Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Speaker Reed’s Movember Catfish

Thomas Brackett Reed/tiles/non-collection/1/11-18-reed-2005_016_032.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
John Singer Sargent’s 1891 portrait of Reed shows the Speaker’s mustache was not a prominent facial feature.
Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine celebrated Movember before it was cool.

After a four-year period of Democratic control, Reed arrived in Washington in November 1895 to retake the Speakership during the 54th Congress (1895–1897). Newspapers dutifully reported that the Republican leader sported two weeks of upper-lip growth. The Boston Daily Globe wrote that Reed’s mustache was a “trifle fuller than before and somewhat longer, with a downward curve that promises to give his smile more the general appearance of a sneer.”

The effect of Reed’s “noncommittal mustache” may have been intentional. One of the U.S. House’s great Speakers, he was known for his biting wit and sarcasm just as much as his political and parliamentary genius. In 1888, the Detroit Free Press called Reed a “satirist, and no members of the House ever like to try treading on his corns, for his rejoinders are prompt, pointed and peppery.”

John Singer Sargent’s 1891 portrait of Reed after his first stint as Speaker showed him with a wispy, walrus-like mustache—facial hair that Reed apparently guarded zealously. A story circulated that the Speaker pouted when he was described with a smooth face. “Confound it, a man has got to be as small as Wilson, of Washington, to have anybody notice he’s got a mustache,” he allegedly said referring to the mustachioed U.S. Senator, former House Member, and publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, John Lockwood Wilson.

Jonathan Dolliver Stereoview/tiles/non-collection/1/11-18-dolliver-2006_215_000pq.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Jonathan Dolliver of Iowa, who was a Reed ally during his time in the House, wore a luxurious mustache that illustrates a popular late 19th-century style.
By the start of the first session of the 54th Congress a month after his arrival in the capital, however, Reed was sans mustache. The Chicago Tribune said Reed had been “changed wonderfully by the loss of his mustache, for while that was not a prominent feature at any time, its departure seemed to make his face larger, higher, and broader.”

The shorn 'stache may have been a result of a practical joke ahead of the December 2, 1895, start of the new Congress. According to a 1902 retrospective of Reed’s greatest stories in the Chicago Tribune, the Speaker fell asleep in his barber’s chair only to awake and see a heavily pomaded mustache looking back at him in the mirror. Horrified, he then ordered the barber to cut it off by saying, “You’ve made me look like a catfish.” The Tribune reported that Reed never sported a mustache again.

Reed was again ahead of his time with his clean-shaven look, regardless of his reasons. According to one 1922 newspaper article, 22 percent of House Members had a mustache or beard. By 1963, a newspaper reported a mere four percent of the House wore mustaches and there were no beards—“a mighty clean-shaved bunch,” according to the reporter. Facial hair has somewhat rebounded recently. If the Congressional Pictorial Directory is an indicator, eight-and-a-half percent of the total current House Membership have mustaches or other hirsute arrangements.

Sources: “Reed’s Non-Committal Mustache,” 1 November 1895, Boston Globe: 11; “Who Will Be Speaker,” 14 December 1888, Detroit Free Press: 3; “Capitol Chat,” 15 July 1894, Washington Post: 4; “Reed Has A Quorum,” 3 December 1895, Chicago Tribune: 1; “Stories of ‘Tom’ Reed,” 8 December 1902, Chicago Tribune: 12; “Data Shows Congressmen Like Comfort; Are Not Vain,” 15 January 1922, Washington Post: 56; “Mustaches Few, Beards Nonexistent in Congress,” 5 January 1963, Baltimore Sun: 3; Congressional Pictorial Directory, S. Prt. 113–1 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2013).