Presidential Beards: 1861-1889
Every summer when I was a teenager, I looked forward to the moment when, at sleep-away camp, a group of friends would perform sketches about a former camp director who built log cabins and wore a Lincoln beard. The sketches were always funny for the two reasons that sketch comedy works: the actors are talented, and the premise is a hyperbole. In this case, as far as anyone knew, the reality of the former director had absolutely nothing to do with the content with which he was being made fun of. What made him a good target for comedy were his perceived personal traits—stoicism and solitude—combined with one crucial element: that he was, just like Abraham Lincoln, a middle-aged white guy with a beard.
As a phenomenon, the beard is noteworthy for its ability to span the cultural, religious, and biological gamut. First of all, the beard is the most overt signifier of male puberty, as anyone who was unfortunate enough to be able to grow one in middle school can attest. The beard is also required for many faiths (Islam, Judaism, Orthodox Christianity), and today, every hockey and baseball player grows his beard when his team makes the playoffs. Clearly, the root of this modern sporting practice isn’t superstition, because if everyone is participating, then no one can gain an edge. The reason for growing the playoff beard, then, must be to simply outlast the competition, to be the last beard remaining—a practice related to that of the Spartans of ancient Greece, who marked cowards by cutting off a portion of their beards. Still, none of this has anything to do with why beards are funny. So why are they?
I think it has to do with things like muttonchops, neck beards, chinstraps, and soul patches, the variations of beards that are instantly recognizable and never underwhelming. People like looking at beards because they like seeing what ridiculous hair formations are capable of growing on other peoples’ faces. I don’t think there’s much more to be said than this. If you Google “why do we care about beards,” you’ll get links to tip sheets and instructional videos on how to groom your beard. If you Google “why are beards funny,” you’ll be linked to dozens of sites with pictures of funny beards. This is the beard in its most literal sense: something inherently humorous.
Remember the former camp director who was made fun of because of his Abe Lincoln beard? Well, I didn’t start going to camp until after he was gone, so I never actually saw him or his beard; I had to imagine it through the prism of a couple of funny friends doing sketch comedy. Maybe this is why the hilarity of those sketches is so vivid in my memory. The beard is like comedy because the beard is comedy: the more we try to explain interpret it, the less it retains its value. Don’t try to analyze the beard. Just let it do its thing.
In honor of President’s Day, we look back on 1861-1889, the golden age of presidential beards. Why? Because that’s when Lincoln received a letter from Grace Bedell, an 11-year-old in upstate New York, in which she implored Lincoln to, on account of “thin” face, “let [his] whiskers grow.” If he did this, Bedell explained, all the ladies would find him more attractive and convince their husbands to vote for him. It’s refreshing to know that the most glorious beard in the history of the United States is the result of a little girl holding our greatest president hostage. In any case, the beards:
Ulysses S. Grant
Rutherford B. Hayes
Chester A. Arthur