As of press time, mustaches and beards seem to be enjoying a comeback of sorts as millions of millennials explore the feeling of manliness associated with the ability to grow facial hair. The trend, however, seems to evade the Oval Office: it’s been more than a century since a mustachioed man has occupied the White House. Although there’s an old Swedish proverb that says, “Wisdom is in the head, not in the beard” (plus the Latin phrase barba non facit philosophum, “a beard doesn’t make one a philosopher“), there’s something to be said about trusting a man capable of adorning his face with whiskers. A total of 12 commanders-in-chief sported some sort of facial hair while in office. Here are some of them:
Abraham Lincoln’s Chin Curtain
The story behind the beard of one of our greatest presidents is, according to Time Magazine, “super-cute.”
Grace Bedell was an innocent 11-year old from Westfield, NY when Abraham Lincoln was running for president in the fall of 1860. After seeing a picture of a beardless Lincoln she decided to put pen to paper and send him some much-needed fashion advice:
“I have yet got four brothers and part of them will vote for you anyway and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you, you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”
Honest Abe graciously answered the letter but didn’t seem to agree with Grace’s campaign strategy: “…As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a silly affection if I were to begin it now?”
Nevertheless, within a month he was photographed with a boyish goatee, which by next February had evolved into a full ‘chin curtain’. He even asked to meet his young fashion consultant in person when he passed through Westfield on his Inauguration route. ‘Gracie,’ he said, ‘look at my whiskers. I have been growing them for you’.
Perhaps young Grace didn’t change the face of the nation, but at least she changed the face of its leader, which indirectly affected millions of pennies, five-dollar bills, a mountain in South Dakota, a creepy animatronic figure in Disney World, and countless motivational images all over the 21st century internet.
William Howard Taft’s Magnificent Mustache
W.H. Taft was a great statesman, and by ‘great’ most people mean “fat.” The fact that he weighed more than 330 pounds often takes the spotlight away from his magnificent mustache, and by ‘magnificent’ most people mean ‘ridiculous’. Sadly, today we usually choose to focus more on the former president’s girth than on his facial hair, which has been absent from presidential faces ever since.
The ‘handlebar moustache’ got its name due to its resemblance to the handlebars of a bicycle and was very popular in in the early 20th century. Having lost some of its appeal with time, today its most famous exponents probably are two commercial characters: One is Mr. Monopoly, which Taft might resent, having been a staunch adversary of monopolies (and yes, by ‘staunch’ we mean to “rotund”). The other one is Julius Pringles, whose portly face is synonym with tasty, delicious chips (OK, no need for more insensitive fat jokes).
Theodore Roosevelt’s Strenuous ‘Stach
There’s no shortage of interest in the exploits and adventures of Teddy Roosevelt (like this HistoryBuff article), so here we will focus solely on his restless mustache. It’s not that much different than the one of the aforementioned William Howard Taft, whom he handpicked to be his successor for the 1908 election. But Teddy’s glasses and monocles make him appear somewhat classier-yet-rugged, achieving a perfect balance between two seemingly contradictory sides of his personality: the frontiersman thirsty for adventure and the thoughtful, Ivy League-educated bookworm who read a book a day, sometimes even more. When he died in 1919, Vice President Thomas R. Marshall (a fellow mustachioed politician) said “death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake there would have been a fight.” His face was later immortalized in stone at Mount Rushmore, where it stares manly and proudly into the horizon, as if it were a mirror on which to admire his ‘stach.
The Golden Age of Whiskers
When Ulysses S. Grant became the 18th president, the famous Civil War general started a trend at the White House that lasted almost thirty years. From his first year in office in 1869 to Grover Cleveland’s last in 1897, the Oval Office was exclusively occupied with men with all manner of facial hair (much to Grace Bedell’s delight, one would expect).
Ulysses S. Grant (’69-’77) had a full beard, then Rutherford B. Hayes (‘77-‘81) outdid him with an even longer one (the longest by a president). James Garfield, another full-bearded man, died (on a Monday, of course) from gun shot wounds inflicted just a few months after taking office. He was succeeded by Chester Arthur and his mutton chops (‘81-‘85), followed by Grover Cleveland’s first of his non-consecutive mustaches (’85-’89). Benjamin Harrison’s stately beard was the last one to be elected in American history. Cleveland’s mustache came back in 1893 but the streak came to a close when a clean-shaven William McKinley was sworn into office in March 1897. But surprisingly, a dastardly assassin inadvertently caused mustaches to come back into office by assassinating McKinley in 1901, which led to Teddy Roosevelt becoming the youngest American president ever at age 42.
Excluding the four years that McKinley was in office (1897-1901), the U.S. was governed solely by presidents with facial hair for a period that spanned over 40 years, from 1869 to 1912. William H. Taft was the last president with facial hair, and ever since ambitious politicians have shied away from growing any.
Thomas Dewey came close to joining this list but lost two consecutive elections in 1944 and 1948. Few people remember, though, that just before he dabbled in politics he was considered quite the gangbuster: as a prosecutor in New York City he went after organized crime and almost got “whacked” by Mafia boss Dutch Schultz because of this. Before this could happen Lucky Luciano intervened and arranged for Schultz to be killed to avoid mayhem. Dewey then turned his attention to Luciano himself and successfully apprehended him.
All images via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)