along with traditionally masculine clothing after rising to power. One such pharaoh was Queen Hatshepsut, the historical figure regarded by many as Egypt’s first great female ruler.
3. VIKINGS PROVE PERSONAL GROOMING CAN BE MANLY.
Thanks to the Vikings, full, flowing beards are permanently associated with barbarism. But archaeological discoveries suggest that Viking beards may have been better kept than the ones you’ll find in any given Williamsburg coffee shop. Rather than allowing their beards to devolve into grizzly rats’ nests, Vikings made an effort to keep their faces well-groomed. Their facial hair was combed, curled, trimmed, and occasionally even bleached blonde to appeal to the Viking ladies.
4. ALEXANDER THE GREAT’S CLEAN-SHAVEN BATTLES
To Alexander the Great, facial hair was a serious subject. The Macedonian leader required all of his men to be shaved before heading into a key battle, but his reasoning was more practical than aesthetic. According to Plutarch, the fear was that enemy soldiers would grab their beards in close combat and pull them from their horses (although some modern scholars suggest that it was to make them look like the clean-shaven Alexander).
5. PETER THE GREAT’S CRUSADE AGAINST BEARDS
Alexander wasn’t the only Great who held a grudge against beards. Russia under Peter the Great was a hostile environment for beard bearers for a brief stint in history. During his tour of western Europe in the late 17th century, Peter was struck by one particular fashion trend he noticed abroad: Facial hair of any kind was out of style. The Czar chose to bring this look back to Russia with him in the least subtle way possible. During a reception held in honor of his return, Peter the Great whipped out a straight razor—and proceeded to shave his guests’ faces.
Soon after, a facial hair ban was placed on all citizens excluding peasants and clergyman. Peter eventually loosened up the law and everyone was allowed to grow a beard once more, given they were willing to pay a small fee. The “beard tax” remained in effect for nearly 50 years after Peter the Great’s death.
6. 18th CENTURY BOOK DECRIES “THE REVOLUTION AGAINST BEARDS”
Centuries before facial hair was embraced by hippies and hipsters as a symbol of nonconformity, Pogonologia extolled the virtues of the beard to a decidedly anti-beard society. The book was published in 1786 when whiskers were still woefully out of fashion. In it, the author listed some of history’s most respected adopters of facial hair and predicted that “the revolution [against beards] is just at an end.” It would be another several decades before the trend reemerged.
7. THE ADVENT OF THE SAFETY RAZOR
Prior to the 18th century, shaving was a risky endeavor. Even after man moved up from clamshell-tweezers to more sophisticated tools, wielding the crude slabs of metal that passed for razors was a job best left to professionals. Shaving at home finally became a possibility for more men when the safety razor launched in Sheffield, England, in 1828. Nineteen years later, William Henson invented the hoe-shaped razor design that would eventually be combined with the disposable, double-edged blade.
8. NAPOLEON'S NEPHEW ESCAPES PRISON WITH A SHAVE.
Napoleon Bonaparte preferred the barefaced look, but his nephew and heir Louis-Napoleon was known to rock some seriously stylish facial hair. His whiskers were so distinctive that they helped him escape imprisonment. Before eventually becoming the President of the French Second Republic and the Emperor of the Second French Empire, Louis-Napoleon lived in exile. He was locked in a French fortress in 1840, but managed to walk free after six years thanks to a dramatic makeover: After shaving off his signature pointy mustache and goatee, he became unrecognizable to anyone guarding the gates.
9. THE LETTER THAT INSPIRED LINCOLN’S BEARD
Abraham Lincoln’s trend-setting chin curtain was inspired by an unlikely source—an 11-year-old girl. In a letter dated October 15, 1860, Grace Bedell addressed the soon-to-be-president after seeing a campaign photograph her father brought home. She wrote:
“I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”
Lincoln neither confirmed nor denied his willingness to go along with her plan (he wrote in his response: “having never worn any [whiskers], do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?”), but soon after his now-iconic beard sprouted from his jawline. He won the election a few weeks later.
10. AMBROSE BURNSIDE ENTERS THE FACIAL HAIR LEXICON.
Union Civil War General Ambrose Burnside wasn’t the first man to grow hair from the sides of his face, but he did help popularize the style in the late 19th century. His characteristic whiskers—which included a clean-shaven jawline beneath a trail of fuzz linking his temples—were initially dubbed burnsides. The nickname quickly got inverted, and today we refer to patches of hair creeping down from the hairline as sideburns.
11. CHARLES DARWIN MAKES A CASE FOR FACIAL HAIR’S SEX APPEAL.
Research has found that beards can help men attract potential mates, and one of the first people to float the scientific basis behind this theory was Charles Darwin. In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, the naturalist compared beards to the antlers, tusks, plumage, and other ornamentations used by animals to advertise themselves to members of the opposite sex. He suggested that prehistoric men in some parts of the world evolved similar signals on their faces to appeal to women.
Darwin himself wore a beard that would have ensured he had no trouble propagating his genes back in the day, but he didn’t decide to grow it for beauty purposes. He only allowed his glorious beard to flourish unchecked once shaving proved too harsh on his eczema.
12. TAFT’S ‘STACHE: THE END OF AN ERA
After the long line of facial-haired presidents that came before him (only two since Lincoln had gone completely clean-shaven), William Howard Taft’s swooping mustache seemed par for the course. But it was historically significant for one major reason: No sitting U.S. president has sported a beard or mustache since. When Taft left office in 1913, Woodrow Wilson ushered in a new era of naked-faced American leaders.
13. THE MUSTACHIOED BRITISH OFFICERS OF WORLD WAR I
While Alexander the Great required his men to shave before battle, the British military would adopt a rather different approach centuries later. At the start of World War I all British officers had to be mustachioed according to uniform regulations. The mustache requirement was scrapped in 1916 in light of the many young recruits who were unable to conjure enough upper lip hair to meet the standard.
14. THE ELECTRIC RAZOR ENTERS THE SCENE.
It took less than a century before the home safety razor was upstaged by a tool that was even more high-tech. Attempts to patent and sell electric razors began with the turn of the 20th century, but it took until the late 1920s/early 30s for a successful model to finally take off. The innovation wasn’t just good for men—it was also good for the badgers whose hair had been used to make shaving brushes up until that point.
15. BEARD TAXES ARE STILL OCCASIONALLY SUGGESTED
Earlier this year, a British barber suggested an interesting source of revenue for the government—a beard tax. After hearing that a beard tax had been instituted during the Tudor era (likely a myth), and noting the modern popularity of beards, the barber proposed that extra income could be generated by a fee based on beard length. Longer beards, he reasoned, would cost twice as much as shorter beards. The barber may have undermined his own cause by acknowledging that the tax proposal was largely a way to protest other forms of hairdressing taxation—as well as his own inability to grow a beard.
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