During the mid-1800s, Dundreary whiskers, or as the British called them, Piccadilly weepers, became popular. They were long bushy, carefully combed side whiskers, worn without a beard. The whiskers were named for Lord Dundreary, a character in Tom Taylor’s 1858 British play titled Our American Cousin performed at Laura Keene’s Theatre in New York. The play was a farce about a boorish but warm-hearted American named Asa Trenchard who was introduced to his aristocratic English relatives.
It premiered on 15 October 1858, and Edward Askew Sothern, an English actor known for his comedic skill, aptly portrayed Dundreary while American actor Joseph Jefferson played Trenchard. Sothern initially thought his part was “dreadful” and was reluctant to accept it because he worried that portraying Dundreary might permanently damage his career and reputation. However, he did accept it, and when the cast was gathered for the first reading, Jefferson described in his autobiography what happened:
“The reading … took place in the green-room, and many were the furtive glances cast at Mr. Couldock and me as the strength of Abel Murcott and Asa Trenchard were revealed. Poor Sothern sat in the corner, looking quite disconsolate, fearing there was nothing in the play that would suit him; and as the dismal lines of Dundreary were read, he glanced over at me with a forlorn expression as much as to say, ‘I am cast for that dreadful part.'”
Because of Sothern’s hesitancy, he “began to introduce extravagant business into his character, skipping about the stage, stammering and sneezing, and, in short, doing all he could to attract and distract the attention of the audience.” No one was more surprised than Sothern at the reception of his antics. He turned Dundreary into an easy-going, brainless aristocrat. Moreover, Dundreary was “at once understood by the English folk,” which delighted theatre audiences. Sothern later noted that he never dreamed “the character of the imbecile lord would turn out to be the stepping-stone of his fortune.” In fact, Sothern’s portrayal of Lord Dundreary became a turning point in his career and by far his most famous stage role.
Because of Sothern’s physical comedy and his dundrearyisms (expressions, fashionable mots, or parables that were nonsensical and humorous), he soon captured the hearts of the audience. Before long Dundreary became the central figure in the play. Everyone saw the play including Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, who attended the play with his wife. In fact, on both sides of the Atlantic, “Dundreary was upon the lips of every one. Men cultivated Dundreary whiskers and affected Dundreary coats.”
People could not stop talking about Dundreary and his Dundreary whiskers:
“Dundreary photographs were seen everywhere: ‘Dundrearyisms,’ as they came to be called, … and the title books (generally very badly done) dealing with the imaginery doings of Dundreary under every possible condition, and in every quarter of the globe, were in their thousands sold at the street corners. Concerning Dundreary quite three parts of England went more than half mad, and not to know all about him and his deliciously quaint sayings and doings was to argue yourself unknown.”
Dundreary was so popular, even his dress — his frock coat, vest, and monocle — became popular, as did his dundrearyisms, such as the oft-quoted, “Birds of a feather gather no moss.” Punch also published a cartoon in 1862 about the Dundreary phenomena. They called it “Dundreary Row—Hyde Park.” It showed that the Dundreary whiskers and his “get up” were so popular among London’s “swells,” it was hard to tell one Dundreary from another.
Years later, in 1909, McClure’s Magazine Dundreary was still in people’s thoughts and the magazine mentioned:
“[T]he fortunes Dundreary earned for Sothern were princely; the fame he made for Sothern was not eclipsed by that of any other comedian of his day; the fashions he set for all the world were comparable to nothing in recent stage history.”
Yet, Sothern’s success as Dundreary is not what is most remembered today. Rather it is that Our American Cousin was the play Abraham Lincoln attended when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
-  McClure’s Magazine, Vol. 32, 1909, p. 187-188.
-  Bates, Alfred, The Drama, 1906, p. 116.
-  Pemberton, Thomas Edgar, Lord Dundreary, a Memoir of Edward Askew Sothern, 1889, p. 26
-  Bates, Alfred, p. 113.
-  Pemberton, Thomas Edgar, p. 26.
-  Ibid., p. 37.
-  Pemberton, Thomas Edgar, p. 27.
-  McClure’s Magazine, p. 192.