Beards Throughout History: The Story Of Facial Hair

history of beards

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?

Mustache macro shot.

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

egyptian beards

Men in ancient Egyptian civilization developed a keen sense of style with beard growth, sometimes dyeing them various colors and even planting 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 somof those same civilizations to shave off a man’s beard for some kind of wrongdoing.

Roman influence

Caesar Augustus first emperor of Ancient Rome

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

Capture bb

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.

English influence

Queen Elizabeth the 1st - 16th century

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.

In Russia, Peter the Great, who had a powerful fascination with all things European, applied the same taxation of beards to Russian men of society to demonstrate his appreciation of Western culture.

19th and 20th centuries

man gas mask gun danger of war

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.

bb capture

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

arrows circle

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.

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About The Author

Domen Hrovatin
Domen Hrovatin

Domen—a self-confessed facial hair addict—is a grooming professional, style enthusiast, and someone with deep personal experience and knowledge about male pattern baldness. His work was mentioned in countless notable men's grooming and style publications, including Beardbrand and AskMen.

  • Fellow Red Beards here just finished reading your article history of beards. Although there was some great information in small doses throughout some history of beards, I feel that, me as the reader wanted a little more. I don’t know if you planned on keeping it short and sweet and to the point or what but i agree it needs more to touch me on a personal level. I don’t know if you are new to writing and it really is none of my business. I am glad you are writing and I do feel i will take something away from this. I hope you continue to work on your craft as I will do the same. I am nowhere near perfect myself and don’t want you to feel I was hating on your writing. As a man with a beard and having a passion for all things beards i enjoy reading others thoughts and ideas of anything and everything beard. So again, thank you very much sir and may you be blessed beyond your wildest dreams. Good day!

  • So beards came and went over the years- so we are told. But how was it the common man (peasant) could afford a shave? I don’t know about you but i have a hard enough time getting my knives sharp enough to shave arm hair let along dragging one of over my face (not that I want to, I rather enjoy my beard). It stands to reason that through out human history more men had beards than not, at least until the advent of reasonably priced razors, which is only recently the result of advanced metallurgy. What we should consider, and this is purely conjecture, is that the vast majority of input we have into ancient facial hair fashion was evidenced in sculpture and painting. And who was it who is generally depicted in those roman and renassaince art works- rich folk. The common guy (peasant) didn’t get a statue or portrait so we really don’t know what he looked like. I would imagine being clean shaven was a luxury few could afford and it was a lot of upkeep.

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