Why did prominent politicians start shaving circa 1910 Onwards?
February 14, 2009 9:03 PM   Subscribe

What was the reason that the leaders of most western countries (such as America, Australia and the UK) stopped wearing facial hair from around 1910 onwards?

Curiosity got the the better of me today and I decided to try and find out when facial hair on a President or Prime Minister stopped being the norm.

What I found was that in America, the last President to sport any kind of facial hair was William Taft, President from 1909 to 1913. From then on, every President is clean shaven.

In the UK it's a little more difficult. The last British Prime Minister with any facial hair was Harold MacMillian who was PM between 1957 and 1963, but before him there had been a string of Prime Ministers who had no facial hair at all. But interestingly in 1908, around the same time as Taft was starting his stint as POTUSA, the first British Prime Minister to break the streak of a long line of bearded British PMs, Herbert Henry Asquith, was elected, replacing the mustachioed Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

And here in my native Australia, the last Prime Minister to sport any facial hair was Billy Hughes, who was in office from 1915 to 1923.

So basically, from as early as 1908 but as late as 1923, facial hair on our political leaders became unfashionable. My question is why? What was the social or political reasons that started to compel politicians to shave off the giant beard or the cookie dusters and go clean shaven? I know that the old adage in politics is that "facial hair means you have something to hide" but was politics really that cynical as far back as 1908? I doubt it somehow.

Now I'm super curious. Does anyone know what the impetus for this change was? Was it something to do with World War I? A desire to modernize as the world left the 1800s behind? Did facial hair simply fall out of fashion in general? Any ideas? Bonus points for something qualitative.
posted by Effigy2000 to Law & Government (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A general chance in social norms whereby mustaches / beards started to symbolize something different to what they used to maybe, I don't know. I don't think there was some sort of really big anti facial hair on country leaders movement. But if there was, I would be very keen to read about it.
posted by atmosphere at 9:17 PM on February 14, 2009

Besides just general changes in styles ... the rise of photography and modern media made it capable for everyone, even the poorest of folks, to see what their leaders really looked like. Prior to around the 1860s, it was rare to see politicians except in paintings and illustrations. Good, clean photographs didn't start showing up in newspapers until the 1880s.

Also, the modern U.S. military started banning beards around the time in question to ensure good seals on modern equipment, such as standardized helmets and, more to the point, gas masks.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:33 PM on February 14, 2009

I have heard that beards became unpopular because of various hygiene and Clean Living movements that became popular in the late Victorian era, and that beards became considered not very sanitary.

Wikipedia (here) mentions something about doughboys in WW1 having to shave their beards to better fit their gas masks and because of lice.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:42 PM on February 14, 2009

The first thing that comes to mind is that shaving is much easier now. In the past it involved a straight ravor, creams, a steady handy, time, etc. Now we just use a can of shaving gel and a disposable razor. The process takes a fraction of the time and the chances for a deep cut are very slim. Now, ironically, its more of a PITA to maintain a mini head of hair on your face.

Lastly, there's probably some sort of alpha male statement about not being forced to spend a lot of time grooming oneself. Maintaining a beard takes time and effort. I wouldnt be surprised if voters saw a man who spent a lot of time grooming as effeminate thus hurting his chances to win office.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:55 PM on February 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

A Hungarian friend of mine sitting here just opined that perhaps it was a reaction against the very facially-endowed members of the Hapsburgs and WWI Germans, against whom the UK, USA and France were allied. But upon further reflection, those folks pretty much starting shaving after WWI too. Hmm. It's interesting also that the two most murderous leaders in the Western world after WWI - Hitler and Stalin - were among the very few world leaders past 1930 to wear facial hair. Throw Japan's Emperor Hirohito in there, and I can see why mustaches (at least) had bad associations.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:38 AM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't forget that prior to Wilson, it wasn't a straight line of presidents without facial hair. You might say that politicians and facial hear, at least in America, was actually non-conventional.

Until Abraham Lincoln, American presidents did not have facial hair (he grew his famously after the suggestion of a little girl). One of the key turning points for beardage in America was the Civil War. When the war arrived, a lot of officers appeared to have simply decided it was too much of a hassle to shave every day and thus, allowed beards to grow. If you look at pre-war pictures of many of our famous generals, many of them at most had a mustache or were completely unshaven. For example, here's a before and after picture of Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

It was the generation of politicians who then retained their facial hear as they went back into politics after the war, and influenced the generation following them (Roosevelt/Taft). Why Western politicians moved away from facial hear in the 20th century is a curious question, but it might be thought as coming from a perspective that it was essentially a return to the norm. Perhaps it was a generational aspect, in effect, in addition to other factors (vaguely similar to the 60's movement to grow facial hair in contrast to the accepted norm).

