Friday, November 20, 2015

Facial Hair and Fashion Can Help You Identify Photographs

Do you have a photograph at home but just can’t tell when it was taken? Have you looked at the clothes people in the photo were wearing and determined that they are too indistinct to nail down a specific decade? Is the only distinguishing feature on your male ancestor one glorious beard? Well, you’re in luck because you can narrow down time frame based on facial hair!

Example of a full beard and mustache. Wickliffe Weakley, c. 1890s, Cabinet Card Photograph Collection.

Facial hair, like fashion, goes in and out of style depending on social, economic, and religious trends. For instance, in the colonial period of American history through the early 1800s, men were most often clean-shaven. A clean, hairless face was associated with Puritan values, trustworthiness, and enlightenment (a beard hid the face and therefore did not promote an image of openness). However, by the mid-1800s beards were back! The Victorian era saw British military wearing mustaches, and men began to imitate the hair style for its military, masculine associations. Additionally, facial hair made a comeback among men who were exploring the wilderness and did not shave. Imitation of these frontiersmen meant linking yourself to concepts of rugged masculinity.

Perkins wears a chin curtain beard. Ray Perkins, 1899, Library Collection.

This is an example of a goatee with connecting mustache. Unidentified, c. 1870s, Carte de Visite Collection.

Several facial hair trends began during the U.S. Civil War. In the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln sported both the “chin curtain” (full beard, no mustache) and the goatee (beard only on chin, mustache optional). Many men began wearing of these beards to imitate the president. During the same time, Union Army general Ambrose Burnside popularized what became known as sideburns (hair on the sides of the face extending from the hairline to below the ears), which led to variation such as “muttonchops” (wide sideburns) and “side whiskers” (sideburns that hang below the jawline).

The officer wears “friendly muttonchops” that have extended into whiskers. “Friendly” because the muttonchops connect through a mustache. Unidentified army officer, c. 1872, Robert J. Gasper Collection.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the popularization of the handlebar mustache (the ends grown longer and often flared out). Beards became less desirable during the First World War, when soldiers needed to shave in order to have tight fitting gas masks. The masks, however, did not affect the wearing of mustaches. During the 1920s and 1930s, the “toothbrush” or “bottlebrush” mustache (narrow but tall, not exceeding the width of the nose) hit its peak popularity, but after World War II it fell out of style because of its association with Adolf Hitler. In the 1930s and 1940s, the “pencil” mustache (very thin, usually just above the upper lip) became popular because of its association with Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind. The goatee was re-popularized in the 1950s with the beatnik culture, and jazz and soul musicians.

This is an example of a handlebar mustache. Dr. George H. Price, 1890, Cabinet Card Photograph Collection.

Sgt. York wears a “toothbrush” or “bottlebrush” mustache. Sgt. Alvin C. York, 29 November, 1939, Dept. of Conservation Photograph Collection.

Mr. Strange wears a pencil mustache. Mr. Strange, bass singer with the concert singers of the TN Agricultural & Industrial Normal School in Nashville, 7 July 1939, Dept. of Conservation Photograph Collection.

As you date your ancestors’ photographs, keep in mind that facial hair trends were often cyclical: they were popular for a couple decades, fell out of fashion, and would often reappear at a later time. There were also individuals who kept one style most of their life, and others still who did not pay attention to trends, rather staying clean shaven or maintaining a full beard and mustache. Trends also depended on geography – a mountain man and a city slicker often favored different aspects of facial hair. Hopefully, this guide will help you figure out how your ancestor looked and when!

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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