Fact and Fiction: The History of Beards
Men have worn beards for time immemorial, after all, we are mammals and some of us are more hirsute than others. What is the history of beards and what are some of the myths and truths about bearded men throughout history?
The popularity of beards has ebbed and flowed depending on styles and attitudes. Beards in Ancient Egypt were worn as a status symbol. Rich and powerful often weaved gold thread into their beards and dyed them different colors.
The Greeks and the ancient Mesopotamians relied on oils, tongs, and ringlets to accentuate their beards. As a form of disgrace, Spartans would shave a portion of a coward’s beard, this way their cowardice would not go unnoticed. In the East, Indians grew long beards to signify wisdom and even the Chinese were known to grow beards – for example General Guanyu of the Shu during the Three Kingdoms period is famous for his beard. Today, beards adorn men from all walks of life.
Unsurprisingly, there are a quite a few books on the history of beards including Christopher Oldstone-Moore’s ‘Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair’ and Alan Peterkin’s ‘One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair’. Each provides interesting insights into the cult of beardedness – though based on the titles, I wonder if there is some connection to beards and colons ‘:’?
Ned Beauman of the Guardian points out that ‘peak beard’ was reached in either 2013 or 2014. However, that depends on who you talk to as the newspaper has reported both dates. Despite the fact we are beyond the point of ‘peak beard’, legions of bearded men continue to walk among us.
One the theory behind the oscillating popularity of beards throughout history is linked to dating and marriage. As the theory goes, men tend to flaunt their hirsuteness when the dating market is better; but when the ideal mate is not readily available, men tend to opt for a clean shaven appearance. Presumably, because this makes women feel safer.
Oldstone-Moore postulates something along the same lines. Noting beards are symbolic of the ‘mutability and variety of ideas of manhood within a given period, and across time.’ Some of these ‘ideas of manhood’ depend on historical circumstances. As the author points out the Enlightenment Court of King Louis XIV of France shed their facial accoutrements, compare this to the Renaissance when beards were in vogue. However, this is just an observation, which unfortunately are resplendent throughout the entire history of beards. As such, we are left with many myths and very few facts.
One such ‘fact’ dates back to Sumerian times as the reason for their notable beards was the lack of proper shaving utensils. Instead of dealing with nicks, cuts, and even death to shave, nobles grew their beards to tremendous lengths, all in a race to stand out from their peers.
Fast forward 5,500 years and having a beard is no longer a matter of life or death, it is rather about personal aesthetic – which is often skewed by current events. Such is the connection over the history of beards between facial hair and fashion. Whilst beards and mustaches were in vogue during the Edwardian period, the post-World War I generation opted to be beardless. In a 1925 report from the Chicago Tribune, one of the young man interviewed told the reporter ‘everybody wants to look young and keep looking young’ as such the Jazz Age was as much about turning a page on the Edwardian period as it was about enjoying youth. After all, the bloodiest war in human history to date had just ended and many young men were just happy to be alive.
As such beards are indicative of the times we are living in. Before Abraham Lincoln, no U.S. president had a beard – though John Quincy Adams had an amazing set of sideburns, even before they were given the name. After President Lincoln, every president from Ulysses S. Grant to Theodore Roosevelt, with the exception of William McKinley sported facial hair.
This brings us back to the sideburn, never in the history of beards has one man had such an impact. In this case, General Ambrose Burnside who was noted for the manner in which he kept his facial hair – joining the strips from the sides of his ears to his mustache.
Back to why today's modern man and why they grow beards. According to researchers at the University of Western Australia, the reason is pressure to stand out from other men. By growing a beard they are calling attention to themselves. The research was recently published in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior and is based on the idea that male primates (that includes humans) in big societies resort to more and more outlandish means to display their sexual prowess.
Whether you believe fashion, technology, or the primal urge to mate is behind the growing or shearing of beards; taking a look at the history of beards offers us some insight into how social orders develop and evolve over time.