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All the Ladies Like Whiskers

Posted by Josh Rothman  December 7, 2010 05:00 PM

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Everyone knows that there are two Abraham Lincolns, clean-shaven and bearded. Lincoln famously decided to grow a beard for the first time after his election in 1860, when a little girl wrote him a letter suggesting it. The fabulous blog Letters of Note has published the original letter, and Lincoln's reply, both with transcriptions. (The letter is kept at the Detroit Public Library.)


Lincoln in 1860, sans beard.

After her father came home with an election poster featuring Lincoln's beardless image, 11-year-old Grace Bedell wrote to Lincoln, telling him:

Let your whiskers grow . . . . You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.

Lincoln wrote Grace back, asking abut the whiskers: "having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?" But he obviously changed his mind. When Lincoln travelled by train to Washington, he stopped at her hometown of Westfield, NY, and asked the crowd at the station if Grace was there. According to the New York World,

There was a momentary commotion, in the midst of which an old man, struggling through the crowd, approached, leading his daughter, a girl of apparently twelve or thirteen years of age, whom he introduced to Mr. Lincoln as his Westfield correspondent. Mr. Lincoln stooped down and kissed the child, and talked with her for some minutes. Her advice had not been thrown away upon the rugged chieftain.

Lincoln, post-letter.

Grace later recalled:

He climbed down and sat down with me on the edge of the station platform. 'Gracie,' he said, 'look at my whiskers. I have been growing them for you.' Then he kissed me. I never saw him again.

As it turned out, Grace's letter influenced the course of history in another way, too. In 1860 Milton Bradley, a lithographer in Springfield, Mass., was making a living selling lithographs of a beardless Lincoln. When Lincoln grew a beard, his prints stopped selling. Bradley desperately needed new business - so he settled on printing a board game called The Game of Life.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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