History seems to have a bipolar love-hate relationship with the beard. Facial hair seems to go through the rising and falling of acceptance and popularity within different generations, under different governments, and between different cultures.
Currently—in the United States, at least—beards are not a unique sight, and one could even call them popular. Growth in the area of beard competitions as well as the number of men’s grooming products that have popped up over the last few years seems to provide ample evidence of such.
We embrace the beards. We love them.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. Let’s take a short stroll down memory lane to see how beards have been treated and used by different people in different times.
A clean face means a clean fight. In 345 A.D., Alexander the Great forbade his soldiers from having beards, preventing enemies from pulling them to gain an advantage in battle.
Tax that beard. In 1698, Peter the Great instituted a beard tax in Russia in an attempt to modernize societal norms. Bearded taxpayers were given a medallion that served as a license to wear a beard, and to double the “slap-in-the-face” efforts of the tax, the medallions were inscribed with the phrase, “The beard is a useless burden.”
“Swear by it…” Otto the Great, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire until 973, would swear by his beard whenever he made an important declaration.
“I challenge you!” In the Middle Ages, touching another man’s beard was considered highly offensive. In fact, if someone touched your beard, it was seen as a threat and you could challenge them to a duel.
The power beard. In ancient Egypt, high-ranking officials often dyed their beards and wove gold thread through them.
The Gettysbeard Address. Abraham Lincoln is believed to have popularized beards for Americans in the 19th century. Prior to his presidency, Lincoln was clean-shaven. But he was convinced to grow a beard by an 11-year-old girl who wrote him a letter saying a beard would improve his appearance. Everyone’s a critic.
“Take my life, but not my beard.” On July 6, 1535, Sir Thomas More was executed for treason. With his head on the block, More spoke up to say his beard has not committed any treason, and therefore should not suffer the same fate. So, right before the executioner did his duty, More positioned his beard so it would not be harmed. Priorities.
Beard to the wise. Men of ancient India did less in the way of dressing and styling, but still grew their beards long to impress others as a symbol of their wisdom.
The history of beards experienced a fall and rise among people as a direct result of Roman influence. As the Roman Empire grew and expanded it's boundaries, beards became less popular as most Roman followed the practice of their clean shaven Emperor.
Since influence of the empire extended to most of the known world, it's effects on style and beard growth also expanded. Ironically, this trend was later reversed when an Emperor grew out a full beard to hide his facial scars. As a sign of allegiance and respect, many citizens followed this example and grew out their beards to full length, which stretched its influence and trended throughout the entire Roman empire.
During the Middle Ages, it again became conventional for the upper class to grow beards, and knights tended their facial hair as a sign of masculinity and honor. By the time of the Renaissance, however, the fickle nature of change had again brought opposition to the growing of beards, and most men once again took a straight blade to their faces.
Influence of the Brits
In the time of King Henry VIII, beards took on an economic twist when beards were declared to be a taxable offense, even though the King himself fashionably sported a full face of hair right up to the time of his death. Queen Elizabeth had a strong disdain of beards herself, and thus made it a priority to continue the tax simply as an expression of her personal dislike.
In Russia, Peter the Great, who had a strong attraction to European trends, applied the same tax to Russian men to make evident his admiration of English culture.
19th and 20th centuries
In the mid-19th century favor again swung toward beard growth, and many of the leading figures of the day assumed full beards as an expression of power and influence.
World leaders and notables like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick III of Germany, Napoleon III of France, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, and Giuseppe Verdi all helped popularize beards and serve as trend-setters.
At the beginning of the 20th century, beards as a fashion slowly declined, partly in response to the throes of World War I. Beard growth was banned among soldiers because it interfered with the seal of gas masks around the face.
When the war ended, the clean-shaven practice did not, and soldiers carried home with them beardless faces, which stayed that way until after World War II.
Only a decade after the second World War, a different generation appeared, and their adoption of beards as a sign of being cool was continued by the hippie movement into the 60’s and 70’s
And then The Beatles came.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that once these influential musicians adopted face fuzz in the late 1960’s, the wearing of beards reached its pinnacle of popularity, advanced by the most culturally influential figures of the 20th century. Inevitably however, the band broke up, and so did the global prevalence of beards.
Following a slight decline in popularity, the history of beards then took another turn for the better, and currently beards are again being admired and appreciated among celebrities and their followers, bringing that history full circle to present times.
Rise and Fall
It may be concluded then that the alternating cycles of popularity throughout the history of beards are actually reminiscent of the physiological growth of facial hair itself.
The adoption of beards by men of the world seems to move through periods of dormancy, followed by some decline, but then is eventually followed by a renewed swell to distinction. Mirroring the actual biological process, the history of beards could hardly be more fitting.