The fashionable barber

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By | From the Collections

Now that you have grown that beard or moustache for Movember, take the advice of a couple of barbers on how to keep it smart throughout Decembeard. Because, as any hipster will tell you, there’s more to having a beard or moustache than simply not shaving.

While some men are skilled in pogonotrophy – the art of cultivating facial hair – others will turn to their barber for help. And as this 17th century print of a fashionable Frenchman having his moustache trimmed by an equally stylish barber shows, it’s by no means a modern phenomenon.


The etching is by Abraham Bosse, a French Hugenot engraver known for his highly detailed interiors of Parisian life. It is part of a series  – Les Metiers – depicting seven popular trades,  including a surgeon letting blood (la saignee) and a someone administering an enema (le clystere). It’s not unusual to find barbers and surgeons in close association. They have a long history as barber-surgeons, which is probably why the Wellcome Library has so much material on barbers.

Perhaps because his father had been a tailor, Bosse paid particular attention to details of clothing and fashion. The poem beneath the print expresses the importance of keeping up with the fashion in facial hair as well as dress:

“Those who strive with might and main
To be bang up to date
And wear a stylish beard
I will not underrate

By contrast I imagine
They should be praised on high
For keeping up appearances
And always looking spry

If head remains unwashed
And hair is not just so
With drooping tache withal
The girls won’t want to know

On no account must you neglect
To use the barber’s art
For nature needs improving
So we can all be smart”

[Thanks to Dr Richard Aspin for the wonderful translation.]


It makes sense for a barber  to display his skills on himself in order to attract the best customers. But the rather dismissive verse accompanying the well-groomed barber in this 19th century print suggests that looking the part doesn’t always impress:

“You smell of Pomatum & Lavender-water
Your hair & moustache with bear’s-grease do shine
But my handsome young swell just mind what you’re arter
For I won’t have a Barber for my Valantine.”

According to New Views on Baldness: being a treatise on the hair and skin, the original “pomatum”  was invented by Dr Fontaine around 1710. It is made by suspending an apple studded with cloves and other spices in the open air for 4 days, then “pour melted lard upon it and let it stand for fourteen days; remelt the whole; strain and you have the pure pomatum”.

Should you wish to try pomatum for yourself, the book offers some more ‘refined’ recipes for pomatums, pomades and other unguents. There’s even a recipe for “the original and genuine bears’-grease” to revive that “drooping ‘tache”. Let us know if they work.


Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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