Believe it or not, beards are unique to humans. We evolved the trait apart from our primate ancestors or relatives, like the chimpanzees and bonobos.
There’s some debate as to how the evolution of facial hair benefitted us. Is it to keep our faces warm, or for protection from the sun (or against blows to the face)? However, since beards are not common across all human cultures, the rationale is that men grew beards because people liked them.
The beard amongst certain groups of early humans was a sign of dominance and a symbol that you would make a good mate. It made men more intimidating in battle, as well as manlier overall.
The history of beards is as varied and contentious as human history, but its story is as fascinating as our own. What started as the wildly unkempt ancient beard quickly developed into the fully groomed modern varieties.
When Did Men Start Shaving?
Once humanity settled into their more civilized forms, men very quickly started grooming their facial hair. Evidence of shaving goes back thousands of years.
The Babylonian and Assyrian Kings grew out their beards as signs of status, going to great lengths to style their beards.
The Ancient Egyptian upper class maintained elaborate beards, often going so far as to dye their beards or braid gold thread in them. However, Egyptian cultures eventually turned on beards and took to shaving, viewing them as low-class and animalistic, and going so far as to remove all the hair on their bodies, including their arms and legs.
However, the Pharaohs still wore fake beards, like the decorative goatee seen on the famous Tutankhamen headpiece. They wore wigs as fashion pieces, and to protect them from the desert sun.
The Egyptians didn’t shave to remove their beards. At least not broadly, as razors were expensive to craft. That privilege was limited to societal elites. The Average Egyptian removed their hair by rubbing a pumice stone on their faces, heads, and arms.
Ancient India, as well as other eastern and middle eastern cultures, revered beards so much that they eventually became incorporated into certain religions. Cutting off a beard was a common punishment for certain crimes. Their length and size were emblematic of wisdom, strength, and courage.
Sikhism has a religious principle, called Kesh, where they let their hair and facial hair grow naturally out of respect for God’s creation. It is a symbol of devotion and respect for their religion. Twice daily, Sikhs will comb and tie their hair into turbans.
The Ancient Romans revered shaving, preferring a clean-shaven appearance to separate them from their Greek counterparts. The trend began as a push towards public hygiene and took some time to take root. By 454 BCE, it was the accepted norm to be clean-shaven.
A man’s first shave was a highly celebrated event, considered a rite of passage into manhood. Men rarely shaved in Roman society and would go to barbershops to have their faces shaved (usually again with pumice stones, however, Julius Caesar reportedly had his beard plucked out one by one with tweezers).
Being clean-shaven was a symbol of status, as well. The more consistently cleanly shaven a man was, the more wealth he had. Roman elites had personal barbers as part of their service staff, while the middle and lower classes had to visit barbers for the service.
Beards returned to Rome in 100 AD when Emperor Hadrian grew a beard to hide scarring on his face. The trend returned and continued as a fashion. By then, Rome had expanded and was either incorporating or influencing the Germanic tribes surrounding the nation’s European borders. The Germanic peoples wore beards, and at least in their early iterations, did not allow men to shave until they had their first kill in battle.
Medieval Facial Hair Styles
Beards fluctuated in style and popularity throughout medieval Europe. In what’s now England, men wore beards until the 7th Century with the influx and acceptance of Christianity. The clergymen were required to shave as a sign of purity and celibacy, and the fashion took hold. When England was conquered in 1066 by the Normans, shaving became law.
Medieval Europe saw beards become a class symbol again, as well. The ruling classes wore beards, like the Frankish Kings, while the peasantry was required to be cleanly shaven. The Aristocracy and Knights were allowed to wear beards. Knights grew beards as a sign of virility and honor, bringing the look back as a positive. By the time the Crusades were in full swing, beards were common across Europe.
At least until the Renaissance, under Henry VIII, beards were prohibited again. Except for the ruling elite, beards were discouraged and even taxed. The irony to that ruling was Henry VIII wore a beard his entire life, then again, he wasn’t someone known for their rationality. That continued with Queen Elizabeth I, well after Henry VIII’s untimely death and the debacle surrounding his succession. Queen Elizabeth had a simpler rationale since she simply thought beards were gross. Other leaders, like Peter the Great of Russia, mandated a similar law to make Russian society closer in line with Western Europe.
That was not the consistent norm across Europe, as the Renaissance saw a wide array of beard styles. In the middle 1500s, beards were back in style, and in a variety of styles. English men also started adding starch to their beards around this time. The Dutch painters brought wider fame to beards with their Aristocratic portraiture. Anthony Van Dyck became famous by painting European Aristocracy with his trademark pointed beard that it became named after him, which is where the Van Dyke came from.
19th Century Beards
Beards fell out of fashion in the 1700s and until the middle 1800s, men were largely clean-shaven. In France, and when the United States was founded, the political elites were clean-shaven (though wigs were still a thing).
During the 1850s, beards came back in vogue throughout the entirety of the Western World. Leaders across Europe sported the look. Russia’s Alexander III, France’s Napoleon III, and Prussia’s Wilhelm I all sported facial hair. When Germany became a nation in the 1870s, its chief statesmen, Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck sported pretty dramatic facial hair.
