The History of the Barber

The word “barber” comes from the Latin word “barba,” meaning beard. It may surprise you to know that the earliest records of barbers show that they were the foremost men of their tribe. They were the medicine men and the priests. But primitive man was very superstitious and the early tribes believed that both good and bad spirits, which entered the body through the hairs on the head, inhabited every individual.

The bad spirits could only be driven out of the individual by cutting the hair, so various fashions of hair cutting were practiced by the different tribes and this made the barber the most important man in the community. In fact, the barbers in these tribal days arranged all marriages and baptized all children. They were the chief figures in the religious ceremonies. During these ceremonies, the hair was allowed to hang loosely over the shoulders so that the evil spirits could come out. After the dancing, the long hair was cut in the prevailing fashion by the barbers and combed back tightly so that the evil spirits could not get in or the good spirits get out.

This rule by barbers was a common thing in ancient Asia. In fact, wherever there were legends and superstitions about the hair, the barbers flourished. To this day in India, the veneration of the hair continues and those who cut and dress the hair are important characters.

Shaved Heads & Beards

In Egypt, many centuries before Christ, barbers were prosperous and highly respected. The ancient monuments and papyrus show that the Egyptians shaved their beards and their heads. The Egyptian priests even went so far as to shave the entire body every third day. At this time the barbers carried their tools in open-mouthed baskets and their razors were shaped like small hatchets and had curved handles. The Bible tells us that when Joseph was summoned to appear before Pharaoh, a barber was sent for to shave Joseph, so that Pharaoh’s sight would not be offended by a dirty face.

In Greece, barbers came into prominence as early as the fifth century, BC. These wise men of Athens rivaled each other in the excellence of their beards. Beard trimming became an art and barbers became leading citizens. Statesmen, poets and philosophers, who came to have their hair cut or their beards trimmed or curled and scented with costly essences, frequented their shops. Incidentally, they came to discuss the news of the day, because the barber shops of ancient Greece were the headquarters for social, political, and sporting news. The importance of the tonsorial art in Greece may be gathered from the fact that a certain prominent Greek was defeated for office because his opponent had a more neatly trimmed beard.

In the third century, BC, the Macedonians under Alexander the Great began their conquest of Asia and lost several battles to the Persians who grabbed the Macedonians by their beards, pulled them to the ground and speared them. This resulted in a general order by Alexander that all soldiers be clean-shaven. The civilians followed the example of the soldiers and beards lost their vogue. Barbers were unknown in Rome until 296 BC, when Ticinius Mena came to Rome from Sicily and introduced shaving.

Shaving soon became the fashion and the barber shop became the gathering place for the Roman dandies. No people were better patrons of the barbers than the Romans. They often devoted several hours each day to tonsorial operations, which included shaving, hair cutting, hairdressing, massaging, manicuring and the application of rare ointments and cosmetics of unknown formulas. The great ladies of Rome always had a hairdresser among their slaves and the rich nobles had private tonsors, as they were then called.

Barbers were so highly prized that a statue was erected to the memory of the first barber of Rome. When Hadrian became emperor, beards became the fashion again — and for a very good reason. Hadrian had a face covered with warts and scars. He allowed his beard to grow to cover these blemishes. The people of Rome imitated the emperor and grew beards whether they needed them or not.

The fashion changed again to clean-shaven faces. We know that Caesar was clean-shaven. As we will see repeated in history many times, the leaders of the state were the leaders of fashion and the people were always ready to follow the prevailing styles. There are many passages in the Bible referring to the barber profession. Moses commanded that all who recovered from leprosy should be shaved. This was done as a health precaution, because throughout history the Jews have honored the beard as a badge of manhood. To this day, the orthodox Jews have little respect for clean-shaven men. During periods of mourning, the ancient Jews allowed their beards to go untrimmed, but ordinarily their beards were trimmed regularly. The prophet Ezekiel refers to an ancient custom in these words: “Take thou a barber’s razor and cause it to pass upon thy head and upon thy beard.” The razors of those days were made of flint and oyster shells.

Barbers as Surgeons

Up to the year 1416, the barbers were not interfered with in the practice of surgery and dentistry. But it was soon evident that they were attempting too much. It was impossible to expect ordinary human beings to competently practice surgery, dentistry and the various tonsorial operations. People began to complain that the barber-surgeons were making them sick instead of well. Many barber-surgeons resorted to quackery in order to cover up their ignorance of medicine and anatomy. These abuses came to the attention of the mayor and council of London.

In 1416 an ordinance was passed forbidding barbers from taking under their care any sick person in danger of death or maiming, unless within three days after being called in, they presented the patient to one of the masters of the Barber-Surgeon’s Guild. Until 1461 the barbers were the only persons practicing surgery. The practice of surgery was still in its primitive stage, but new discoveries were being made regularly and the barbers found it impossible to keep up with the new discoveries and at the same time maintain their skill in dentistry and barbering. The surgeons began to forge to the front and became increasingly jealous of the privileges accorded the barbers. But for a long time they could do nothing to prevent the barbers from acting as surgeons.

In 1450, the Guild of Surgeons was incorporated with the Barbers Company by act of parliament. Barbers were restricted to bloodletting, toothdrawing, cauterization, and the tonsorial operations. However the board of governors, regulating the operations of the surgeons and barber-surgeons, consisted of two surgeons and two barbers. Every time a surgeon was given a diploma entitling him to practice his profession, the diploma had to be signed by two barbers as well as two surgeons. The surgeons resented this, but the barbers were very much favored by the monarchs and preserved their privileges until the middle of the 18th century.

Henry VIII, Charles II, and Queen Anne presented the barber-surgeons with valuable gifts and raised many of them to high offices. Under a clause in the Act of Henry VIII, the Barber-Surgeons were entitled to receive every year the bodies of four criminals who had been executed. The dissections were performed four times a year in the Barber-Surgeons Hall which still stands in London.

