It's almost impossible to think of the American Civil War without also thinking about facial hair. Many, if not most, of the period's most famous figures sported facial hair of one variety or another. McClellan wore a modest goatee in the French Imperial style. William Tecumseh Sherman indulged in rugged, frontiersy scruff. Grant, Lee, and Lincoln all wore well-trimmed, respectable beards. J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, and Jackson all adopted the look of Old Testament patriarchs. And Ambrose Burnside (below, in his post-war guise), the crowned king of Civil War-era facial hair, grew whiskers so distinctive that those of a similar style have ever since been known as sideburns.
But what does all of this mean? We know that the Civil War-era and the latter decades of the nineteenth century were a high water mark for facial hair -- but why? Why did every US president, with only one exception, between Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Harrison have facial hair of one variety or another? Why did millions of American men begin sprouting facial hair in the 1850s? And why did most of them cut it off by the early decades of the twentieth century?
These questions may strike many of you as silly. But why should we scoff at them? Many men (and a few women) spend a substantial fraction of their lives bent over a sink with a razor in hand. Why should we indulge in this daily ritual had it not some important meaning?
Well I, for one, am inclined to believe that shaving and growing facial hair -- as well as changes in these practices over time -- must have some important, if yet unknown, meaning. In the eyes of the world, a person is many things; but if we had to choose one aspect of appearance that defines a person, that constitutes the essence of their identity, we would likely choose their face. What people do with their faces, therefore -- how they adorn them, cover them, or reveal them -- is of utmost importance in communicating information about who they think they are, and how they want to be seen.
So, what were nineteenth-century Americans saying to the world with their mighty whiskers? A portion of my own research considers what personal appearance (in particular, those aspects of appearance pertaining to male grooming) has to say about social class and gender in the nineteenth century. But I've also come to suspect that facial hair may have had a political meaning during the period. To investigate that question, and with some indispensible technical support from my father, I've begun putting together a database of nineteenth century politicians and their facial hair. So far, the database covers the years 1789 to 1900, and includes the name and party of more than one-thousand US Senators during that period. Most importantly, it also includes a brief description of their facial hair whenever information on their appearance has been available.
After a first, relatively informal round of analysis, I've discovered a few notable trends. Some, like the discovery that American Senators of the pre-Jacksonian era (1789-ca. 1828) were invariably clean-shaved, came as no great surprise. Others, however, were rather provocative. First, I found that during the period of the second party system -- the Whig/Democratic rivalry that persisted between the mid-1830s and mid-1850s -- members of Andrew Jackson's party were decidedly hairier than their Whig opponents. Whereas roughly 24% of Senate Democrats sported facial hair of some kind between 1835 and 1855, a mere 12% of Whigs wore whiskers of any variety. The difference in facial hair growth patterns is even more striking during the third party system (1855 - Present, although my dataset ends in 1900). During that period, a whopping 75% of Republicans wore moustaches, beards, muttonchops, or goatees, while only 61% of Democrats adorned their cheeks with hair. Stated bluntly, Republicans were hairier than Democrats.
It should go without saying that these findings are far from established fact. I wouldn't even feel comfortable quoting them in a humble conference paper. For one thing, my sample size is smaller and more limited than I would like. For another, there are certain methodological issues with the data upon which these findings rest that tend to temper my enthusiasm. Two in particular are problematic. First, Republicans held the overwhelming majority of Senate seats at the height of the beard craze (1860-1877), a fact which may partially account for the high percentage of hirsute Republicans. It's entirely possible that there were just as many hairy Democrats as Republicans during the fifteen-plus years of war and Reconstruction, but because few Democrats held Senate seats during this period, they do not appear in my database. Second, the dates of the photos I've relied upon for information about Senators' facial hair do not necessarily correspond with their tenure of office; thus, a few of the politicians noted in the database as beard-wearers may actually have been clean-shaved when they held their Senate seat. The inverse is also entirely possible.
Caveats aside, these findings suggest a more intimate relationship between appearance and political affiliation than we may have previously expected. Thoughts on this topic are welcome and appreciated!