Like many other social customs, the history of beards and beard growth has been fascinatingly diverse, enjoying periods of widespread popularity and other times of relative disfavor. The popularity of growing facial hair in ancient times was much more attributable to its practicality than to any sense of fashion.
For primitive man, growing a beard meant keeping his face warm throughout the colder season, since the ancient malls did not yet stock ski masks.
Beards probably also served as an intimidating factor during conflict with other ancient males, presenting a fiercer aspect to one’s enemies. In that same vein, a blow to the face from an enemy would be considerably softened by luxurious facial hair growth, extending its combat appeal.
While the utility of beards may have diminished with the emergence of civilizations, their stylistic appeal then began to make a much deeper impression on men.
Before leaving the ancients altogether though, it is worth remembering that there’s still something to be said for absorbing a punch to the face in the modern world.
What makes a beard grow?
So just what are beards, and what makes them grow? Like all human hair, a beard is a non-living strand composed of a protein called keratin, and its growth is stimulated by biological signals from cells, blood, and nerves within the body.
The growth of a beard is subject to continuing cycles of growth, dormancy, and deterioration once a male reaches puberty. The increased testosterone levels beginning at that developmental phase stimulate beard growth, as well as other interesting biological processes.
While the rate of growth varies greatly among males, it can be influenced by such factors as diet, stress level, and regular follicle stimulation.
Beard growth in ancient civilizations
Men in ancient Egyptian civilization developed a keen sense of style with beard growth, sometimes dyeing them various colors and even plaiting them with gold threading. Obviously this was a hallmark of the more moneyed class, similar to ancient Mesopotamian civilizations where the well-to-do regularly oiled and dressed their beards, styling them in elaborate ringlets.
Men of ancient Greece adopted the same kind of care and presentation for their beards, while men of ancient India did less in the way of dressing and styling, but still grew their beards long to impress others as a symbol of their wisdom.
It is fair to say that throughout ancient times, beards were generally venerated and their owners respected; at the same time, it was a fairly common punishment in some of those same civilizations to shave off a man’s beard for some kind of wrongdoing.
The history of beards, contrary to the Roman Empire itself, experienced a fall and rise among peoples of the civilized world as a direct result of Roman influence. As the Roman Empire grew and expanded its boundaries, the popularity of beards waned, as most Romans became clean-shaven, following the practice of their Emperor.
Since the Roman influence extended to most of the known world, its effects on style and beard growth were also extended around the world. Ironically, this trend was reversed in later Roman times when an Emperor intentionally grew out a full beard to hide his facial scars. As a sign of allegiance and respect, many Roman citizens followed suit, and grew out their beards to full length as well, which practice then made the rounds throughout the Roman sphere of influence.
Middle Ages and beyond
During the Middle Ages, it again became commonplace for the upper classes to grow beards, and knights especially cultivated their facial hair as a sign of masculinity and honor. By the time of the Renaissance, however, the wind of change had blown in opposition to the growing of beards, and most men again became clean-shaven.
In the time of Henry VIII, the history of beards took on an economic twist when beards were declared to be a taxable offense, although Henry himself sported a full beard right up to the time of his death. Queen Elizabeth had a strong dislike of beards herself, and made it a point to continue beard taxation simply as an expression of her personal disfavor.
19th and 20th centuries
In the mid-19th century, the fickle pendulum of favor again swung toward beard growth, and many of the leading figures of the day adopted full beards as an expression of their power and leadership ability.
World leaders and notables like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick III of Germany, Napoleon III of France, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, and Giuseppe Verdi all helped popularize beards and serve as trend-setters for their adoring followers.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the wearing of beards slowly declined as a personal practice, partly in response to events that dominated the world at that time. In the throes of World War I, beard growth was banned among soldiers because it interfered with the proper fit of a gas mask around the face.
When the war ended, the clean-shaven practice did not, and soldiers carried home with them beardless faces, which stayed that way until after World War II.
Only a decade after the second world war, the beatnik generation appeared, and their adoption of beards as a sign of ‘hipness’ was continued by the hippie movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.
And then The Beatles came.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that once these four gods adopted facial hair in the late 1960’s, the wearing of beards reached its zenith of popularity, advanced powerfully by the most popular and culturally influential figures of the 20th century. Inevitably however, the band broke up, and so did the global prevalence of beards.
Following a slight decline in popularity, the history of beards then took another turn for the better, and beards today are enjoying renewed acceptance among celebrities and their followers, bringing that history full circle to present times.
Ebb and flow
From the above, it may be concluded that the alternating cycles of popularity throughout the history of beards are actually reminiscent in the macrocosm of the physiological growth of facial hair itself.
The adoption of beards by men of the world seems to move through periods of dormancy, then slight deterioration, and is eventually followed by a renewed surge to prominence. Mirroring the actual biological process, the history of beards could hardly be more fitting.