Today, whenever Americans are asked to describe soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, they instinctively think of a clean-shaven, immaculately groomed soldier with painfully short hair. In today’s Army and Marines, the famous “high and tight” haircut is de rigueur.
But our impression of a soldier is an extremely new development. In fact, it is only a century old!
During the American Civil War, beards were in! Union General Ambrose Burnside’s facial whiskers were so impressive that “sideburns” were actually named for him. A gathering of Army officers and soldiers looked like a Sasquatch family reunion — such iconic Civil War heroes as President Abraham Lincoln, and Generals U.S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson all sported impressive beards. In the West, such a fabled and dashing soldier as Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer grew a thick set of whiskers during his frequent and lengthy service in the field. In Europe, members of the British Army were actually required by Army regulations to grow a mustache, from 1860 to 1916.
All of that changed on the morning of April 22, 1915, when the Germans unleashed an attack by more than 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas against Allied forces near Ypres, Belgium. In response, both Allied and German forces rapidly developed Gas Masks to protect themselves against an ever growing array of poisonous and toxic gases that were dumped upon the World War I battlefields. To be effective, protective masks must seal tightly. Long mustaches, thick bushy beards and strings of tangled hair make that impossible. On Oct. 6, 1916, the British Army regulations were changed, and a fuzzy upper lip was no longer authorized. As soon as they deployed to France in 1917, the American Expeditionary Forces adopted the British army regulations.
From 1917 on, revised U.S. Army regulations have required short hair and drastically limited sideburns. Mustaches are permitted, but they must be trimmed within tight regulations. During World War I, General of the Armies John J. Pershing’s trademark mustache that he had worn nearly his entire life pushed the extreme bounds of his own regulations!
During World War I, this created a difficulty of staggering proportions to the rapidly expanding U.S. Army. Previously, shaving had been optional, and most men utilized a straight razor — a shaving piece of equipment that required considerable practice and patience to utilize, and the slightest error resulted in painful cuts and nicks. Now shaving was mandatory.
Fortunately, a traveling salesman and entrepreneur named King C. Gillette had invented a new device which he named a “safety razor” in 1901 — his new shaving equipment sported a handle and an easily replaced, disposable, thin double-edge blade. By 1904 he had patented the Safety Razor and formed the Gillette Safety Razor Company in Boston. With this invention, shaving was quite literally revolutionized.
To ensure that Uncle Sam’s doughboys were properly sheared, they had to be issued appropriate shaving equipment. Gillette filled the void with a shaving kit called “The Khaki Set” that contained a safety razor, a small mirror and extra double-edged blades. Before the war had ended, Gillette had manufactured an amazing 3.5 million of these shaving kits. In short order, shaving cream was invented, followed by the aerosol can of shaving cream and the electric razor, the safety razor was improved, and eventually cartridge blades and disposable razors made their appearance. In 1940, the U.S. Army introduced a helmet that could even double as a shaving basin in the field.
The U.S. Armed Forces have never again been the same!