In recent times, there's the belief that somehow beards and mustaches make people less willing to trust the wearer. Supposedly, the man who lost to Harry Truman in the presidential election, Dewey, lost in part of his refusal to shave off his mustache against the advice of his advisers (this could just be a political myth).
posted by Atreides at 9:02 AM on February 15, 2009

Don't forget that prior to Wilson, it wasn't a straight line of presidents without facial hair. You might say that politicians and facial hear, at least in America, was actually non-conventional. - Me

Blargh. "..it wasn't a straight line of presidents WITH facial hair."

And, "....politicians and facial hair..."

I can write and spell. I swear!
posted by Atreides at 9:04 AM on February 15, 2009

These things go in and out of fashion; I don't think it's possible to assign reasons. In this particular case, it's possible that facial hair carried associations with the boring, washed-up nineteenth century everyone was trying to get over, but there's no way to know for sure.
posted by languagehat at 9:09 AM on February 15, 2009

I was going to say women's suffrage had a lot to do with it:

The self-governing colony of South Australia granted both universal suffrage and allowed women to stand for the colonial parliament in 1895.[8] The Commonwealth of Australia provided this for women in Federal elections from 1902 (except Aboriginal women). The first European country to introduce women's suffrage was the Grand Duchy of Finland. The administrative reforms following the 1905 uprising granted Finnish women the right both to vote (universal and equal suffrage) and to stand for election in 1906. The world's first female members of parliament were also in Finland, when on 1907, 19 women took up their places in the Parliament of Finland as a result of the 1907 parliamentary elections.

In the years before World War I, Norway (1913) and Denmark also gave women the vote, and it was extended throughout the remaining Australian states. Canada granted the right in 1918 (except in Quebec, where it was postponed until 1940), as did Soviet Russia. British women over 30 and all German and Polish women had the vote in 1918, Dutch women in 1919, and American women in states that had previously denied them suffrage were allowed the vote in 1920. Women in Turkey were granted voting rights in 1926. In 1928, suffrage was extended to all British women on the same terms as men, that is, for persons 21 years old and older. One of the most recent jurisdictions to grant women full equal voting rights was Bhutan in 2008.

The gas mask explanation seems to me to be a strong contender, however
posted by jamjam at 9:22 AM on February 15, 2009

Women's suffrage.
posted by jamjam at 9:24 AM on February 15, 2009

Best answer: You could try Allan Peterkins History of Facial Hair.

He ascribes it mostly to changing fashions. Facial hair has gone through several cycles. In the 1890's he credits the popularity of the beard to Edward VII. Then the declining popularity due to a few things: Once an upper class affectation, beards were now becoming middle class. And so Yeats and Wilde, among others publicly decried them. He also mentions the appearance of the Gillette blade in 1895 and the hygienic movement.
posted by vacapinta at 9:35 AM on February 15, 2009

Best answer: In 1901 Gillette developed the safety razor with disposable blades.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:36 AM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think vacapinta and Chocolate Pickle has the best answers so far: after the introduction of the Gillette safety razor, more men started shaving every day, including politicians.

(Anker Jørgensen, Danish prime minister 1972-83 and 1975-1982, had a short beard while in office. Czech president Vaclav Havel had a moustache while in office.)
posted by iviken at 9:59 AM on February 15, 2009

This is purely armchair speculation, but lots of the West's modern political adversaries--Kaiser Wilhelm 1, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky Marx, Castro, Che--had very memorable facial hair. Obviously Hitler killed the toothbrush mustache for nearly everyone, but while regular men can get away with a nice Che goatee, it would probably scream "crazy unkempt pinko infidel" to anyone operating in a high-profile political sphere.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:35 AM on February 15, 2009

Another reason beards in general fell out of favor was the Industrial Revolution, which prompted a mass migration from small guilds to large factories where many wage slaves labored under the eye of an overseer. Factories implemented strict hygienic protocols, which was partly due to the Clean Living act mentioned above, and partly because beards are a demarcation of fully-realized masculinity. Many sociologists suspect that ordering adult men to shave their beards was a way to emasculate and infantilize people who would have to answer to a handful of powerful superiors.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:53 AM on February 15, 2009

Response by poster: iviken: " I think vacapinta and Chocolate Pickle has the best answers so far."

Agreed! Thanks guys!
posted by Effigy2000 at 12:25 PM on February 15, 2009

Chocolate Pickle: "In 1901 Gillette developed the safety razor with disposable blades."

The spread of indoor plumbing and hot water heaters had something to do with it too. When the original owners of my house moved in in 1870 there was an outhouse in the back, a coal stove in the kitchen and no bathrooms in the house. By 1910 the house had a gas-fired hot water system and a bathroom. It's a lot easier to shave when hot water is available at the tap vs. having to heat water on a coal stove.
posted by octothorpe at 1:07 PM on February 15, 2009

Agree with the idea of fashion. At some point, politicians stopped wearing powdered wigs and knee breeches, too.

Clean shaven-ness is not universal. This survey from 2006 counted a fair number of US Congressmen with facial hair.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:16 AM on February 16, 2009

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