Abraham Lincoln is undoubtedly one of the most easily recognizable people in U.S. history. His height (6’4”), stovepipe hat, and beard made him stand out in a crowd and in the collective American consciousness.
Credit for part of his signature look goes to Grace Greenwood Bedell Billings. In October 1860, the eleven-year-old Bedell saw a campaign photo of Lincoln and was inspired—150 years ago this month—to write to him and urge him to grow a beard to improve his appearance.
Hon A B Lincoln…
My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin’s. I am a little girl only 11 years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you 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. My father is going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct to Grace Bedell Westfield Chautauqua County New York.
I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye
Lincoln responded just a few days later.
Miss Grace Bedell
My dear little Miss
Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received – I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters—I have three sons—one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age—They, with their mother, constitute my whole family—As to 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?
Your very sincere well wisher,
While he made no promises about the beard to Bedell, he stopped shaving and allowed the beard to grow not long after their exchange and was elected as the sixteenth president of the United States a few weeks later. On his inaugural train ride from Illinois to Washington, D.C., the president-elect stopped in Bedell’s hometown of Westfield, New York, and asked to meet her.
As Bedell recalled the event, Lincoln “sat down with me on the edge of the station platform” and said, “‘Gracie, look at my whiskers. I have been growing them for you.’” The February 19, 1861, edition of the New York World reported on Lincoln’s visit, saying, “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. A beard of several months’ growth covers (perhaps adorns) the lower part of his face. The young girl’s peachy cheek must have been tickled with a stiff whisker, for the growth of which she was herself responsible.”
In 1864, when she was 15, Bedell wrote a second letter to Lincoln, asking for help getting a job with the Treasury.
After a great deal of forethought on the subject I have concluded to address you, asking your aid in obtaining a situation, Do you remember before your election receiving a letter from a little girl residing at Westfield in Chautauque Co. advising the wearing of whiskers as an improvement to your face. I am that little girl grown to the size of a woman. I believe in your answer to that letter you signed yourself. “Your true friend and well-wisher.” Will you not show yourself my friend now. My Father during the last few years lost nearly all his property, and although we have never known want, I feel that I ought and could do something for myself. If I only knew what that “something” was. I have heard that a large number of girls are employed constantly and with good wages at Washington cutting Treasury notes and other things pertaining to that Department. Could I not obtain a situation there? I know I could if you would exert your unbounded influences a word from you would secure me a good paying situation which would at least enable me to support myself if not to help my parents, this, at present—is my highest ambition. My parents are ignorant of this application to you for assistance. If you require proof of my family’s respectability I can name persons here whose names may not be unknown to you. We have always resided here excepting the two years we were at Westfield. I have addressed one letter to you before, pertaining to this subject, but receiving no answer I chose rather to think you had failed to receive it, not believing that your natural kindness of heart of which I have heard so much would prompt you to pass it by unanswered.
Grace G. Bedell
Lincoln, with the Civil War weighing heavily on him by that time, either did not receive this letter or the first job request mentioned in it, or simply ignored them (researchers found the one above in 2007, but the first one has not been located). Bedell later married George Billings, a Union veteran of the Civil War and the couple moved to Delphos, Kansas, in 1870 or 1871. There, George farmed and later went into banking. He died in 1926 and Grace passed ten years later.
A statue depicting Lincoln and Bedell’s meeting was later erected in Westfield and a billboard placed along Highway 81 outside of Delphos, advertising it as the home of “Lincoln’s Little Girl,” where you can “view the Lincoln letters.” In reality, Lincoln’s letter to Bedell was passed to her son, George Jr. and, upon his death, was auctioned off to a private collector for $20,000. Bedell’s letter to Lincoln, meanwhile is in the possession of the Detroit Public Library.
To mark the 150th anniversary of Bedell and Lincoln’s correspondence, a short movie about Bedell was made this year.