More Love and Laughter in the Old West…
One of the characters in my book A SUITOR FOR JENNY is Kip Barrel, the town barber. The poor man wanted to be an opera singer in the worst possible way but he was unable to overcome his stage fright. After a disastrous debut in a New Orleans opera house he decides to return home to the family cattle ranch, a prospect he dreads. Fate intervenes and while riding through Rocky Creek his horse suddenly dies, forcing him to stay in town. He eventually opens up his own barber shop.
“I dreamed of being the Barber of Seville,” he laments. “Instead, I’m the barber of Rocky Creek.”
Of course, he hasn’t given up singing completely. A cowboy wanting a haircut and shave at Barrel’s shop also gets an earful of Rossini. Not bad for a few nickels.
Not all barbers provided entertainment with their shaving cream, but most did offer a little something extra. Some even gave out free mugs of beer and cigars. In some towns barbershops offered a full menu of grooming choices. For fifty cents, a saddle worn stranger could get a bath, shave, haircut, boot shine, his mustache waxed and pants pressed. He could also learn who was hiring, where to go for room and board and maybe even find some female companionship
Barbers have a long history dating all the way back to cavemen when whiskers were tackled with clam shells and flint. People have been battling over locks since ancient times. Whatever style one generation frowned upon the next generation was likely to embrace.
In the early 1800s clean-shaven faces were the rage. Hairy chins were deemed “a disgusting insult to refined society” if worn by anyone other than artists, writers or pioneers. Anyone sporting a beard might have found himself at the mercy of jeering townsmen as one hapless man in Massachusetts found out.
This all changed during the California gold rush. Beards were then grown as much for safety as convenience. Few mastered the art of shaving with a straight edge razor and beards were the sun-screen of the day. Whiskers also protected against frost bite.
By the time the Civil War broke out beards were favored even by easterners. Eleven year old Grace Bedell wrote to president nominee Abraham Lincoln telling him that if he wanted to be elected president he best grow a beard. “All the ladies like whiskers,” she wrote, “and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.” Lincoln wisely took her advice.
It wasn’t until the 1890s that the clean-shaven chin was once again king. President Benjamin Harrison has the distinction of being the last president to sport a beard.
Women Take up the Razor
The first female barber was Madam Gardonis who worked in Galveston, Texas during the 1860s. Frank Leslies Illustrated magazine described her as “the first woman who has successfully invaded this particular masculine profession.”
Petticoat barbers weren’t the norm but more and more women entered the profession in the late 1800s. An article in the San Francisco Examiner in 1896 had this to say: “Women’s latest audacity has been to lay hands on man’s most sacred implements—the razor and strop—and to shave him right to his very face.”
One woman interviewed for the article was asked if she was nervous when she first shaved a man. She replied, “I don’t know which was trembling hardest, the man or I.” She went on to say that if she could have chloroformed the man she would have gladly done so, just so he wouldn’t look so scared.
What’s with the Barber Pole?
We can’t talk about barbers without mentioning that all familiar red and white barber pole. Barbering was more than a hairy business. From the Middle Ages until the end of the 19th century barbers performed many medical duties including bloodletting, dentistry and bone setting.
The barber pole served triple duty in those early days. After being pre-wound with bandages ready for surgery the poles were then hung outside the door to encourage business. During surgery, patients clutched at the poles (probably while yelling in pain). Later imitation posts were painted red and white to represent bandages used before and after bloodletting.
The early 1900s brought many changes to the profession both good and bad. Barber licensing laws were passed and states began to upgrade certification requirements. Then, too, the safety razor made home shaving a breeze. The depression years took a heavy toll on barbers, but women saved the day when the “bob” became the rage. What better place to get the boyish trim than a barbershop? Of course not every barber welcomed female clients, but those that did thrived—at least as long as the style lasted.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the battle over hair between generations. It wasn’t that long ago that Disneyland refused entry to hairy hippies, and it seems like only yesterday that my husband greeted our kids with “When are you going to get a haircut?”
Now that my children are grown the battles over hair continue–with children of their own. History repeats.
That’s it folks, the long and the short of it. Anyone with a hairy tale to share?
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