Yesterday in the Times, Alex Williams wrote about his decision, at forty-one, to grow his first full beard. Williams notes that the style world has recently entered “,the Postmillennial He-Man Beard Epoch,”, and he found that being hirsute of face had unexpected results: Long beard styles.
In the eyes of young, cool New York, I had unwittingly shaved 10 years off my age by not shaving. I was getting carded at nightclubs. Tattooed young women working the register at coffee shops no longer called me “,sir.”, At downtown parties, I invariably found myself huddled in the corner with bearded guys in their 20s, talking about the new Fleet Foxes album or the best way to get past the velvet rope at the Box. I was a member of a tribe.
The beard has been going in and out of fashion as long as men have been able to trim their whiskers. In 1938, The New Yorker published an article titled “, American Hair: Its Rises and Falls,”, a Depression-era trend piece by Lewis Gannett about the connections of the beard and the mustache to “,the mysterious tides of our history.”, Gannett remarks that the New World was discovered and settled almost entirely by men with whiskers:
Balboa and Magellan and Sebastian Cabot, Cotes, Pizarro, Ponce de Leon, and De Soto, Champlain and Cartier, Hawkins and Drake, Captain John Smith, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Winthrop, and the first Lord Baltimore all were bearded men.
Long hair beard styles
But, by the eighteenth century, due in part to the influence of the Puritans, the beard was out and the wig was in. “,Not one of the signers of the American Constitution wore a beard or even a mustache,”, Gannett notes. Even Uncle Sam, in his earliest incarnation, dating to 1852, was clean-shaven. It was not until Abraham Lincoln that we had a President with a full beard. Lincoln, who grew his beard after his election, was initially accused of “,putting on ‘,airs’, ,”, (as opposed to hairs). And thus, for a time, the trend was reversed. Gannett points out that the cabinet of the Grant Administration (pictured above, in an engraving by W. S. L. Jewett) was the hairiest in our history. (The bearded Hendrik Hertzberg writes about this turbulent era in our current issue.)
After its peak in the late nineteenth century, the American beard went into retreat, and remained so until the counterculture movements of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. (It is probably no coincidence that this decline corresponded to the wider use of the safety razor.) In fact, during the thirties and forties, the beard was so uncommon that the magazine published a Talk story about two “,rather surprising Vandyke beards in the city, one on a City Hall cop, the other on one of the change men in the Fourteenth Street station of the Third Avenue ‘,L.’, ,”, The police officer, Joseph Heaney, explained that he’,d let his beard grow while suffering from the flu and had never gotten around to shaving it. “,It hides the emotions,”, he told our reporter, H. L. Hawar. “,I can be pleased or I can be annoyed and there can’,t nobody tell.”,
Two years later, another Talk story profiled Rubin London, the sole bearded postal carrier in New York. London, nicknamed Whiskers by his co-workers, wore a long ZZ Top-style beard, which he combed out every night. Although doormen sometimes mistook him for a derelict while he was doing his rounds, London was resolute about never shaving his beard. Asked if he was married, he responded, “,Who’,d want to marry me?”,
Alas, if only Mr. London had lived a half-century later and removed himself to Williamsburg, he might have enjoyed the same attention that Alex Williams received when he let his whiskers grow.
The articles—,and the complete archives of The New Yorker, back to 1925—,are available to subscribers. Non-subscribers can purchase the individual issue.