Other figures of pop culture, like Charles Dickens, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giuseppe Verdi, and Karl Marx all sported extensive facial hair.
The 1800s saw a dramatic array of beard styles. Waxing and shaping beards was a way of showing personality and class. Dickens wore essentially an elongated goatee. While the German leaders, Wilhelm I, had massive sideburns, and Bismarck was known for his walrus-like mustache.
The 1800s had a wide array of styles, ranging from full beards to mustaches. More so than that, it was also incredibly popular to stylize and wax your beard. The handlebar mustache was popular, and even full-bearded styles, like that of Giuseppe Verdi, combined the handlebar mustache with the full beard.
Beards eventually gave way to mustaches, which were the accepted norm by the turn of the 20th Century. The end of the century saw a peak in popularity with the full beard, before eventually transitioning into an era of mustaches.
Modern History of Beards in America
Beards weren’t in vogue in the United States throughout the early phases of the nation’s history. When George Washington and Thomas Jefferson established the political norms of the nation set the style, as well.
It was in the 1850s when beards became popular in the United States. The first President to wear a beard in the United States was Abraham Lincoln, after famously being told by a little girl that it would make him look less weird. He grew what’s now know as the “chin curtain,” and almost every president through Howard Taft had facial hair of some sort.
However, sideburns and full beards were just as popular during that era. The term “sideburns” is taken from the American general Ambrose Burnsides, who is most well known for his dramatic facial hair. His beard became a symbol of masculinity and power throughout his service in the Union Army during the American Civil War.
Antebellum era presidents, like Ulysses S. Garfield and James Garfield, sported the full beard look. However, late in the Century that shifted. William McKinley was one of the few clean-shaven presidents at that time. After his assassination, both Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft had large mustaches, as per the European style.
Side Note: The American Barbershop
The American barbershop is one of the most fascinating pieces of information tucked away in the history of beards.
When the United States was founded, smooth skin was the desired fashion, but the white inhabitants of the country found service jobs to be beneath them. The northern nations abolished slavery, and by 1806, there was a job crisis amongst free black men in the north.
Barbers were in high demand during this period and became one of the most widely adopted jobs among black communities of the time. The facial hairstyles throughout the 1800s were shaped by largely black barbers who had to navigate the fragile racial landscape of the country.
They mastered a variety of skills, from shaving, cutting, and styling, as well as interior decoration and customer service. Barbers were among the wealthiest of free black men. Today, barbershops are still social centers where people go to chat or discuss any number of things in the safe space created by the barber.
World War I’s Effect on Facial Hair
When the world exploded into war in 1914, the entire face of world geopolitics shifted. One of the unexpected side effects of that was the resurgence of smooth faces. The horrific nature of that conflict made poison gases a common part of the violence.
Facial hair was a liability during poison gas attacks because it prevented a proper seal from forming when soldiers put on their gas masks. This led to the invention of the safety razor and a widespread normalization of men shaving at home. That style persisted after the war, though mustaches made a resurgence during the 1920s.
The 1920s facial hair had few beards but many mustaches. They were smaller than their previous counterparts. The mustache spread in popularity because of the rise of movies during that period. Berlin was the center of cinema at the time, but Hollywood’s budding stars, like Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, helped establish the mustache’s popularity, as well.
Charlie Chaplin helped establish the popularity of one of the most notorious mustaches, which is now most famous for the last man known to wear it. The toothbrush mustache has become so intertwined with Adolf Hitler that it’s now a taboo to wear at all. Chaplin wore the look for his beloved tramp character, and even Walt Disney wore the toothbrush mustache. However, the atrocities of the Holocaust imbued the style with toxicity.
Beards After World War II
After World War II, beards started making a comeback through the countercultural movements of the time. The war’s devastation led many people to question the natures of society and actively strive for a different way of living.
Artistic communities flocked to the goatee as their look of choice. It became popular first with the jazz musicians, before spreading to other creative communities. The groups that evolved in the Beatniks wore goatees and their variants. As the cultural trends started to seep into the mainstream, through the works of Jack Kerouac, the style became far more normalized.
With the 1960s came the rise of the Hippie Movement, which adopted beards as a symbol of protest. Even former Beat Generation figures, like Allen Ginsburg, transitioned into the full-beard look. The Beatles transitioned from their cleanly-shaven early years into their wild and ragged later years. Other artists followed suit.
Beards were widely accepted in the 1970s, though that decade favored the mustache far more. For the remaining decades, beards fluctuated in and out of style. However, it would be the 2010s that saw beard popularity begin to approach a new peak.
One of the intriguing distinctions of that trend is that the so-called “hipster beard” looked back to the 1800s for its stylistic inspiration. Waxed mustaches and groomed full-beards, inspired by Giuseppe Verdi, were back in full swing. The beard has become a staple of personal expression, compared to the cultural backlash its popularity implied in the middle 20th Century.
Its popularity has not waned and possibly more men than ever (at least on a by-numbers basis) are sporting beards. With all the variety in appearances, there’s a look for every man.