Was Abraham Lincoln the first bearded President? Well, yes and no. He was the first president with extensive facial hair. But that facial hair brings us into what one of this week’s guests called “the tricky territory of what defines a beard in the 19th century.”
Which of these men has a beard? There’s only one right 19th century answer! (Images: Library of Congress)
“One of the tricky things about the politics and meaning of facial hair in the 19th century is that people didn’t define styles using the same language we would….we would call Lincoln a bearded man, but his contemporaries would have described him as a whiskered man.”
Wait, what is the difference between whiskers and a beard? Why does it matter to Lincoln at the time which he has – and why is the first President to choose to sport facial hair at all, regardless of what he called it?
Before we can answer that question, we have to resolve something even more crucial: What differentiated them from whiskers?
“The difference was not so much in facial real estate…what defined whiskers was the restraint of the style. Whiskers were cropped short, they required the labor of a barber or maintenance at home.”
In the pictures above, the man on the left has a beard – while the man on the right has whiskers. Men in America grew whiskers to look urbane, classy, educated. And whiskers weren’t just like Lincolns – the elaborate sideburns, moustaches, and muttonchops we associate with the period were also considered “whiskers”.
But they had been in fashion since the 1840s, and no President had adopted whiskers wholesale. Here’s a mid-1840s fashion illustration publicizing the growth of the “whiskers” phenomenon.
So why did Lincoln become the first President to “tune in” to this style? Well, according to Sean Trainor, not the reason you might think. In the middle of a crisis of union, for an untested President,
“Historians…typically assumed this was an attempt to look Abrahamic, suggest strength and fortitude.”
And this would have been true if the had grown a beard. But Lincoln did not grow a beard – like failed 1858 candidate John C. Fremont had.
Lincoln grew whiskers. According to Sean Trainor,
“This was an attempt on Lincoln’s part to shed the campaign image of the frontier railsplitter. Here was a guy who was coming from the West to the center of American power. He was going to be rubbing shoulders with people with more formal education than himself, more wealth than himself, who had operated in these circles for a long time. This was was a way of signalling…that now he was a man of the city, a man of fashion and urbanity.”
Lincoln’s carefully cultivated, bewhiskered image was everywhere during his second campaign – just like his clean-shaven, frontier portrait was in his first election. Both were calculated acts of political theater – and ones in which Lincoln chose his cultural script perfectly for the moment.