By Dave Panton
A checkerboard floor, warm mahogany wood, brass light fixtures, the teal glow of Barbicide. The biting tingle of Lucky Tiger Tonic, the pungent musk of tea tree, snipping of shears, the friendly banter, the crisp snap of a newspaper while a young man shines shoes. A gentleman reclined in a leather chair as a straight razor glides across a hot Burma lather. This was golden age of the barber shop. In today’s world, where the rule the faster the better seems to apply, this history may be forgotten by many. Perhaps it’s the time to stop and remind ourselves of the rich tradition barbering carries.
Derived from the Latin word barba, meaning beard, barbering’s roots stretch as far back as 6000 years. Egyptian primitive razors and combs have been excavated from the tombs of Pharos laid to rest long ago. Further, Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, references the practice of grooming and its dominance in the Egyptian culture. Most notably the first actual account of the word barber appears around 595 B.C. in Ezekiel 5:1, NKJV: “And you, son of man, take a sharp sword, take it as a barber’s razor, and pass it over your head and your beard.”
Around the same time, barbering was introduced to Grecian society. Used as a status indicator, frequent haircuts signified a life of wealth and leisure. While haircuts were performed frequently, the beard was a grand showing of machismo. That soon changed by order of Alexander the Great. As war raged, Alexander declared all must be clean-shaven. Initially intended to protect against enemies snatching beards during battle, the style transcended much further.
The Greeks bequeathed the fresh face to the Romans around 300 B.C. Roman culture, fixated on opulence and indulgence, and adopted barbering as a routine social affair. Luxurious bathhouses became gathering places where men discussed news, gossip, and politics.
The Middle Ages carried a darker side to the trade. Barber-surgeons, for over 500 years, transformed the profession to include medical procedures, most infamously bloodletting. This barbaric practice, thought to cure illness, drained the blood from the forearms of its patients. The soiled dressings were hung outside to dry and reuse. These bloodstained banners became synonymous with barbers, eventually fashioning the modern barber shop pole.
The infantile stages of the United States, plagued with turmoil, set the stage for barbering to solidify strong contributions to race relations. Slaveholders, finding self-grooming degrading, enslaved “waiting men,” serving as personal groomers. Trusted enough to hold a straight razor next to the neck of their owner, strong bonds were formed and in turn opportunities presented. Even through racial upheaval, African-American barbers maintained pride in their skill, dubbing themselves “The Knights of the Razor”. As the country split in civil war, these barbers remained unified, often becoming respected community leaders. Upon the onset of the mid 20st century, the traditional African-American barbershop was conceived, making way for the golden age of barbering. A direct correlation rests between value and longevity, yet the golden age marks the decline of barbering.
However, today’s men’s grooming trends are turning back to classic styles, with modern elements. These styles require fine training, superior shear skill and mastering of the razors. The time has come for a revival, to revel in this longstanding tradition, to honor its global conquest, and respect its endurance over the test of time. Capturing the essence of the barber shop, Mark Twain expresses, “All things change except barbers, the ways of barbers, and the surroundings of barbers. These never change.”