A Quick History of Barbering

What is a Barber?

The word “barber” comes from the Latin “barba,” which means “beard.” A barber, then, is a person whose occupation is to cut, groom, style, and shave men’s hair – at least in the modern sense. Barbers have had a long, complicated history, and it goes back multiple millennia.

Shave Like an Egyptian

The ancient Egyptians were one of the first advanced civilizations in human history, and it’s fitting that they had barbering services over 6,000 years ago. According to what researchers have found, the Egyptians were quite concerned with their hair, and they associated shaving with cleanliness. Priests, for example, were “de-haired” regularly to be completely clean and wore a fake beard. The Egyptian nobility used tools as razors such as sharpened flint or even oyster shells as razors.

Greeks Equated Beards with Wisdom…Until They Didn’t

Unlike the Egyptians, the Greeks valued their facial hair. Some of their strongest gods boasted incredible beards along with their strength, like Heracles and Zeus. They perhaps also had one of the earliest versions of barbershop culture dating back to 500 B.C., as “going to the barber” became an opportunity to socialize. Additionally, the older Greeks equated beards with their philosophers. However, later Greeks offered different opinions and even ridiculed the sight of a beard. Alexander the Great famously ordered his men to shave their beards before battling the Persians, reasoning that beards could be compromising in close combat.

The Vikings May Have Been Well-Groomed Invaders

In popular culture and even in education, Vikings are normally depicted as helmet-wearing, bearded barbarians. Scandinavian archaeologists, however, have discovered Vikings may have been quite the opposite. Some of the most prevalent items to be found in Viking burial sites are grooming tools such as combs, tweezers, toothpicks, and fingernail cleaners. There is plenty of evidence to show that the dirty, unkempt Vikings are but little more than a myth.

The Barber-Surgeon Arises From The Middle Ages

At one point in history, the barber did a lot more than just dealing with hair. The medieval period may be known more for the knights, swords, and armor, but barbers at this time were also wielding their own instruments, too. In fact, in addition to haircutting and hairdressing, barbers of the middle ages also dressed wounds and performed surgical operations. They were accordingly known as barber-surgeons.

Some of their extra medical procedures included the following:

  • Picking out lice
  • Pulling out rotted teeth
  • Cutting abscesses and cysts
  • Setting broken bones
  • Bloodletting (Cutting and letting out “extra” blood, believed to be unhealthy)

The Barber’s Pole Spins Tall

Over the next several hundred years, barbers and surgeons slowly drifted apart, as each role became more clearly defined. It wasn’t until 1745 in England that the surgeons officially broke away from the Barbers’ Company (which still exists today) and formed the Company of Surgeons. However, the barbers still kept a key symbol of their time performing medical procedures – the barber’s pole. Traditionally, the pole features a helix of white and red stripes to represent the bandages and blood. Barber’s poles in the United States usually also feature a stripe of blue to match the flag.

Sweeney Todd Takes His First Victim

Before actor Johnny Depp depicted the demon barber of Fleet Street in 2007, Sweeney Todd first appeared as the villain in a Victorian “penny dreadful” (a cheap, popular literature series) in 1847. The character is a serial killer who would murder his clients as they came in for a shave. His victims’ flesh would be used as filling for meat pies made by his manipulative and just as insane neighbor, Mrs. Lovett.

Barbers in America

The barber profession in America really took off following the Civil War with the influx of European immigrants. The barbershop also became a mainstay in every town and city. During the late 1800s, haircuts cost five to ten cents, while a shave ran for just three.

The African-American BarberShop

Black-owned barbershops are long-time central hubs in black communities, and they have a deep history that goes back to slavery. Black barbers, both slaves and free, first opened shops in the 1800s, serving mostly wealthy white clients. In the later part of the century, a younger generation born after emancipation entered barbering and opened shops in black communities to serve black men.

The First Barber School Opens in 1893

Barbers now actually had books to study. A.B. Moler opened the first Barber School in Chicago, as well as published textbooks for prospective barbers. As the profession grew in size and legitimacy, so did the students of the trade. In the 1980s, women made up over 50% of barber students. The demographics changed again, as since 1995, over half of barber students are African-American.

Make Your Own History

At 18|8 Austin, we are here to help you groom your own path. Contact us today to schedule an appointment!