A President’s Day History Lesson By Way of Abraham Lincoln’s Awesomely Bad Hair

In honor of President’s Day, The Retro Set brings you something a little bit … different. Editor Carley Johnson is a major American History buff nerd, and has a thing or two to say about one of the more important legacies of our Commanders-in-Chief: Their Coiffures. 

So, there’s this obsession with the 16th president of the United States that I’ve had pretty much all my life. It hit me, all of a sudden, early in the 7th grade when for no reason at all I found myself crying because I was assigned to cover Franklin Pierce for our presidential reports instead of Lincoln. Our teacher assigned the presidents in alphabetical order and my surname came just two letters shy of “L”. And so the fate of Mr. Lincoln’s five page double-spaced, Times New Roman report was destined for a classmate who, bless his heart, was under the impression that every sentence ought to begin with a pronoun. (And, judging by his Facebook profile, this still appears to be the case. Not that I stalk old classmates on Facebook. Ever.)

Somewhere in my research that fall semester—oh those darling days of Dewey Decimal System deliciousness (and by the way, Melvil Dewey WAS delicious) the only real achievement I could assess from this Pierce character was that he was, perhaps, our most handsome president. Aside from JFK, of course, and the young Teddy Roo (you nauuughty boy).

The thing is, Mr. Pierce appears to have had terrific sense of fashion, and was probably the father of the artful tousled lock, which every hipster today should doff his bespoke fedora to.  I mean, wow. Just check out his cascading flow of follicle fantastical-ness. This portrait IS a 19th Century Pantene Pro-V commercial:


His Excellency, The 14th President of the United State of America and The President of Perfectly Tousled Hair. (And a Perfectly Fucked Nation.)

Mr. Pierce was the first commander-in-chief to display a Christmas Tree in the White House, had Central Heating installed, saw to hot AND cold running water,and, my personal favorite, the unsubstantiated but highly rumored incident of Pierce running over an old woman with his horse. President Pierce was, of course not charged since the old lady was relatively unharmed. But still, that’s gotta be right up there with Mr. Dick Chaney’s hunting exploits. (The exploits of which, are in fact, second only to Lincoln’s second-term Vice President Andrew Johnson who showed up shitfaced on inauguration day. Literally showed up soused out of his senses, swearing his oath on the Bible saying “I kiss this in the face of the United States of America!” A whooooooole other blog post.)

I don’t wish to be unkind to Pierce because, well, he sure was purty. And the guy did have a miserable time in the White House and, in fact, it would have been a miserable presidency for anyone. America was a thick, ugly cauldron of contention with fiercely competing ideologies, and it required a clear-eyed leader who could sense the need for big-picture change, and execute it. (Hmmm. Seems things haven’t changed much in the past 150 years after all…)

Far from being a natural born leader, Mr. Pierce simply wanted to please everyone. Which of course resulted in displeasing everyone. His misguided domestic policies did not help.

In 1854, when the issue of slavery was THE issue threatening to rip apart the South from the North, Mr. Pierce passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Pierce decided to take the approach of ‘Yeah, so I know there’s this rule that’s been working out pretty well for all of us about not allowing slavery to spread north of this line on the map here … but … you know what? Kansas and Nebraska rock. They’re, like, all about cornhuskers and tornadoes and the fact their territories are actually north of that line, really doesn’t matter: let ‘em decide for themselves if they want slavery or not.  I mean, we’re all cool with slavery, right? Right?”


Solidarity, guys. Solidarity.

To be fair, that’s not actually the way it happened. The Act itself was initially, with sad irony, all about progress: the Act would make it possible to settle thousands of acres of new farming land (kudos there, obviously, for the economy) and also made the idea of a Transcontinental Railroad a sudden reality (kudos there, too). And so, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas (pretty snazzy hair–like a well-groomed Beethoven) lobbied to make all that gorgeous, virgin land available to eager settlers and the future of transcontinental travel possible by drafting a piece of legislation that would turn Nebraska into a U.S. territory. And, to appease the ruffled Southerners, Douglas offered the state of Kansas upon the sacrificial altar. Kansas was protected, as it had been since 1820, under the Missouri Compromise which had been set in place to ban the spread of slavery to Western territories. And… the Compromise had kinda sorta worked for about 30 years, acting like a band-aid on a head wound, but quelling Civil War. Until the band-aid was ripped off, and Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act killed that delicate Compromise by allowing Kansas to decide for itself whether or not it could allow slavery.

Douglas’ argument was what he called the right of “popular sovereignty”.

What’s wrong with that?  I mean, on paper, “popular sovereignty” sounds pretty awesome. Power to the People, right? That’s what democracy is all about!

