Tuesday, June 6, 2017
The Watson Report: On Barbers
First, recall that in some early cultures hair was sacred. Some holy men and holy warriors made vows never to cut their hair (c.f. Samson). Many traditions held that hair could be used for malefic magic against the person from whose head it was taken; hence, for example, the hair and nails of the Pontifex Maximus of classical Rome could only be clipped by a free man and must be buried under an arbour felix (divine tree, preferably an oak). So some of the earliest barbers were men with holy duties.
The earliest shaving razors in the archaeological record come from Egypt c3500BC, with tweezers and tongs in a specially-made case, found amongst a cache of religious items. The first recorded barbers were priests and medics. Given that and the barber’s necessary skills with a razor it is unsurprising that barbers were also known as surgeons and dentists; it is only in the last two centuries that the professions have parted company.
By the time of the ancient Greeks, trimmed hair was a mark of civilisation, of sophistication and status. Only savages and country bumpkins – and slaves - wore their hair long and tangled. Discerning men of status went to the agora to see and be seen, to visit the cureus who would very publicly shave and hairdress them while those around shared debate and gossip. Indeed, the forum barber was the best source of gossip and a fount of information. This old function has led on to the “wise barber” trope of such stories as the Arabian Nights.
The Romans stole barbers from the Greeks, of course. By 200BC, tonsor shops were common in major cities across the Empire, part of the daily hygiene routine that included gymnasium and public baths. They were meeting places and sometimes plotting dens. A young man’s first shave was considered a major event in his life, sometimes preceding his first intercourse. Barba is Latin for beard, the origin of our name for one who shaves and cuts hair.
By the middle ages, barbers had stopped being priests or monks. The Pope had issued orders forbidding clergy from spilling blood (Council of Tours, 1163), which precluded dentistry and surgery. Hospitaller clerics therefore had lay assistants who would handle such necessaries of healing, along with applying leeches, enemas, lancings, and fire-cuppings. Those priests were clean-shaven too; another Papal decree in 1092 ordained that no clergyman should have facial hair.
By the 14th century, London was home to the Guild of Barbers; in 1308, the Court of Aldermen elected Richard de Barbour to keep order amongst his colleagues. In 1462 a royal charter upgraded the Guild to the Worshipful Company of Barbers, an organisation that continues to the present day.
A 1540 Act of Parliament merged in the Fellowship of Surgeons to form the Worshipful Company of Barbers and Surgeons, specifying that surgeons may not cut hair or shave people and that barbers could not operate on them; both groups could extract teeth. Barbers received higher fees than surgeons at that time.
It was probably this merger that led to the recognised shop sign of a barber, a long striped pole with red and white stripes (red for surgery, white for dentistry). In some modern versions blue stripes are also included, perhaps because red white and blue are patriotic colours in both the UK and US. Originally the pole also included brass bowls at top and bottom, the upper one for the leeches and the lower one for catching blood. There are a number of current US lawsuits underway regarding barbers’ objections to cosmetologists using the pole to advertise their services.
The Worshipful Company also had an educational role in the late medieval period, being a legal source of public autopsy anatomy lessons, conducted four times a year in an auditorium designed by Inigo Jones (the hall was destroyed in the Blitz). The Company’s crest features an opinicus (English gryphon) supported by chained lynxes. This is presumed to demonstrate the keenness of vision required for barber-work. The motto is De Praescientia Dei – “through God’s foreknowledge”. Root back to the ancient origins of the trade as far as you like.
Hairdressing as a term first appeared in the 17th century, along with the first women who are described as hairdressers. The first were French, of course; the most famous was Madame Martin who popularised “the tower” as a style and influenced every depiction of rich Aristos in every movie ever made. Champagne was the first famous male hairdresser of women; his Paris salon survived until his death in 1658.
By the 19th century, barbers were associated with gossip, with minor surgery and medication (including contraception, often in the form of pigskin condoms – “something for the weekend, sir?”), with fashion, with local knowledge, and with community meeting places. During that century in America, Black barbershops became a significant factor in the development of Black culture and society. In the UK barber salons served as a lower-class version of the coffee house as a meeting place to form opinion and foment political change.
In addition to shops, though, there were still the itinerant street barbers who would shave and clip a customer right then and there, maybe also shining shoes and offering manicures. There were door-to-door barbers and seafront barbers and in-club barbers. There were the first common womens’ hairdressing salons, as a more liberated distaff population with disposable income but not enough of it for personal maids with hairdressing skill began to demand services.
There was enough scandal about for Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street who murdered his customers and turned their corpses into pie-meat to become a bestselling Penny Dreadful. There are still members of the general public who believe him to be non-fictional. The story goes to show the darker aspects of barbers that were in cultural currency at the time. Demon Barbers come from the same place as Killer Clowns.
So, barbers: wise gossips, social hosts, purveyors of advice and contraception to young men coming of age, hedge-surgeons, community mainstays, sacred servants, sudden butchers – rich characters rooted in old story, well deserving of being maintained in our fictional universes today.