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Granite Geek: The 'Irrationality' of Facial Hair

Peter Biello
Portraits in the stairwell at Concord City Hall.

Look at portraits of the nation's leaders and you'll see a particular trend come and go over the years: facial hair. For decades facial hair is in, and then, suddenly, for decades more, it's out. But why? Granite Geek David Brooks recently noticed this pattern in the photographs of the mayors of Concord, which are displayed along several flights of stairs at City Hall, and he says a particular invention may have something to do with the trend. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

David, I mustache you a question.

Oh, mustache. You verbal people are too clever for us writers.

The question is: what is the invention?

The invention, of course, is the safety razor. For millennia, men have removed facial hair by scraping it with sharp objects, you know, clam shells, whatever. More recently it’s been the straight razor, a little tiny sword you run over your jugular vein and upper lip. And that’s not a very fun thing to do.

So men were happy to not do it and grow beards and mutton chops and moustaches that are bigger than most hedgerows.

And then the safety razor came along in the 1880s and 1890s, ways to take a sharp blade and enclose it so it wasn’t quite so dangerous. And it really kicked off right after the turn of the century. In 1901, King Gillette patented the disposable razor blade and after that it was easy to shave, and so you get shaved pictures.

Before 1900, virtually all of the Concord mayors had quite astonishing facial hair. After 1900, almost none of them do this—two out of the 25 after 1900 have facial hair.

And as went the mayors, so went the Presidents of the United States, right?

Exactly. You had all sorts of facial hair from Abe Lincoln on. Teddy Roosevelt and Taft were the last two that had any facial hair and since then, not only no presidents had any but no serious contenders for the office have had any. Can you think of a bearded person who has come here for the New Hampshire primary? Certainly not in my lifetime.

None come to mind for me. And I’m having trouble imagining JFK or Lyndon Johnson with a beard.

Johnson would look really weird.

Well, thank god for the razor. Although, there were long eras before the Gillette razor when politicians didn’t have facial hair and there was no safety razor to be had. Washington, Adams, Jefferson. In their paintings, they don’t have any facial hair. So what explains that? It sort of puts a hole in your theory.

Sort of puts a hole in my theory is one way to put it. I wanted a technical explanation for this pattern because that’s the kind of stuff I like. But when you look at it a little broader—so, the pictures of the mayors of Concord start in 1853 which is when the city was chartered and moustaches and beards were in full bloom, so when you look at the pictures, it looks all the same until the safety razor came along. But if you look at our presidents, before 1850, before Abe Lincoln, really, none of them had facial hair. Which means my technical explanation is not true and you have to go into that horrible morass of human behavior and sociology to attempt to explain it.

I’ll be perfectly honest: I have not been able to find anyone with a good explanation, aside from random habit and social patterns, which don’t make any sense at all, to explain why it was okay—necessary, in fact—for presidents to be clean-shaven for the first almost century of our existence, and then almost necessary for them to be bristling for another half century, and since then, they can’t.

So random events may have something to do with it, or random social occurrences, like: Karl Marx for example was not popular in the capitalist United States, so people avoided having facial hair that looked anything like his—maybe?

That was one idea I ran across. I mean, all of a sudden hipsters started wearing beards out of nowhere, right? Where did that come from? Who knows? So why can’t presidents be as irrational as hipsters?

Why not indeed? But ultimately, you couldn’t come up with a reason and concluded: beards are irrational.

Of course they’re irrational. Facial hair makes no sense at all. And I say that realizing that I have a moustache and you have sort of an in between facial hair thing that I don’t know what to call it.

It’s terrible. That’s why I work in radio.

It makes no sense at all. It’s like trying to explain what shoes look like. Why do they look the way they do? It’s just fashion. And if there is a rational explanation for it, it has eluded me.

Well, if any listener has a rational explanation for the “theory of beards”—leave a comment on our Facebook page.

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