Not so fast. What this decision meant is that Kansas was once again back in the slave game simply because popular opinion of the moment would dictate law. And the popular opinion of the moment was fueled by the greedy southern slaveholders who were frothing at the mouth to snatch up all of that virgin land.

President Pierce passed the bill.

The North. Was. Pissed.

Turns out, Thomas Jefferson (not so great hair, but that’s OK coz it’s Thomas Jefferson for chrissakes– the guy who not only drafted the Declaration of Independence, but cut the budget AND nixed tax on whiskey. Hell yeah.) was right when he prophesied in 1820 that drawing a line down the center of the country dividing slave states from the free, would destroy the union.

I know this post is supposed to be about awesomely good/bad hair, not 19th century politics, so I’ll begin my roundabout way of getting back to the subject:

The Kansas-Nebraska Act also pissed off a roughneck former Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln saw through the whole damn thing and stated the obvious: invoking popular sovereignty would nationalize slavery. Four years later, Lincoln would go mano-a-mano with Senator Douglas in a legendary series of debates on the issue of slavery during a furious and highly publicized battle for the Illinois Senate. Lincoln would loose. But his speeches (including a little one about a house divided not being able to stand) with their straightforward logic and beautiful rhetoric, would do much to help win him the Presidency two years later.

In that span of four years after Pierce left the White House, the roiling contentions were only exacerbated by a man that made Pierce look like General George Washington. In James Buchanan we got an ineffectual president whose approach to running the country seemed to take its cue from an episode of the I.T. Crowd:


(If you don’t get the reference, shame on you. Also, note Richard Ayoade‘s Really Great, Awesomely Bad Hair)

Mr. Buchanan not only lacked leadership of any kind, but also hair of any interest, so… back to Mr. Lincoln.

The Republican Party was borne out of the North’s intense disgust with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, as well as the complete disintegration of the Whig Party, and nominated as its first candidate for the presidency that backwoods lawyer who’d lost to Douglas, but won much allegiance from a crucial cross-section of politicians and civilians. Lincoln was not an Abolitionist (thereby somewhat appeasing the Conservatives), but he was also a moderate conservative (thereby somewhat appeasing the Abolitionists– although, really, not at all. At least, not for another two years.) The Republican Party rallied to elect him (an electoral win, not a popular win) with the unspoken understanding among his more refined and respectable “backers” that this joke of a President-elect was nothing more than a political pawn to do the party’s bidding.

And, really, it’s not rocket science to see why they viewed Lincoln as something of a stoolie. This was the single most ungraceful-looking, roughnecked figure to ever enter the White House and the newspapers, North and South alike, had a dream of a field day lampooning him. The London Times‘ descriptions were particularly hostile. (Then again, England would’ve been pretty darn pleased to see the Union fail only 80 years after its break from them…oh, and its dependence on Southern cotton certainly didn’t help.)

Among the more … disturbing of political satires (and even a cursory search for these will make you shake your head in wonder) is this one, a cartoon designed to support Senator Douglas in the presidential election of 1860, in which Douglas and Lincoln are depicted in a boxing ring with Douglas having Lincoln in a choke hold:


What’s so unbearably hilarious about this, aside from Mr. Douglas’ super svelte boxing skivvies, is the ridiculous visual image of the 5’4 Douglas chokeholding the 6’4 Lincoln. Who, by the way, used to wrestle. See, no offense to Mr. Douglas–and this is far from the purpose of the political cartoon, yes, I know, thanks–but I’ve got my money behind Mr. Lincoln in a bar brawl. Not that he’d ever be in a bar brawl since Mr. Lincoln didn’t drink.

And it was damn good thing he didn’t. Coz … this totally happened. SOBER:


Young Abe Lincoln teaching a lesson to a member of the local “Clary Boys” gang in Illinois. Gotta say, I quite enjoy the idea of a president that can kick ass. Like, literally.

But, all joking aside, for all their ‘rivalry’, the two men respected each other tremendously and upon Lincoln’s election Douglas became an immediate ally and active campaigner for his former rival.  (Oh yeah, and Lincoln totally married Douglas’ former girlfriend, Mary Todd. Oh, the things they don’t, but should, teach you in school.) But, Douglas died from typhoid fever only one year into the Lincoln Administration.

Unlike his refined predecessors, Lincoln’s unpolished outward appearance made even ol’ Marty Van Buren look something of a dandy. The President-elect hadn’t any illusions about himself, and it is truly ironic that he would become the most photographed man of the 19th century– certainly one of the first “celebrities”, at least in our basic understanding of the word. Mass media, by the 1860s, had yet to really emerge but the foundations were certainly there: photographs, telegraphs, and of course, the almighty newspaper made information available on a mass scale and with surprising speed. The Civil War would the be the first “modern” war, the first to ever be visually documented, and this shy-faced backwoods lawyer arrived on the world scene at precisely the moment that society had its first exposure to the marriage of mass information and mass visuals.

