Barbering through the ages
Barbering through the ages

The Art and History of the Barbershop

Between the 1880s and the 1940s barbershops were ubiquitous. They functioned not just as a space for men to get their haircut, but a communal place for men to gather, escape the outside world and chew the fat. However, the history of the barbershop stretches further back than even ancient latin.
 
The barber industry is currently enjoying a renaissance. Having transformed from dying art to thriving industry, the emphasis is now on artistry and creativity, rather than just the process of cutting hair. Together with our pals at Edward & Co Barbershop, the Strand Coolangatta is bringing you everything you need to know about the art and history of the men’s barber.

The tribal barbers of early man
 
In early ancestral times, humans lived predominantly in small tribes under the guise of spiritual and religious leaders, who also acted as barbers. It was thought that spirits could enter the body through hair on the head and if these were bad spirits, they could only be driven out by cutting the hair in certain distinctive ways. This is where the concept of the barber originated.
 
Because these traditions developed throughout different tribes based on different beliefs and practices, we discover many different ‘types’ of cuts. While we might never know every hairstyle of ancient man, what we do know is that razor blades have been found dating back as early as the Bronze Ages.

Barbers of Ancient Egypt
 
We know from sculpture and drawn records that Ancient Egyptians were into their hair. Priests, for example, had their heads shaved every few days. With Ancient Egyptian Royalty obsessed with standards of beauty and status, it wasn’t uncommon for the most wealthy to spend a good portion of the day being preened by an army of slaves.

Beards of war
 
In the war between the Persians and Alexander the Great’s Macedonians in 331BC it is believed that the Persians gained an advantage in combat because they could pull the Macedonians by the beard and then spear them. It’s also said that after this humiliating defeat, Alexander the Great ordered his men to shave their beards. The local barbers must have done a roaring trade on that day.

Barber-surgeons in the Middle Ages
 
In the early 11th Century the Archbishop of Rouen prohibited the wearing of beards in France, fanning the flames for a roaring trade in barbering. This also led to the first organisation of barbers, although at this point they were actually barber-surgeons.
 
In early medieval times barbers would not only cut your hair – they dressed your wounds, pulled out rotten teeth and performed simple surgery. A far cry from your average trim and hot shave.
 
A hundred years later or so the role was split into separate organisations with academic surgeons identified by their longer robes and barber surgeons in shorter robes.

Guild wars of England
 
The world’s oldest organisation of barbers was officially formed in 1308 in Ol’ Blighty. In 1462 Edward IV chartered the ‘Company of Barbers’ as a guild, with surgeons creating their own guild three decades laters.
 
In 1540 barbers and surgeons were again united by statute of King Henry VIII as the ‘United Barber-Surgeons Company’. Contrary to popular depiction, barbers displayed blue and white poles out the front of their establishment, while surgeons displayed the eponymous red and white poles. Barbers could cut hair but were forbidden from any sort of medical procedure except for teeth pulling and bloodletting, while surgeons were not allowed to cut hair. In 1745 George II again separated the two occupations into separate guilds.

Bloodletting barbers
 
You can tell a barber is worth his shears if he leaves you clean shaven without a nick or cut, but during medieval times barbers were actually sought out for the bloodletting abilities.
 
In those times it was believed what we ate turned directly into blood and if a person ate too much or the wrong things they would have an excess of blood in their body, leading to ailments of various kinds.
 
Because many surgeons thought that bloodletting was beneath them it fell to the barbers of London to take on the job of bloodletting for their customers. The fable of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, most likely has origins from the Bloodletting Barber.

The Golden Age
 
Between the 1880s and 1940s barbershops were as much a social place for men to hang out as a bar or saloon. Some men visited their barbershop almost every day to get a shave, hang out with locals and catch up on news.
 
This change in usage from a place to get your teeth pulled out and your head shaved to a classy establishment for socialising and general upkeep also changed the way barbershops were presented. In the more upmarket establishments you’d find everything from leather furniture to chairs carved from woods like walnut and oak. Marble counters weren’t uncommon, and signage and collateral was rendered with more flair and artistic design.
 
In these times it was standard for men to smoke inside. Flavoured tobacco smoke filled the hair, mixing with the smells of pomades and powders. It created a distinctive atmosphere that was both masculine and welcoming – a safe haven for male conversation and discourse.

The effects of mass production
 
Around the turn of the 20th Century, Gillette began selling their safety razor. Advertised as more convenient and better for your hip pocket, the mass produced safety razor was also helped along by the outbreak of World War I. US troops were issued both kinds of razors, and finding the safety razor more effective they began using them more on the front lines. After the war, they brought this habit back home with them.

Economic and social factors of the 20th Century
 
Barbershops were hit hard by the decline in clientele during much of the 20th Century. Multiple wars cost the lives of many young men, reducing the need for so many barbershops. The depression saw families cut back on their spending and so they began cutting hair at home. By the time the 60s rolled around it became fashionable for men to grow out their beards and hair, meaning that visits to the barbershop became less frequent.

Unisex styles of the 80s
 
Flash forward to the 80s and a different kind of hairdresser emerged. Unisex outlets replaced the all male barbershop. Styles changed, and so did the training and accreditation. The long and storied history of the barber seemed lost to the ages as culture and fashion changed to more androgynous styles. There was less space for the specifically male haircut, and very few men wore beards.

21st Century resurgence
 
Thankfully, the traditional barbershop has seen a resurgence in recent years, with a number of establishments presenting their own modernised take on the ancient service. Like it or hate it, hipster trends have actually helped revitalise the barbershop. As more men visit barbers to shape and care for their facial hair, they’re finding that barbers are also better equipped to cut and style the hair on their heads. That’s because barbers focus exclusively on men’s styling and maintenance, while a traditional unisex hairdresser often cuts mens hair as more of an afterthought.
 
Located at The Strand Coolangatta, Edward and Co is a modern man’s barbershop with good old fashioned service. Follow their Facebook page for more news about male grooming, beard styling and fashion tips, or stop on by their store, morning till noon and enjoy a shave, a cut, a cold beer or a drop of good whiskey.

Back