Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Celebration of Facial Hair in the Legislature

Anyone who has been on a library tour I've given in the last four years will know that one of my favorite library collections is Photograph 361, which contains approximately 3,000 images of state legislators from 1855 through 1908. While my love for old photographs plays a part in my devotion to this collection, the anthropological study of facial hair trends presented in this collection is really the draw for me.

Changes in facial hair styles have a long history, and until recently were primarily guided by the ruling monarch or clergy, some even specifying in law or edict which class of men should shave and which should grow their beards. The last true heyday of facial hair in the United States occurred in the last half of the 19th century when, heavily influenced by European trends, men grew all styles of moustaches, sideburns and beards. In fact, from Abraham Lincoln's presidency (1861 - 1865) through Grover Cleveland's second term (1893 - 1897) only one President lacked some form of facial hair: the clean-shaven Andrew Johnson.

Members of the Massachusetts legislature did not escape these trends. For example, in the 1880 House of Representatives photograph album, 230 of the 244 representatives pictured wear some sort of facial hair! The diversity of styles worn is truly amazing and I highly recommend visiting the Special Collections department to look through these albums.

As shaving technology advanced (led by Massachusetts-based King C. Gillette) beards began to fall out of fashion. By the early 1900s a safety razor with disposable blade made it easier, safer and less expensive for men to shave regularly. The impact of this technology can be seen in the 1915 volume of Who's Who in State Politics. When facial hair is present, it is predominantly relegated to a well-trimmed moustache. Very dapper, but quite the contrast to the free-wheelin' 1880s styles.

Today there is a resurgence of men growing full and intricate moustaches and beards. With the second annual National Championships of Beard Team USA set for this weekend in Lancaster, Pennsylvania I thought it appropriate to comb our digital collection for a few fine examples of beards and moustaches from the past. Please click over to the State Library's newest Flickr set, "A Celebration of Facial Hair Trends in the Legislature" to see some amazing styles and learn a bit about the men who wore them so elegantly.

- Lacy Stoneburner, Preservation Librarian