Photography in the 19th century was far from our arm-extended iPhone snap; this particular visual art required an appointment, a journey to the photographer’s studio, a sit-down session, and a helluva lot of patience given the fact that shutter speeds were so painfully slow. A little over 170 known photos of Lincoln are known to exist. Considering that the mid 19th century was a time when an average citizen was fortunate to have even one photograph taken, this is truly an astonishing number.

What I love about this unlikely pairing of revolutionary mass media and subject, is that the subject did not possess the sort of vanity that subsequent presidents, to some extent, had to.*

(*Of whom, I wholly acknowledge the omission here of the following: Rutherford B. Hayes (who was super hot in his 20s, but by his presidency seemed to no longer have a mouth…I assume he communicated telepathically); William McKinkley (or, rather, Dracula); Taft (who got stuck in a bathtub); and Woodrow Wilson (whose teeth freak me the hell out)

Remember well the words of Doc Brown: “No wonder your President [Ronald Reagan] is an actor, he has to look good on television!”

Even devoted Lincoln historians will admit their doubt that the great man would ever be elected to the Presidency today on the simple basis of the fact that he ‘didn’t have the voice or the looks.’ Remember why Kennedy won the televised debates over Nixon…?! Yeah. Me too.

And so does that chick in the polka dot bikini:


John F. Kennedy taking a swim at Santa Monica Beach, 1960.

And… this gal:


Marilyn Monroe with RFK (left) and JFK (right), May 19, 1962.

Who loved this guy:


Marilyn Monroe posing with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. “My father is Abraham Lincoln,” said Monroe. “I think of [him] as my father. He was a wise and good man.”

JFK, by the way? FANTASTIC hair.

Obviously, when Lincoln took office, he seemed not have got the memo about the importance of presidential polish. What he possessed, without peer, in speech, deed, and thought, he was almost altogether lacking in … shall we say … deportment.

And. There was his hair.

His impossible, wild, crazy, Kentucky/Indiana/Illinois hair that took one look at a comb, belly-laughed, and, if Lincoln had used profanity (which he didn’t), would’ve said “F-You!” Which is totally what happened 9 times out of 10. His wife Mary Todd (Who by the way had GREAT hair, and terrific fashion sense. If only she hadn’t been crazy) was constantly on his case about it and, on the occasions when Lincoln’s hair does behave itself according to the Franklin Pierce-esque conventions of the day it is certainly due to Mary’s insistence, a determined barber, a fussy photographer’s assistant, or all of the above:


I’m all for presidential polish (Oh Obama, you handsome devil you) but I much prefer the f-you-comb approach. It remains incredibly modern, sometimes even freshly so (see the last photo in this entry) and provides a glimpse into the character of this unconventional man even when his determined ‘portrait/poker’ face does not.  While Franklin Pierce perfected the tousled lock look for all future time, and most presidents before and since appeared to stick to a certain ‘style’, Mr. Lincoln was always a wild card. There is a palpable “Just take my picture already, I’ve got waaaaaaay more important things to do” undercurrent in many of his photographs and, even when they are flattering, there is often a hint of discomfort.

Mr. Lincoln’s self-consciousness about his unusual appearance is a matter of record; but even when the camera hated it him (at least, in Lincoln’s eyes) it actually totally loved him. It has been recently assessed that, when in properly skilled hands, early daguerreotype photography possessed a startlingly high degree of resolution (Wired magazine’s demonstration of this clarity will blow your mind, give it a look) and Lincoln, who became the first widely photographed “celebrity”, for lack of a better word, had the most skilled photographers of his day clamoring to photograph him. The technology served him well, as his face was made for the medium, and the pioneering photographers Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, among others, captured every fold and wrinkle of his famously weathered features, with often fascinating results. Especially… when it came to that man’s impossible hair.

Of course, most of the portraits are far from perfect, which is certainly appropriate given the fact Lincoln was such an imperfect, deeply conflicted man. History nerds like me (and, hopefully, you the reader) 150 years later, love Mr. Lincoln for enduring the agony of these sittings because the remarkable portraits provide a most fascinating window into a most fascinating man.

So I guess the point of this whole thing, at the end of the day, is that good hair really doesn’t account for shit. But … hair that is a direct symbol of who you are as a person, your beliefs, your demons … now we’re talking.

Enjoy the photos below as I’m sure you’ll find that Mr. Lincoln, no matter your personal opinions on his policy or his legacy, was exposed with striking clarity…thanks to, of all goddamned things, his hair.