Profession Declines

This marked the decline of the barber profession. Similar action was taken in France under the reign of Louis XIV. Toward the end of the 18th century the barbers of Europe had completely relinquished their right to perform any of the operations of surgery and dentistry, except in the small towns and out-of-the-way places where doctors and dentists were not obtainable. After the barbers were prohibited from practicing medicine, surgery and dentistry, they became mere mechanics and servants, subject to the whims of fashion.

When wigs became the fashion during the 18th and part of the 19th century, barbers became wigmakers. Their profession had lost its ancient dignity and barbers had become laborers, instead of professional men. In England, America and all over the civilized world, the decline of the barber was a spectacle for all to see. Barber shops became hangouts, places where low characters assembled. Smutty stories, malicious scandal and gossip of all kinds characterized barber shops until a few years ago. A barber shop was a place where men showed their lower instincts and where women dared not enter.

Assistants to Clergy

During the first centuries of the Christian era, the barbers of Europe practiced their profession wherever it was the custom to shave the face and trim the beard. Charlemagne made long, flowing hair the fashion, but each new conqueror changed the fashion according to his whim and personal needs. During the first ten centuries after Christ, the great majority of the people and even the nobles were uneducated and could neither read nor write. The most learned people of the times were the monks and priests who became the physicians of the dark ages. There were no professional surgeons at that time. Most of the diseases, which are easily curable now, were fatal then. “Bloodletting” was the popular method of curing all ills. The clergy who enlisted barbers as their assistants first performed this. This was the first step in the upward progress of the barber profession.

Barbers continued to act as assistants to the physician-clergy, until the 12th century. At the council of Tours in 1163, the clergy were forbidden to draw blood or to act as physicians and surgeons on the grounds that it was sacrilegious for ministers of God to draw blood from the human body. The barbers took up the duties relinquished by the clergy and the era of barber-surgeons began. The connection between barbery and surgery continued for more than six centuries and the barber profession reached its pinnacle during this time.

First Barber Organization

The earliest known organization of barbers was formed in 1096 in France when William, archbishop of Rouen, prohibited the wearing of a beard. The barber-surgeon, or chirurgeons, began to thrive all over Europe. They were the doctors of the times and the royalty as well as the common people came to the barbers to have their ills treated as well as for shaving and haircutting. The physicians proper were in continual conflict with the barber-surgeons. The barbers embraced dentistry as well as surgery and this brought down on them the enmity of the dentists of the times. This caused a long strife, whose settlement required the interference of kings and councils. Followed between the barbers and the regular surgeon-dentists. But the barbers retained the privilege of practicing dentistry and surgery for several centuries.

Founded School of Surgery

In the middle of the 13th century, the barber companies of Paris, known as the Brotherhoods of St. Cosmos and St. Domain, founded the first school ever known for the systematic instruction of barbers in the practice of surgery. This school was later enlarged and became the model for schools of surgery during the Middle Ages. Many of the foremost surgeons of the times were students of the School of St. Cosmos and St. Domain. The establishment of this school was one of the greatest contributions ever made toward the progress of humanity.

The oldest barber organization in the world, still known in London as the “Worshipful Company of Barbers,” was established in 1308. Richard le Barbour, as the Master of the Barbers, was given supervision over the whole of his trade in London. Once a month he had to go the rounds and rebuke any barbers whom he found acting disgracefully or entering on other trades less reputable. The master of a city company not only had this power, but he successfully prevented unauthorized persons from practicing the barber profession.

The Barbers Guild of the 14th Century was undoubtedly more powerful than any of the modern unions. The king and council sanctioned the Guilds and so they could enforce their regulations. It was not uncommon for violators of Guild regulations to suffer prison terms for their misdemeanors.

Origin of the Barber Pole

The modern barber pole originated in the days when bloodletting was one of the principal duties of the barber. The two spiral ribbons painted around the pole represent the two long bandages: one twisted around the arm before bleeding and the other used to bind is afterward. Originally, when not in use, the pole with a bandage wound around it, so that both might be together when needed, was hung at the door as a sign. Later, for convenience, instead of hanging out the original pole, another one was painted in imitation of it and given a permanent place on the outside of the shop. This was the beginning of the modern barber pole.

Alliance Dissolved

As the sciences of medicine, surgery, and dentistry advanced, the barbers became less and less capable of performing the triple functions of barber-surgeon-dentist. The surgeons wished to be separated entirely from the barbers and they petitioned parliament to sever the ancient relationship of the barbers and surgeons and compel each profession to adhere strictly to its own provinces. A committee was appointed by parliament to investigate the matter and the petition was favorably reported to parliament. By an act of parliament, which received the sanction of the king, the alliance between the barbers and surgeons was dissolved in June, 1745. Two separate companies were formed and the property, formerly owned by the barbers and surgeons jointly, was divided among the two companies.

An Upward Trend

Late in the nineteenth century there were several noteworthy events in the barber profession that gave it an upward trend, and the effects are still carrying onward and upward. How long it will be before the barber may be looked up to as a professional man, taking his place by the side of the dentist, chiropodist, chiropractor and other kindred professions, cannot be foretold, but it would seem both the public and the profession are ready for better things.

In 1893, A. B. Moler of Chicago, established a school for barbers. This was the first institution of its kind in the world, and its success was apparent from its very start. It stood for higher education in the ranks, and the parent school was rapidly followed by branches in nearly every principle city of the United States. In the beginning of schools, simply the practical work of shaving, haircutting, facial treatments, etc., was taught as neither the public nor the profession were ready to accept scientific treatments of hair, skin and scalp. Not until about 1920 was much effort made to professionalize the work.