News From Terre Haute, Indiana


July 6, 2014

HISTORICAL TREASURE: The growth and decline of facial hair

TERRE HAUTE — Men’s facial hair, or its absence, has gone through a cyclical pattern throughout history, influenced by the prevailing cultures, social movements and religions in different historical ages. As you stroll around the Vigo County Historical Museum or perhaps peruse its photography archives, you will see paintings and pictures dating back to the 1800s and early 1900s. Examining them carefully you will notice that starting in the early 19th century more and more men began to sport facial hair. This trend, which was reflected in U.S. presidents’ facial hair, peaked in the mid-to-late 1800s and steadily declined in the 20th century and tells an interesting cultural story.

The only time presidents have had facial hair was between Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 to the end of William Howard Taft’s term in 1913. The two beardless exceptions during that time were Andrew Johnson and William McKinley.

In the 19th century the rulers and societal elite of the U.S. were wealthy, white men. Men’s fashion trends revolved around this group and its reactions to the economic, social and political changes of that century. The century before, during the Age of the Enlightenment, saw an almost universal clean-shaven standard arise in Europe and the American colonies.

By the beginning of the 19th century men began to grow sideburns, but it wasn’t until the 1840s and ’50s that mustaches and especially beards became popular. These styles reflected a reaction to the growing industrialization of the nation, the issues of race and slavery, and the growing women’s rights movement. As these factors began to challenge the prevailing social structure and a man’s place in it, white European and American men sought to redefine masculine identity. The beard (and facial hair in general) became an outward symbol of manliness and authority. The beard served as an indicator of white men’s supposed superiority over women as well as other races. From this movement, facial hair for men became a part of mainstream fashion.

After World War II the clean-shaven look became popular again, and facial hair became associated with smaller fringe social movements, such as the beatniks and hippies. It now appears in the beginning of the 21st century that men’s facial hair is making something of a popular comeback. For example, actors such as Brad Pitt, Jamie Foxx and Ben Affleck have worn beards and moustaches of various lengths, thickness and styles in recent years.

To learn more about the history of hair, make sure you come and visit the Vigo County Historical Museum’s current exhibit on barber shops, hair salons and hair styles of the past on the main exhibit floor of the museum.


The Vigo County Historical Society’s museum is at 1411 S. Sixth St. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through


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