Do you have a barber?

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By | The Researcher’s View

To mark the end of a month long ‘festival of facial hair’ we give you Margaret Pelling’s salute to the barber. And thanks and farewell to Alun Withey – our wonderful guest editor for ‘Movember’.

(For men only – as far as we know.) Can you remember watching your father shave, when you were a boy? Did your father take you to a barber’s when you were a teenager? Do you ever go to a barber’s shop, for a hair-cut or a shave? Do you always go to the same one? Do you talk to your barber, and does he talk a lot to you? Does your barber still offer you newspapers and magazines to read, or even ‘something for the weekend’?


Image credit: Archivo General de la Nación Argentina. Wikimedia Commons.

Put these questions to almost any man, young or old, and you will get a response. Compared with cars, or football, or computers, barbers don’t seem to loom large in the male world, but they are there as a remarkably persistent undercurrent. Every so often they rise above the surface as the tides of fashion sweep to and fro, though it is usually those who move into women’s hairdressing, like Vidal Sassoon in the 1960s, who make the real impact. Barbering is definitely a skill, one rarely exercised by women, and the barber’s shop is still largely a masculine space.

By and large, however, your barber does not present himself as an alpha male. That would not suit his occupation. He may be assertive, but his assertiveness is not likely to convince his customers. Barbers are ‘little men’, there to serve, ready to please, clean, tidy, and apt to be loquacious. At the same time, barbers know things. Their shops are foci of gossip, news, and even subversion, and were regulated as such in earlier periods. When your foreign correspondent needs to find out what is going on, or what the population is thinking, it is often to a barber’s shop that he goes. Even in western countries, journalists are apt to do the same.

Barber shop

A barber shaving a man in his shop. Wood engraving. Wellcome Library reference: 30114i.

A single barber may make little impact, but you find them in all periods, and probably in all cultures where there is any degree of occupational specialisation. They answer a universal need for half the population. Wholly neglected hair and beards have been reserved for hermits, saints, and those regarded as savages. Certain groups, recognising what was and is customary for men, have made the unrestricted growth of hair and/or beard a mark of their difference from others, but even these have seldom left hair or beard entirely to its own devices. Before the advent of the cheap safety razor, even humble people felt the need for a shave or a trim, even if only once a week.

In Tudor and Stuart London, for example, you do not find barbers clustered in one or two streets. Instead, they were scattered across the city, in both rich and poor areas. In the same period, barbers can be found fairly evenly distributed in small villages, at least in more prosperous parts of the country. Ships and colleges and hospitals had their own barbers, or ones they regularly called upon.

Barber shop

Men being shaved and having their hair cut, styled and crimped by various male and female barbers. Coloured etching  Richard Newton. Published: December 16 1794. Wellcome Library reference: 35633i.

The rich expected their barber to come to them, so that their barber became almost like a household servant. Like valets, with whom they overlap, barbers came to know a lot about their masters, and so the convention grew up of the henchman-barber, like the barber of Seville, who was subordinate to his master yet capable of outwitting him at need, or of being a cynical observer of his master’s antics even while he was forced to be complicit in his master’s plots and plans. Henchman-barbers, predictably, have had a high profile in plays and operas intended for the entertainment of the upper classes. In real terms, however, such figures were very much a minority.

Most barbers served their local area or depended on passing trade. Their skills and equipment have always been portable, and little capital was needed to begin in business, especially if the barber did not set up shop. Hence we find barbering as a common job opportunity among migrants, ethnic minorities and the poor.

Chinese barber

A Chinese barber shaving a man. Coloured engraving. Wellcome Library reference: 29710i.

Your barber attends to that part of you – your face and head – which is the most visible part of your body and also the part which is foremost in conveying your meaning in most social interactions. Clothing can of course be made to express a great deal, especially in terms of status and self-representation, but clothing can be readily acquired and may conceal as much as it displays. The hair and the beard, like the face, continue to be expressive even if the body is naked. Apart from the nails, the hair and the beard are the only parts of the body which visibly renew themselves and can be trained and altered at will. This adds to their importance.

As well as conveying messages to others, however, the hair and beard were thought until relatively recently to convey significant information from within. Most obviously, the beard signified male maturity, but an experienced observer, like your barber, could detect more than this. Ageing, loss of vitality, infection and even poisoning could show themselves outwardly in the hair and beard. Your barber also gets to know your skin, and the state of your various visible orifices, particularly the mouth and the ears. It is not surprising therefore that barbers used to offer a range of procedures including hair-washing, perfuming, ear-picking, tooth-scraping and tooth-pulling. These services were partly cosmetic, partly medicinal. Many barbers went further and carried out minor surgical procedures such as bleeding, a treatment which was thought helpful in preserving health as well as in treating illness.


A travelling barber-surgeon examining a man’s head: a group of locals watch with interest. Etching. Wellcome Library reference: 29884i.

It seems likely that barbers’ shops were as often recognisable by strings of teeth hung up outside or bowls of blood placed in the shop window, as they were by any version of the well-known barber’s pole. Barbers were useful, and played a vital role in helping men to see themselves as presentable in social terms, as indeed they still do. They have not had the historical recognition they deserve, partly because of their perceived lack of masculinity, and partly because the medical profession, which was much better placed than the barbers to tell its own version of events, has reinforced the idea that they were lowly practitioners of a very minor trade.

Barber shop

A barber’s shop. Coloured etching with aquatint by T. Rowlandson after W.H. Bunbury. Wellcome Library reference: 30145i.

What about Sweeney Todd, you may ask, who was gloomy, revengeful, and aggressive? He, I would argue, is the fictional exception that proves the rule. And even Sweeney, in most versions, did not kill his customers himself.

Author: Dr Margaret Pelling is a Senior Research Associate at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at Oxford University.

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