The History of the Barbershop

Nowadays, when we think of barbershops, the vision of the barber pole hanging outside a quaint shop comes to mind. Men come to get a haircut, relax, and socialize at their local barbershop and this has long been their reputation. Barbershops didn’t start out that way though, and their history is an extensive one. Every person and every place has a story and the story of the barbershop is one of the most interesting.

Going back in time, barbers did more then cut hair and trim beards. Let’s start in ancient Egypt where barbers were highly respected and held prestigious religious positions. An Egyptian barber’s main job was to cut hair but they did this to prevent evil spirits from entering the body. It was believed that demons and evil spirits could enter ones body and possess them through long hair. During this time, barbers used razors made of oysters and flint to cut the hair and tied it up keeping the bad spirits out and the good spirits in.

Moving on to the 3rd century BC, beards became a matter of life or death. When Alexander the Great began his conquest in Asia he lost many battles to the Persians because they were able to grab the Macedonians by their beards, drag them down, and spear them. After this pattern of humiliating defeats, Alexander ordered that all soldiers be clean shaven and civilians followed the fashion. Barbers weren’t formally introduced to Rome until 296 BC when a man from Sicily named, Ticinius Mena, introduced shaving. Throughout this time, beards went in and out of style based on whatever the leader in power prefered. Barbers still became highly prized during this era and went on to become so much more.

In the middle ages, barbers were known as barber-surgeons and they performed surgical operations along with cutting hair. One of these operations was called bloodletting which was an ancient practice of cutting a patient and letting their illness “bleed out”. That is the story behind the famous icon of the barber pole as well. There is a red stripe to symbolize blood, a blue stripe which is thought to symbolize the veins that barbers would cut, and a white stripe to symbolize the bandages used in procedures.

There came a point in time when barber-surgeons performed surgeries, dental work, and haircuts all at once. Being an all around medical man proved to be difficult though. Up until around 1416, barbers were not bothered about doing surgery work but it soon became apparent that they were wearing too many hats. In 1416, the mayor and council of London passed an ordinance forbidding barbers to take any sick or ill patients under their care.

As the science behind surgery and dentistry advanced, barbers became less capable of handling all three positions. Eventually surgeons and dentists separated from the barbers causing a decline in the barber profession. In the 19th century, A.B Moler opened a barber school in Chicago, making it the first institution of its kind in the world. From this point, other schools branched off and began teaching shaving, haircutting, and facial treatments. Today, barbers may not be as highly acclaimed as they were in the past but it’s still a profession that is needed and greatly appreciated.