THE HISTORY OF THE BARBERSHOP
July 11, 2019
Old-school barbershops have made a strong resurgence in recent years and the traditional art form has not changed all that much, well not throughout the modern era anyways. If you look back and compare today’s practice with that of the middle ages you will see that the profession has changed quite a lot.
When you walk into the barbershop you enter a realm that has been the haven of men for thousands of years. The most epic barbershops are adorned with elegant furnishings, sleek timbres, luxury upholstery, frescoes and ornate mirrors. Traditionally the barbershop also served as a meeting place for social discourse. A debate on current affairs would be typical and patrons visited regularly so that they could not only keep up their appearance but keep up with the latest news, in an age before television and smart phones the barbershop doubled as the news room.
Where it did all begin? The first evidence of mens grooming with tools dates back as early as 6000 B.C when barbering services were performed by Egyptian nobility with crude instruments crafted from shells or flint.
During the middle ages the barber’s role extended well beyond just grooming, barber’s also performed surgeries and even dentistry. The tradesman of the time were often referred to as barber-surgeons and this actually remained common practice right up until the mid 1400’s when the two professions started to divide.
Through the ages and into the modern era, barber-surgeons performed bloodletting and leeching, a practice where ‘supposedly’ bad blood was removed to assist with the recovery of sickness and disease. The colors of the barbers pole are symbolic of this practice with the red, white and blue being representative of blood, bandages and veins.
In 1745 America, a bill was passed separating barbers from surgeons. When the barber-surgeons separated, the barbers kept the red white and blue pole as their identifier.
The golden age of barbershops is said to have been at the end of the 19th century and up until the beginning of world war two. A time when barbershops rivalled taverns and pubs in terms of popularity. The barber profession was elevating with the emergence of the first barber schools and text books. Licensing and regulation commenced around this same time and barbershops were inspected for sterilisation as a means to protect public health.
By the late 20th century and unisex salons had come into prominence, especially through the 80’s and 90’s, but today in the 21st century we see a separation occurring again. There is a strong resurgence in the appeal of the traditional barbershop. Men require additional services like beard trimming, products like beard oils and balms, and grooming advice that can only come from a professional barber, services that the cosmetologists at the salon simply can not provide.
Over the centuries there has been a levelling of social structures and today more than ever people are concerned with their personal presentation and the upkeep of their image. It seems everyone is in the spotlight, especially with the emergence of social media and apps like Instagram and Tinder. Unlike the middle ages, most people live very comfortably and can afford the luxuries of regular grooming and the upkeep of their appearance by professionals. People desire a new level of individualism and often their own distinguishing style. Many will feel proud by identifying and adopting the latest trend while others rely on their barber’s artistic expression and have them craft an elaborate and bespoke style that is truely theirs.
Looking forward and one can only assume that continual change in social practice along with advancements in technology, tools and techniques will continue to shape the direction of the barbershop and the practice of barbers into the future.