Editor's note: this is the first part in a story about beards on coins by Steve Roach. The story originally appeared in the May monthly issue of Coin World.
Beards are a statement and a symbol of masculinity, a vestigial trait from a time when humans had more hair on their bodies.
Cultural attitudes toward beards vary. Some religions such as Islam generally require males to grow a beard, and in the United States, men’s penchant for beards has come and gone.
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In ancient Egypt beards were sometimes adorned with gold thread and a metal false beard was used by kings and queens, such as on King Tutankhamen’s glorious gold mask; the false beard is seen even on children’s coffins. Queen Hatshepsut wore a false beard to make herself appear more pharaoh-like following the death of her husband, the Pharaoh Thutmose II.
In India a long beard has been a symbol of wisdom. Ancient Greeks viewed a beard as a sign of virility and beards moved in and out of fashion during the Roman Empire.
In the early 19th century United States beards were rarely seen on wealthy men, as it signified a certain lack of grooming and cleanliness, but as the century moved on, the beard grew in popularity.
Think of Abraham Lincoln. Today, the image that we have of him is with a beard, yet he adopted this late in life. Before him, no U.S. president regularly had a beard. Beards reemerged during the hippie movement in the 1960s and more recently a full beard has been popular with young men, and today there is a certain “lumbersexual” look — think plaid shirts, long beards and a general aura of outdoor ruggedness that is popular.
These trends have been reflected on coins through history and a sampling of beards on coins reveals a diverse topical collecting area that ties into history and social movements. How we perceive beards on a man needs to be put in a framework of time and place, and a beard is one of many tools a man has to present himself to the world.
Beards in the ancient world