Today, in western civilization men have a variety of options where to get a haircut, they can walk into a Supercuts and pay $7.00 for a basic, quick, haircut. They can go into a salon and pay around $30.00 for a shampoo, haircut, style, or go into a barber shop, also pay around $30.00 and receive a nice barber cut. Each option has a different experience and result, for example, a barber shop is specifically catered towards men and will most likely provide products that have a more masculine scent, an environment where sports are on the tv’s, a haircut executed with clippers and straight razors, and may even provide whiskey to their clients. A salon on the other hand maybe more relaxing, with their head massages, softer music playing, scents of a variety of masculine and feminine, and of course male and female clients. Lastly a Supercuts or Great Clips will be the cheapest, quickest option for those clients who do not like to pre-book appointments and needs a quick, easy haircut at a very reasonable price.
There haven’t always been so many options to get a haircut, over the last 700 years the barber and beauty industry has evolved and grown into this amazing, multifaceted community that is continuing to grow and change with the needs of the clients, fashion, and economics.
Today I want to dive into the barbering industry and see how it became what it is today.
Within the last ten years the popularity of barbershops has exploded in the United States, coming from the 1990’s a lot of men had longer and messier hair, the shaggy, bed head look was in style for some time and the need for these high and tight, clippered, razored looks were not nearly as popular as they are today. As the trend of high and tights, undercuts, pompadours, and fades came into style the only people who could execute these styles were barbers. People coming out of cosmetology school knew how to cut these styles, but barbers had a step a head because in barbering school this was there only focus, unlike cosmetologists who needed to learn so many other skills. With men flocking to barbers to receive these most recent styles, more barber shops began opening, catering these men and giving them a classic barber shop experience to fit these classic styles that were also seen in the early 20th century. Barber shops like Schorem in the Netherlands, Throne in Portland, to City Barbers in Salt Lake City have all created this classic barber shop environment.
But what does that look like?
These shops are creating a style seen from the early 20th Century, barbering chairs, rustic woods that create the work stations, dress codes fitting the prohibition time, no shampooing the client, offering beer or whiskey, and a lobby that creates the sense of community where the clients know each other, and the barbers know all the clients. This type of environment was important in earlier centuries because this is where news traveled or where work would happen. Men would come in to the barber tell the news, gossip, or stories and the barber would share with the clients, or the clients waiting in the lobby would talk to one another and share the local political news.
Up until the 18th century a barber was also a surgeon, because the hair and body was seen as one and indistinguishable. Prior to the 18th century there were two kinds of surgeons; barber-surgeons and surgeons. A barber-surgeon would spend half of his apprenticeship shaving and cutting hair, while the other half was spent doing minor surgeries such as bleeding and lancing abscesses. While the surgeon was in university studying more extensive health concerns like bullet wounds, tumors, fractured bones, and burns. Since surgeons where more schooled they had a sense of esteem and knowledge that barbers lacked.
It was in 1745 when surgeons formed The Company of Surgeons (now known as Royal College of Surgeons) and barbers created the Company of Barbers; splitting barbers and surgeons up forever, these companies still exist today. However, there is still a symbol that exists today of the barber-surgeons, that is the barber pole. The pole represents the common practice of blood-letting, releasing ‘bad blood’, which involved lancing an arm vessel, collecting the blood in a basin, and wrapping the wound with a white bandage. During the procedure, the patient would grasp a pole and grit their teeth. When the pole was not in use, it would be outside with a clean white bandage to indicate services rendered. Later, instead of displaying the actual pole, barbers created a red and white pole to display outside, (red being blood and white the bandage), or sometimes read, white and blue poles, (the blue representing venous blood). In earlier years the pole was a sign of accreditation, today it identifies a barbershop. In 2011 the Pennsylvania State Barber License Law requires that every barbershop shall provide a poll.
Up until the 20th century, African-American owned barbershops were a uniquely American institute. For a freed slave it offered an opportunity to learn a new life and create economic freedom. During the 17th and 18th Century slave owners selected a few of their slaves to be personal servants, these ‘waiting men’ were responsible for keeping their masters well groomed; shoes polished, shaven face, and haircut. Those slaves tended to have privileges like better food, clothing, shelter, and education. If a wealthy master had more than one ‘waiting man’ he would rent them out to other wealthy men. In many cases wealthy men set up barber shops for their ‘waiting men’. These upscale barbershops provided shoe shines, cigar supplies, and baths. Slaves and slave owners profited financially from this. Many skilled and ambitious slave barbers became wealthy enough to not only buy the barbershop, but to also buy their freedom from their slave owners. Successful barbers were able to purchase homes and get their children an education.
As long as the white community associated barbering with slaves, black barbers dominated the trade, even in the North. Between 1860 and 1880, African Americans made up 96 percent of the barbers in Charleston, 30 percent in Philadelphia, 50 percent in Cleveland and Detroit, and 66 percent in Colorado. In the 19th Century African American barbers began serving the African American community. Barber shops became a meeting place for black men to gather and discuss the politics, share information and concerns, or even a place to retreat and relax. During their visit they would sing popular songs, spiritual songs, or folk music. With time the singing became a tradition; they sang a cappella with a four-part harmony, they would dress in a well-groomed barbershop fashion with stripped pants and jackets. The concept spread like wild fire in the 20th century giving the world the barbershop quartets.
Before the barber shop boom in the 18th-19th Century the big advancement in barbering was in the 17th Century in the court of Louis XIII, local swordsmiths developed a new type of folding straight razor that became popular in households and in barbershops. This created two responses, the first being innovative to allow a person to shave their own face at home without the weekly barbershop trip. The second being that barbers took a financial hit because they lost a bulk of their daily clients.
During the Middle Ages was another key moment in barber history. If a man was interested in cutting hair, he would apprentice under someone in the Barber Guild. After a seven-year apprenticeship, he would present his credentials to a committee of the guild. After a review if all the credentials were in order, the trainee would be allowed to be a barber in the community.
The next important date in barbering dates to 3200 B.C in Egypt where it all began. You can read about the being of barbering and hairstyling in my entry entitled Hair History: Let’s start at the beginning.
With such an evolution in barbering it will be exciting to see how it continues to grow. How will it change economically, sociologically, and politically? How will the next stage of barbering affect our community, or rather how will our community affect barbering? It is exciting see all these barbers acknowledging and paying respect to the barbering styles of the past, but I’m more excited for the future of barbering.
Stenn, K. (2016). Hair: A human history. S.l.: Pegasus Books.
 Stenn, K. (2017). Hair: A human history. S.l.: Pegasus Books. P. 75
Image The Schorem Barbershop in Rotterdam
THE GEOGRAPHY OF HAIR
The Geography of Hair is devoted to share experiences and stories in cosmetology and how it has affected people, myself, or us as a society.