Everyone knows that a 5 o’clock shadow refers to visible beard growth that appears by late afternoon, after having shaved in the morning.
But what’s the origin of the term? Patience, we’ll get to that.
Ever heard of the 5 o’clock shadow that cost an election and thereby the Presidency? I have written about it previously:
In 1960 John Kennedy was running against former Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy was thought of as lacking experience, as being too youthful, plus he was a Catholic. Some queried whether his allegiance would be to Rome first and the US second.
TV was just coming in and the candidates agreed to a series of question and answer sessions – The Great Debates – that would be televised nationally as well as being broadcast on the radio.
Kennedy had been campaining in the West and was looking fit, tanned and refreshed. Nixon had just recovered from a severe knee infection which had caused him to lose significant weight and made him look gaunt. Kennedy declined makeup, causing Nixon to do likewise. Big mistake. Nixon had a heavy beard so that his 5 o’clock shadow looked pronounced. With his gauntness and pale skin, it made him look devious, consistent with the Kennedy advertising campaign that had asked the public:
Public opinion was that Kennedy had won the first debate, with one later debate going to Nixon and the other being drawn. In the public mind, however, Kennedy had settled the youth and Catholic issues, with Nixon’s image and depiction by cartoonists being thereafter constantly associated with the 5 o’clock shadow.
Kennedy won the election by a razor thin margin – 49.7% as against 49.6%
So why the name? Because in the 1800’s, the English upper crust had tea at 5.00pm. “Tea” in this context referred to a light meal prior to the main evening meal. Not that everyone liked it: the Earl of Shaftesbury referred to “Five o’clock tea, that pernicious, unprincipled and stomach-ruining habit.”
When the idea took on in the US, the 5.00pm tea was renamed “the 5 o’clock dinner”.
The Gem Safety Razor Company (a safety razor was one with a razor blade, as distinct from a cutthroat razor, as featured in Underbelly Razor) introduced the term “5 o’clock shadow” to refer to the beard regrowth, the advertising being that only Gem blades shaved so close and so well that they delayed such beard regrowth.