A History of Barbering

The definition of a Barber is ‘someone whose main job is to cut, style and groom men’s and boys’ hair.’ The place all this happens is generally known as a Barbershop, as opposed to a Salon, more known for cutting and styling women’s hair. These days, both men and women work in each of these, but generally speaking, most barbershops are staffed by men. However, here at GrooMRooM, we believe fully in equality, and are pleased to have an exceptionally talented female barber amongst the staff!

Hair may be a ‘waste product’ but it also has a purpose. During man’s cave dwelling days, hair kept the head and face warm and protected. Bumps were cushioned, the sun was fended off, and there was less exposed skin for biting insects. We also believe that hair was a useful camouflage when hunting or being hunted. We are not sure exactly when men started to limit the length of their hair, as it was a sign of strength, health, and status in many societies around the world. However, the history of barbering is quite intriguing reading, so read on for a quick but interesting round up of barbering through the ages.

You may be surprised to know that razors are among relics found dating from the Bronze Age in Egypt, but some go back an estimated 6,000 years. At this point, to be fair, ‘razors’ were not metal, but shaped flint, and oyster shells too, both of which are naturally sharp.

All over the world, barbering was a well-respected profession. Individuals held a high status as barbers. Many of the barbers in the middle ages were known simply as the barber-surgeons but were also priests, and surgeons. You couldn’t get a more lauded part of society. Barber priests were involved at all levels of society, and barber surgeons provided many medical services from herbal remedies to amputations, and dentistry!

In France, around 1069, barber-surgeons formed their first organisation. By about 1300, barber-surgeons split into two groups, of two distinct practises. By 1450, the Barbers Company and the Surgeons Guild were recognised into law and further laws were enacted to ensure only barbers cut hair and only surgeons performed surgery. However, a barber could still pull teeth!

By the time we get to 1745, barbering and surgery were fully separated – the barbers kept their emblem – the pole. The pole had always been a mix of red and white, or red, white and blue going around the pole usually at an angle. The symbolism of these colours supposedly represents red for blood, white for bandages, and blue for veins.

In colonial times, around 1799, men were mostly smooth faced – and many of the rich men wore wigs. By this time barbering had become more menial in the eyes of the wealthy, seen as a servant task. Also, slavery was the order of the day, black slaves, and some white ones too, were given the task of shaving and cutting hair. Not everyone could be trusted with a cut throat razor in those days so often the task of shaving and cutting hair fell into two levels of respect. Only the very trusted of black slave/servants would be allowed to cut a white man’s hair and shave him. He, or often his wife or daughter would also work in the big house, sharing the tasks of hair grooming amongst many other tasks. From this point it seems barbering reached a low regarding respectable employment, and the trade fell mostly to immigrants or slaves, just as Chinese immigrants were often found to run laundry tasks and cooking, so barbering about this time became mainly a black person’s employment. White folks simply didn’t look upon barbering as respected work.

In the 1880 time period, the barber shop was a simple room usually about ten feet by twelve feet. It would typically contain one chair for the customer, a very hard and upright thing, with a head rest shaped a bit like an old- fashioned crutch handle or a banana, a basin for water, a basket or case for tools and soaps, and a week’s supply of towels. Unfortunately, towels were used repeatedly, so hygiene wasn’t a great aspect of the job at that time. A shave would cost about three cents in the States, and a haircut anything from five to ten cents.

The onset of the Civil War in 1861 -1865, changed many things, including the preference for a smooth face. Beards became more popular. After all, it was very difficult to manage all aspects of grooming in a battle situation. Many officers simply grew beards, as did most of the troops. After the war ended, there was an influx of immigrants of many nationalities, including Dutch, German, (one of whom was to make a significant contribution to barbering) Italian, and Swedish, into America and barbering once more took on more of an elevated status. This was a pioneering time across the world. There was little time or resource for prettying one’s looks. Men became rugged, lived hard dangerous lives (and the women too) and once more beards became relevant. Once more long hair and beards became the symbol of tough guys out there forging a trail across the world! Men let it all grow. Hair and beards got cut when finally, people came down into town, or met up with a wandering barber. Once again, the barber became more than a barber. He sharpened knives and axes, he performed dentistry, removed bullets, repaired battle wounds, and even carried out amputations.

Again, in America, Columbus, Ohio, on December 6th 1886 The Barbers Protective Union was formed. Almost a year later, on December 5th 1887, that Union became known as The Journeymen Barbers International. One must ask, was this because barbers were like circuit judges, doing the rounds?

The first proper barber school was opened in Chicago in 1893, by A.B. Maler, and he also published books on the subject too. By now, circa 1890’s, the barbering chair had evolved from Greek urns, logs, tea chest, benches, chairs, and even low walls, to a relatively modern chair designed for customer comfort and ease of use. A German immigrant into the USA, Ernest Koken, took it one step further, and invented The Koken Barbering Chair, complete with hydraulic lift, in about 1895. If you should be lucky enough to own a Koken chair in good condition, it would be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, as few exist, and even fewer exist in good repair. Another chair known as The Belmont Chair, became popular in many areas of North America just prior to and throughout the 1950’s, it grew more widespread and is still in use today in 2018.

