‘God Gives Nothing In Vain,’ And Other Gems of Beard Advocacy

Jul 17, 2015

 The years between 1860 and 1910 were among the beardiest in recorded history. No one escaped bare-chinned: not Uncle Sam, not Jesus, and certainly not Pittsburgh’s mayors.

On the fifth floor of the City-County Building, Gloria Forouzan, office manager for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, walks a long, central hallway punctuated by the 56 portraits of mayors past. Fourouzan pauses under each one and describes their grooming choices, frozen forever in brass.

“Samuel Pettigrew with his chops…Honorable Mayor (Benair) Sawyer, nice little mustache,” she said, stopping for a hard look at Robert Liddell. “Doesn’t he look like one of those gamblers from the old West? You know, card-sharky type? No offense, Liddell.”

Though mostly clean-shaven, the mayoral look changed dramatically between 1857 and 1914; just two of that period’s 20 mayors lack whiskers.

Sarah Gold McBride, a Ph.D. candidate studying the social meanings of hair in 19th century America at the University of California at Berkeley, said that isn’t particularly surprising.

“Associations of facial hair and power -- political power in particular -- became so salient in the second half of the 19th century," she said. "(That) may account for why it is so common among politicians.”

When asked to characterize just how popular the beard was in the 1800s, Gold McBride laughed.

“On a scale of one to beardy, the 19th century was extremely beardy," she said. "One scholar has called the 19th century ‘the bushiest boom in facial hair history.’”

It’s difficult to overstate the bristles’ ubiquity. What is difficult is explaining exactly why sideburns, mustaches, goatees and beards became the century’s must-have. Gold McBride said a market economy, industrialization and urbanization wrought dramatic changes in American society. Notably, a greater presence of women.

“American men began searching for quick and visual ways to distinguish themselves from women,” Gold McBride said. 

The beard became a sort of resistance to women’s new role in public life and the fight for suffrage. She cited an 1869 book by theologian Horace Bushnell.

“He says that the beard is essentially the way that God has marked men as the superior sex, by giving them a beard,” she said.

To Gold McBride, the beard’s ascendance resulted from a conscious, collective assertion of masculinity. Sean Trainor sees it differently.

“I sort of think about the beard fashion as accidental in the sense that no one really set out to make it as big as it was,” he said.   

In his forthcoming book, Groomed For Power: A Cultural Economy of the Male Body in 19th Century America, Trainor argues a lot of factors made shaving more painful, literally and metaphorically. For starters, more Americans were living and shaving in cities.

“They live in this world of strangers where they don’t know anyone," he said. "You have to put yourself in the seat of some of these folks who are going to barbershops and thinking, ‘This barber could be anybody.’”

It was the era of Sweeney Todd, emblematic of a new genre of fiction in which barbers did terrible, murderous things to customers. So you decide to shave yourself. Easy. Except…

“Straight razor shaving is really, really difficult. Folks are just ditching the razor and taking up the beard instead,” he said.  

As the beards grew, so, too, did the justifications for growing them, Trainor said.

“You see folks saying, 'The beard is natural. It’s endowed by God, by a benevolent creator, that God gives nothing in vain. That the beard is this aid to men who want to lead a rugged, natural existence,'” he said.  

Regardless of how it came to be, the beard enjoyed some 50 years of bristly prominence: cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Uncle Sam a beard; Protestants began daubing beards on Jesus to give him a “manly countenance.” Bare-chinned candidates took just two presidential elections between 1860 and 1908. And then? The mainstream beard vanished. For a while.

Antoine Thomas owns and operates Hair on Bedford Square on the South Side where a section of the style menu is devoted entirely to facial hair treatments.

“Everybody wants a beard,” he said. “The beard, it’s about some kind of power. A presence of being manly, basically. But I’m telling you: beards are a pain in the butt.”

As with all of bearded history, though, that depends on who you ask.

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