While Canadians and Americans today expect to see soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen with closely clipped hair.
A lack of barbers in the American colonies in the 18th century meant that soldiers in the Continental Army usually had rather long hair, wrote Randy Steffen in the authoritative The Horse Soldier 1776-1943. Nonetheless, general orders published by commanders required male soldiers “to wear their hair short or plaited (braided) up.” But a Revolutionary-era soldier also had the option to wear his long hair “powdered and dried.”
Although hairstyle rules were relaxed when soldiers were on campaign, Continental Army personnel who did powder and tie their hair did so with a mixture of flour and tallow, a hard animal fat. This powdered hair was usually tied in a pigtail or “queue.”
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, cavalrymen preferred a “clubbed” hairstyle in which they gathered their hair at the back of the neck and tied it in a firm bundle, then folded it to the side before finally tying it again in a club. Mounted troopers liked the club because it was “likely to stay in place during the excitement and violent action of a mounted fight.”
In July 1805, the Army court-martialed Lt. Col. Thomas Butler, Jr., a 30-year Army veteran, who refused to cut his hair. A panel of officers found him “guilty of mutinous conduct in appearing publicly in command of troops with his hair queued.” The panel sentenced Butler to be suspended from command, without pay, for 12 months. This was a severe sentence, given Butler’s seniority and three decades of service. While Gen. Wilkinson ultimately approved the sentence, it was never carried out because (unbeknownst to Wilkinson) Butler had died a few days earlier (probably of yellow fever) with his queue still intact.
When it came to facial hair above the lip, the Army took a very different approach, at least in the years before the Civil War. From 1841 to 1857, regulations provided that “mustaches” or “moustaches” would not be worn by any soldiers except for those in cavalry regiments, “on any pretense whatsoever.”
By the Civil War, hairstyle standards had changed markedly, as senior officers in both the Army and the Navy wore beards and mustaches as a matter of course. While a beard could be worn “at the pleasure of the individual,” both services preferred that it be kept short and neatly trimmed. This preference, however, was very much in the eye of the beardholder. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had a somewhat neatly trimmed beard while Adm. Stephen B. Luce had a much more wild look.
World War I was the first conflict where barber shaving was required. There were two reasons: to get a proper fit and seal on the gas mask and personal hygiene. Beards were outlawed, and the maximum permitted hair length was one inch.
During World War II, the Army required soldiers to “keep your hair cut short and your fingernails clean,” and most men in both the Army and the Navy wore a medium-short tapered cut. But, while beards were officially outlawed, soldiers and Marines in sustained combat operations sometimes grew beards – if for no other reason than it was too hard to shave under fire. barber
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