Finally, in 1897, the state of Minnesota legalised barbering as a profession, introducing controls and licensing. Over the next forty or so years, various states across America set up their own laws and issued licences. Rules and regulations were set out to provide for good hygiene to protect the public from the spread of many diseases that were rampant at the time. Diseases like impetigo, anthrax, ringworm, and something called Barbers Itch, were all being passed around by unhygienic practises in public places, not to mention saloons and bawdy houses. The new laws were there to protect the public and the barbers themselves.
By the turn of the century, barbers were now once again white, and still black too. The barber shop became a much more social place, a place of conversations about all topics, including politics, religion and plots and plans. In 1915, a well-known dancer named Irene made the bob cut for women so popular that barbers who didn’t get to grips with this style quickly lost out on business, and many closed. Demand for this bob cut was high, it peaked in the 1920’s but is still popular in 2018.

As always, war changes everything and it’s never far away. Along came the horrors of WW1 in 1918, when soldiers kept hair very short due to a constant problem with body lice from trench life. No beards were worn, and men shaved as often as possible, both faces and heads, this was also so that gas masks would make a better seal around the face to keep out the chemical gases used then.

Not long after this, in 1924, The Associated Master Barbers of USA was organised in Chicago, Illinoi. In the 1940’s came the next world war, WW11, causing a great shortage of qualified barbers, as men were called up to serve in the armed forces. During this time, four distinct cuts became popular, all due to the requirements of the armed services. These were known as the flat top, the butch, the crew, and the Princetown cuts.

A bit later, 1959, a chap called Edmund O. Roffler developed his own distinct haircut. Called the Roffler Skulpter-Kut technique, (sounds rather Germanic), it capitalized on long hair which seemed to be a reaction to the short all over required during the war and it earned Roffler a small fortune. He started with twenty barbers following his style and became so successful that the technique is still used today.

In other parts of the world in the 5th century BC (yes, that long ago!), barbers in Greece came into great prominence. They were often known as the Wise Men of Athens and rivalled each other very seriously. Hair and beard trimming became a great art and the barbers became prominent respected citizens. Not only did important men come to get trimmed and spruced up, but the barber’s shop became a place to socialize, to learn news good or bad, to debate war sport, politics, religion, and to plot many an ill deed too. It was also a place of great philosophical discussions. Secrets were whispered, barbers learned to listen and keep quiet. They were generally social places but also places where elections could be won due to the strength of a good beard as beards were such a strong symbol of a man.

When the Macedonians under Alexander the Great began their conquest of Asia, they lost many battles simply due to beards making the men subject to a quick grasping hand, pulling on the beards and holding them down to be killed. As a result, Alexander ordered all soldiers to be clean shaven henceforth, and no soldier went to battle with whiskers. This example was followed by civilians too and the beard became very rare indeed. For a while, shaving became the new fashion and barbers were once more extremely busy.

Along came Hadrian though, who changed all that! It is said that Hadrian had a very scarred, warty face, and that he grew a beard to cover up and of course, many Romans followed his style, so barbering, cut throat shaving, became less favoured, but men still got their hair and faces kept tidied so whilst the demand for barbering services fell off, it certainly did not stop completely.

Ceaser, however saved the day, being clean shaven, he set the new trend and once gain the demand for barbering services grew quickly. Like many other things that are present throughout life, barbering demand and trends rose and fell over the centuries, as history continued to repeat and recycle many aspects of life, all over Europe, and the rest of the known world.

Did you know that barbering is mentioned often in the Bible? Moses commanded that those who recovered from leprosy were to be clean shaven as a sign of having had the disease, which ties in with the respect Jews had, still have for the face with a very healthy beard. In the Jewish community, the beard is a sign of manhood. Being clean shaven was in those times, a sure sign of having had ill health, especially leprosy. You can see even today that most Orthodox Jews have a good strong beard. Mind you, as most razors then were flint or oyster shell in kind, perhaps having a beard was a lot safer! Elsewhere in the Bible, Ezekiel stated, “Take thou a barber’s razor and cause it to pass upon thy head and beard.”

We can see then, that barbering has a huge history, and has great historical significance too. Respect for the trade and those carried it out, waxed and waned throughout history for many reasons, including political, practical, religious, tribal, war, health, and liberty, and of course, fashion.

Barbers over the years have been surgeons, dentists, leaders of fashion, keepers of secrets, wigmakers, counsellors and general confidantes to men of merit and some not so well thought of. From a position of respect to up and down the scale of special regard, barbering shops became hangouts at one end of society to a place of wise counsel and esteem at the other, leading us to eventually see-saw our way to present day modern barber shops.

Today the modern barber shop is a clean, well equipped, fully regulated place where men can get great styling. Great – pay your money, hair looks good usually, see you next time - this is the norm in most salons or barber shops where men get their hair cut and beards trimmed.

Not all barbers, not all barbering shops are the same though, which is why at GrooMRooM, we run a very traditional barber shop. Yes, we are modern and up to date, yes, we provide very modern styling as well as traditional cuts, beard and moustache care, and yes again, we are very fussy about hygiene and health and safety. However, you will quickly see that whilst we are all that, there is an old-style traditional atmosphere in our barber shop that all our customers enjoy.

In GrooMRooM you will find that as well as excellent services, like the old-style cut-throat shaves, there is a feeling of traditional welcome, free tea and coffee or cold drinks, plenty of topical banter, much social interaction, lots of laughter and you still come out looking good, feeling great.

We really look forward to seeing you at GrooMRooM soon.