The story goes that in October of 1860, an 11-year old girl wrote to Abraham Lincoln, then the Republican nominee for President of the United States. Young Grace Bedell of Westfield, New York urged the clean-shaven Mr. Lincoln to "let your whiskers grow." Lincoln did so.
But he never wore a beard.
That's right. And your eyes aren't lying to you. That really is President Lincoln pictured above. But according to Sean Trainor, a doctoral student in history and women's studies at Penn State, Americans during Lincoln's time distinguished between the terms "whiskers" and "beards." Men who trimmed their facial hair had whiskers. Men who let their facial hair grow wild wore beards:
The words ‘beard’ and ‘whiskers’ connoted distinctive styles in mid-nineteenth century America—and contemporaries used the words differently than we do. The word ‘whiskers’ typically referred not only to bushy cheek growths—to massive sideburns and muttonchops, as it does in the present—but to what we would call a ‘wreath beard’ as well: to facial hair configurations that met beneath the jaw. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, described one fellow writer as having “[t]hick whiskers meeting under the chin,” and another whose “hair and whiskers are dark, the latter meeting voluminously beneath the chin.” One might even use the word whisker to refer to what we would call a moustache. Writer Edward L. Carey, for instance, referred to a character with a “whisker on [his] upper lip” in a story entitled “The Young Artist.”
‘Beards,’ on the other hand, were more unruly affairs. In an article in the American Phrenological Journal entitled “Wearing the Beard,” for instance, the anonymous F.W.E. instructed beard-wearers that, contrary to the practice of bewhiskered men, “Thou shalt not cut it off at all, but let it grow. Let it grow, all of it, as long as it will.” What often distinguished beards from whiskers, then, was neither facial real-estate nor the length of one’s hair—one might wear a short, untamed beard-in-the-making or a long, carefully-sculpted set of whiskers—but rather one’s relationship to the work of men’s grooming. Hairy men who continued to visit the barber, trim their mustaches, or wax their locks wore whiskers; men who let their facial hair grow unrestrained sported beards.
Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson (USA), however, sports a beard. And what a beard!