This photo is a lot of fun. Lincoln’s hair is, in a word, a disaster. Photographed in 1857, one year before his famous debates with Senator Douglas, Lincoln was then successful in his Illinois law practice, but the restlessness in him was making him consider a return to politics. Lincoln liked this photo, but his wife–big surprise–didn’t. “My impression is that their objection arises from the disordered condition of [my] hair.” Supposedly, this disheveling was Lincoln’s own doing, telling the photographer that his friends wouldn’t recognize him any other way. The hint of a smile at the corner of his lips suggest that Lincoln was indeed in on the gag.


Then there’s Lincoln’s whole Morrissey phase. The best men of our generation had one, Mr. Lincoln, there’s no shame in this.


Actually, the hair is extremely silky smooth in this shot … so silky I suspect the photographer of 19th Century Photoshopping! (Yes, they totally altered photos back then.) The reason for this photo’s inclusion is due to the fact that Mr. Lincoln’s beard that seems to have grown a wee bit wild. Also, the photographer has shot him very close and on an extreme left angle; an interesting portrait choice since photographers well knew that Lincoln’s right side was his “good” side. His left is decidedly sinister and… he definitely looks super fierce. You’ll notice he seems a completely different person altogether in the photo below:


In 1860, the year of this photo, Lincoln not only became the President-Elect, but was undisputed Master of the Up-do. Now, I don’t know much about hair pomade of the 19th Century (other than the fact that BEAR FAT was an ingredient, enough to make my vegetarian soul gnash its teeth) but whatever Mr. Lincoln is using to achieve this particularly awesome wave of rebelliousness I wholeheartedly endorse. Except for the bear fat thing.


One of the last photographs of Mr. Lincoln, taken by Mr. Alexander Gardner. Hair care is the last thing on his very weary mind as evidenced by his painfully careworn face. It’s almost impossible to recognize this face from the photograph above– although only 5 years separate them from each other. One truly cannot imagine the stress.


I’ve read *this* is the actual last photograph ever taken of Mr. Lincoln, alive, but could do with some verification. Again, he is much too tired and much too busy to care about photographs; the hair probably hasn’t had a good brush all day. (Or, it simply may have been windy. Who knows.) Lincoln’s expression is so dark and disturbing that it’s worth discussion; quite a shocking disposition considering the fact he’d just saved his Union. Then again, not so shocking. Lincoln struggled with “melancholy” his entire life– that is to say, clinical depression. 5 years earlier, on the verge of winning the Republican nomination for the presidency, the Republican Convention in Decatur received Lincoln with such thunderous enthusiasm, the awning that was hung above the stage collapsed. It should have been the happiest moment of his life. Observers, however, noted the darkness of his countenance. He looked far from pleased, “the worst plagued man I ever saw,” said one, and when happened upon the next day by a friend, Lincoln was sitting alone with hands buried in his face. Said he to the friend:”I am not very well.” This, I believe, is the closest we’ll ever come to knowing what Lincoln’s desperate melancholy looked like.


I know this is a totally inappropriate reference, but, c’mon: Mr. Lincoln’s do is totally channelingThere’s Something About Mary and you know it! Also … he pretty darn handsome in this photo. Perhaps this is the appearance that would have more impressed his early critics. Even with the cray-cray hair. (The eyes, ladies, fyi: are gray.)


Eat your heart out, hipsters. Totally badass, right? Not the kinda guy you wanna mess with. Like, at all. This is an extremely powerful portrait; It’s very close, there’s a helluva lot of energy going on in that expression, the facial hair is dramatic and the president has allowed his hair grow well past his ears. In fact, I think the only other president to pull off the hair over ears thing was Jimmy Carter…


Yup. Carter.

And maaaaayyybe Washington?

George Washington, unfinished portrait, Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828 American), portrait, portrait, Stuart, Stuart, gilbert Stuart, gilbert Stuart, George Washington, George Washington, President, President, American history, American history, Washington, Wa
But definitely good ol’ Marty Van Beeb.





(That’s right, I gave Martin Van Buren a Hip Hop handle. Carter’s is Jay-C. Deal with it.)


And, finally, in this writer’s opinion, the best portrait of any U.S. president ever in the history of everything. What’s cooler than a president saving his country? A president doing it while listening to The Ramones. Seriously, how punk-ass awesome is this man’s hair?  According to history, the spikey up-do was Lincoln’s doing when he came to this 1864 sitting, owing to the fact that he had an appointment directly after to have a life mask taken.

I don’t believe an ‘edgier’ photo of any of our presidents exists and welcome any evidence to the contrary.

I’m waiting…


Thought not.

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