Great Beards in American History
Those of us based in the U.S. are getting ready for this week’s Independence Day celebrations by buying way too many hamburgers and hot dogs, gathering a stockpile of fireworks, and picking up a keg or two. The Fourth of July is a time when many of us throw parties to celebrate the nation’s freedoms alongside friends and family and enjoy an evening of watching things explode.
It’s also a chance to reflect on the countless men and women throughout history who worked tirelessly to make America a better place. Some fought to free us or keep us free, while others made a mission of chronicling the splendor America has to offer. This year, The Beard Club would like to pay tribute to a few major players in U.S. history who helped define the country while sporting some truly historic facial hair. Let’s look back into our nation’s past to remember the patriots who helped make this land great—and did it while looking awesome.
President Abraham Lincoln
There’s no way you can have a talk about American history without mention of the one and only Abraham Lincoln. He is, without a doubt, one of the best-known figures in our nation’s past. We know Lincoln as the 16th President of the United States and the guy on the five-dollar bill, but beyond that, he was also an American statesman, a career politician, and a brilliant lawyer as well. He even took time out of his busy schedule to participate in wrestling matches, which is definitely a feather in his stovepipe hat.
For much of his lifetime, Abraham Lincoln wore a lengthy chinstrap beard, which has forever become a part of his signature look. While the style was quite popular among his contemporaries at the time, no one wore it quite like Lincoln. There’s something about the way his chin strap framed his face that made him look so incredibly distinguished. If you’ve seen images of Lincoln sans beard, you know: He just doesn’t look right without it!
General Ambrose Burnside
While Lincoln had his iconic beard, there may be no one man in American history more important to the world of facial hair fashion than Ambrose Burnside. Ambrose was quite bold in his whisker-wearing efforts, sporting a mutton chop look for most of his life. As the years went on, Ambrose’s sideburns continued growing and growing, to the point that eventually they seemed to take on a life all their own. The massive mutton chops on Ambrose’s face were eventually coined “sideburns”—which of course is actually a scrambled-up version of Burnside’s name!
Beyond his revolutionary sideburns, history buffs also know Ambrose Burnside through his somewhat lackluster performance in the Civil War. He had his fair share of wins and losses alike, but his time spent as Union Army General is only a fraction of all he accomplished in his life. Among other things, Burnside spent time as a soldier, railroad executive, inventor, industrialist, and politician.
While Ambrose and Lincoln were involved with the war for unity and equality on the battlefield, Frederick Douglass took part in the battle for freedom—and his own life—on a different sort of frontlines. After years of living as a slave in the American South, Douglass managed to escape to Massachusetts, where he headed up the abolitionist movement. Douglass made his name as an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. In time, he became one of the most integral voices speaking out in favor of the rights of African Americans, women, Native Americans, and immigrants.
You can tell at a glance that Fredrick Douglass was a no-nonsense type of guy. He sought to proclaim a powerful message, and he had powerful facial hair to match. Douglass wore a two-toned full beard throughout most of his career as a public figure. His look became something of a symbol to showcase his fiercely defiant streak, as well as the many years of hard work, trials, and tribulations he had experience. Much like the man himself, it was a truly striking beard.
Not all the great beards of American history involved fighting to ensure the nation’s peoples could enjoy the beauty of freedom. John Muir fought to save the beauty of America herself, preserving the land and soil—and he did it all while wearing a beard as majestic as those purple mountains we sing about. Like the mighty Mississippi River, Muir’s facial hair flowed long and free, reaching halfway down his chest in his later years. Muir’s approach to wearing whiskers reflected his love for nature, which he preferred to see stretching across the land in all its untamed glory.
Jon Muir worked as a naturalist, an author, an environmental philosopher, a glaciologist, and an advocate for the preservation of America’s wilderness. His many essays and books moved millions to realize the importance of the land around them and helped inspire them to take on the critical task of preserving it. His efforts to help the “beautiful” in “America the beautiful” ultimately led to the U.S. Congress passing a bill in 1890 to officially establish one of the world’s greatest nature preserves in Yosemite National Park.
Much as the efforts of Lincoln, Burnside, and Douglas shared common threads, so too did John Muir and Ansel Adams work in similar circles. Like Muir, Adams also felt it was important to preserve our lands. Adams took part in grassroots efforts, but his preferred medium was landscape photography. His work to capture and preserve the nation’s splendor on film was so far-reaching that the U.S. Department of the Interior used his work for their official photographs of our national parks. This, in turn, led to President Jimmy Carter awarding Adams with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 to recognize the ways his work had helped bolster the National Park system.
Though Adams himself didn’t much like being the focus of photography, the few pictures he did appear in demonstrate that he had a beard worthy of being chronicled in history. Ansel most often wore a short boxed beard, which never looked out of place. It had a sharp, framed appearance, making it clear that Adams paid as much attention to his facial hair as he did his photographs. When you’re taking some of the most important photos of America in history, you have to make sure your beard doesn’t fly up into the frame.
There have been many other men throughout American history who have done great things while wearing great beards. Which beards of American history do you nominate as being feature-worthy?