Although we know them as impeccably clean-shaven today, it wasn’t always mandatory for our soldiers to be entirely smooth. In fact, since American Revolution, the standards the military imposed on its soldiers has changed drastically, mostly due to a lack of barbers and shaving tools during the 18th century. With Memorial Day quickly approaching, HOMMAGE looks back at a brief history of shaving in the American Armed Forces.
Boats and Bristles during the War of 1812
In the first 60-or-so years of the Navy, grooming regulations were pretty lax. Many sailors, despite having the option to wear longer beards, opted to keep their facial hair trimmed. But during the war of 1812 sideburns came into fashion and many sailors adopted muttonchops with enthusiasm. Sideburns even became a sort of trademark for many higher-ranked officers like Captain William Bainbridge, who’s facial hair was well known within the Navy. With the popularity of side-of-the-face facial hair, beards and moustaches took the back burner…that is, until the start of the Civil War in 1861.
Beards and Battalions during the Civil War
Finding any officer without a trace of facial hair during the American Civil War was a nearly impossible task. Beards, goatees, and moustaches were absolutely abundant, and soldiers and sailors adopted facial hair gladly. Even the Army, who had stricter grooming policies than the other branches of the Armed Forces until around 1801, sported a bevy of different facial hair styles during the Civil War. Of course, it was still expected for officers to keep their beards well groomed and taken care of, but there were some exceptions. Navy officers operating in colder climates, for example, often wore full, bushy beards for warmth, and those in submarines, with a (rather ironic) shortage of water, didn’t shave mostly out of necessity.
Clean Shaves in World War 1 and Beyond
Facial hair remained rather popular in the Armed Forces until World War 1 where chemical warfare was introduced. With this new development in combat, gas masks became an utter necessity. Masks needed to stay flush against the face and because beards could get in the way of that, regular shaving was written into the Army’s dress code policy. In fact, the new policy was so serious that soldiers were given razors in the GI kits so they could shave in the field and on the go. The Navy resisted the change for awhile longer than the Army did, but began adhering to a completely clean-shave policy in 1984.
Today, the policy to stay clean-shaven remains in all branches of the Armed Forces, but there are a few exceptions where policies are more relaxed.