We resurrect this blog briefly to point you to this important survey at the Smithsonian’s website. Unfortunately, who had the best Civil War whiskers is not an interesting question for us. We are only impressed with outrageousness. And in that category, we must cast our vote for Major General Christopher C. Augur.
Tag Archives: 19th Century
Look at that luxurious neckbeard. A veritable lion’s mane.
Politician and newspaperman Horace Greeley (1811-1872) had a neckbeard that made him look something like a Sphinx. A butt-ugly Sphinx, that is. His head seemed to sprout from a collar of hair that hinted at a vast, luxurious coat of fur beneath his clothes. The suit and long-sleeved coat that he wore in all kinds of weather did not help to assuage the notion that his clothes hid something unspeakable.
Unlike Henry Thoreau (see previous post) Greeley had no lifestyle excuse for his atrocious facial hair. A brilliant journalist who edited the New York Tribune and helped establish modern journalistic standards, Greeley lived in New York and would have had ample exposure to the leaders in men’s fashion. Did his neckbeard help frighten away the wily street urchins that roamed the streets of New York City in those days? Did he have a wool allergy against which the hairy collar provided protection? Or did the beard simply help accentuate the degree to which he felt he had separated his intellect from the baser, animal instincts of his lower half?
The answers are lost in the sands of time. But we’ll give Greeley a fashion pass because of his admirable political views. A staunch abolitionist, he helped found the Liberal Republican party and ran on its ticket for president in 1872 against Ulysses S. Grant, whose administration had grown corrupt. He lost in a terrible landslide.
If only Greeley’s political party had had more longevity than his beard style, who knows where this country would be today?
The mid-19th Century saw the flourishing of the neckbeard, here pictured on American transcendalist writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). The neckbeard was the mullet of its day, in that it made the wearer ready for different – even contradictory – social occasions with one simple style. The hairstyle conveys both a fresh-faced business mien and the rugged manliness of a north-woodsman. For Throeau, who walked the line between polite society and an outdoor lifestyle, it was the perfect combination. It also kept chill New England gusts from entering the wearer’s collar.
An image of a whiskerless Thoreau from 1854 suggests his neckbeard may have also been designed to disguise a hideous wattle.
Thoreau was famous for his ugliness, and from an aesthetic perspective, his neckbeard may have been a way of shouting to the world: “I don’t give a fuck.” And it seems to have had the desired effect: According to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals, novelist Louisa May Alcott said that Thoreau’s facial hair “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.”