28 April 2014

Abraham Lincoln didn't have a beard

He had whiskers - a distinction that has previously been lost on me - as explained at The Appendix.
Lincoln didn’t have a beard. He had whiskers—an enormously important distinction in mid-nineteenth century America. And second, Lincoln’s whiskers didn’t signify maturity, statesmanship, or gravitas, but rather urbanity: civilized, metropolitan grace...

What Lincoln’s facial hair was meant to convey becomes clearer when we consider the language that the president-elect and his contemporaries used to describe it. While we moderns presume to call Lincoln’s facial hair a beard—“the most famous beard in the history of the world,” according to The New York Times’ Adam Goodheart—Civil War-era Americans would have recognized the president-elect’s facial hair for what it was: a fine set of whiskers. In fact, a thorough search of a leading digital newspaper database reveals that between November 1860 and March 1861, only two of dozens of commentators used the word ‘beard’ to describe Lincoln’s appearance.
This was not coincidental. The words ‘beard’ and ‘whiskers’ connoted distinctive styles in mid-nineteenth century America—and contemporaries used the words differently than we do. The word ‘whiskers’ typically referred not only to bushy cheek growths—to massive sideburns and muttonchops, as it does in the present—but to what we would call a ‘wreath beard’ as well: to facial hair configurations that met beneath the jaw. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, described one fellow writer as having “[t]hick whiskers meeting under the chin,” and another whose “hair and whiskers are dark, the latter meeting voluminously beneath the chin.” One might even use the word whisker to refer to what we would call a moustache. Writer Edward L. Carey, for instance, referred to a character with a “whisker on [his] upper lip” in a story entitled “The Young Artist.”

‘Beards,’ on the other hand, were more unruly affairs. In an article in the American Phrenological Journal entitled “Wearing the Beard,” for instance, the anonymous F.W.E. instructed beard-wearers that, contrary to the practice of bewhiskered men, “Thou shalt not cut it off at all, but let it grow. Let it grow, all of it, as long as it will.” What often distinguished beards from whiskers, then, was neither facial real-estate nor the length of one’s hair—one might wear a short, untamed beard-in-the-making or a long, carefully-sculpted set of whiskers—but rather one’s relationship to the work of men’s grooming. Hairy men who continued to visit the barber, trim their mustaches, or wax their locks wore whiskers; men who let their facial hair grow unrestrained sported beards.
Much more, with illustrations, at The Appendix.


  1. "They're always in the way, the cows eat them for hay, my mother chews them in her sleep, she thinks she's eating shredded wheat. They're always in the way, they're always in the way, my daddy's great long whiskers, yes, they're always in the way.

    "And when my little sister has nothing more to do, she climbs up in my daddy's lap and listens to him chew..."

    That's all I remember of that song, taught to my mother by her mother.

    We do forget that language changes as society changes and that many words no longer mean what they used to mean. If you read much 18th or 19th century literature you will also find that many words are no longer used at all.

  2. "One might even use the word whisker to refer to what we would call a moustache."
    Interesting. I have never considered that whiskers in the context of a human could refer to anything other than a mustache and here the author seems to indicate that this is the most unlikely interpretation.

  3. We have a statue of Grace and Lincoln in the center of town, memorializing the moment when she told him to grow the whiskers... true story. We put scarves and hats on them in the winter.


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