Inside a seventeenth-century Welsh barber-surgeon’s shop.

Much of the work I’ve been doing recently on the history of shaving and masculinity in the enlightenment has concentrated on self-shaving…technically called auto-pogonotomy. The mid eighteenth century was really the first time when men started to eschew the barber and do the job themselves or, if they were well off, get their servant to do it. Some advertisements for male servants even stipulated that the prospective applicant had to be proficient in shaving.

Through my work on medical history, though, I’ve also been interested in the shops and contents of medical practitioners, especially doctors and apothecaries, but also barbers. One way of looking at this is through probate inventories. When people died, as part of the probate process, an inventory was made of all their possessions, and these can often reveal a great deal about material culture and individual lives. Often they are not detailed, and simply lump the goods together under generic titles like ‘household stuff’ or ‘brass and pewter’. But sometimes they are more thorough, and list individual items. In the case of inventories for shop owners, they can give us a real insight into not only what was being sold, but the appearance and layout of the shop itself.

One of the inventories I looked at when researching my book was that of a Wrexham barber-surgeon, James Preston, who died in 1681. (For anyone who might want to see the original, it is in the National Library of Wales, reference  MS SA/1681/216). The makers of Preston’s inventory were extremely diligent, and listed the entire contents of his shop. By looking at this closely, we can learn a lot about what it must have been like to walk into his shop in the late seventeenth century.

Like many shopkeepers of the time, James Preston lived above his shop, and appears to have been fairly well off by the standards of the time. Amongst his furniture were ornate “turkey worke” chairs and cushions, some leather chairs and other pieces of furniture including chests and glass cases. In another room over the shop were several feather beds, trunks of linen and a range of housewares including fine cooking utensils and dinnerware. Preston was clearly a man of some standing, since much of what he owned was expensive and out of reach to those on lower incomes.

Preston was described on his inventory as a “Chirurgeon Barber”, and barbering was clearly a large part of his business.  Visitors to his shop would have been greeted by an array of shaving equipment, some hanging on the wall, others ready to use. There were, for example “One case of trimming instruments with razours and coumbs”, along with a “douzen and a halfe of washboales”. Clearly this was a business set up to deal with a number of customers at once.

Another entry suggests the process of shaving itself. Amongst the shop items was “Jesamy butter” – a type of unguent soap, presumably applied to soothe recently scraped faces, as was “agyptiacum”. A similar function was performed by the “halfe a pound of damask powder” in Preston’s inventory- the early modern equivalent of a splash of aftershave! The customer would have seen a row of pewter and brass basins, and a set of fifteen razors and scissors. After the deed was done, they might inspect their freshly shorn visage in one of the looking glasses that were present in the shop.

It is also interesting to note that the shop contained six chairs and “instruments of music”. Margaret Pelling’s work on early modern barber and apothecary shops has suggested that these establishments could become places for social gatherings, as well as functional premises, and this might include the playing of music and merrymaking. To find this in a provincial Welsh barber’s shop is interesting.

But, also like many of his contemporaries, James Preston was a medical practitioner, and his inventory shows evidence of debts owed to him for treatments. One Hugh Roberts of the Swan Inn owed Preston £1 for “the dressing of his legg”, and a further seven shillings for “the dress of a quinsy”. He provided a “searcloth” – a type of plaster/bandage for another customer, while he charged two shillings and sixpence for curing a “bustion” on a housemaid’s finger.  In all, there are well over twenty ‘cures’ listed, including local elites as well as the poor and servants, and Preston treated everything from broken limbs to sore throats.

It might seem unusual that a barber might administer cures, but it was in fact common. The classification used on probate inventories (in this case “Chirurgeon-barber”) gives a clue – surgeon is put first here. But the makers of inventories often just used the main type of employment of the deceased, even though they might have performed several functions. There was a close relationship between barbering and medicine anyway; facial hair itself was regarded as a form of bodily excreta, so getting rid of it was part of the wider bodily rituals of letting blood and purging.

This is just one source, and even in a few brief paragraphs we can begin to build up a picture of something of the life of just one early modern barber. Used carefully, probate inventories can be fantastic sources, giving us a window into the insides of people’s houses, and the accoutrements of their lives.

2 thoughts on “Inside a seventeenth-century Welsh barber-surgeon’s shop.

  1. Very interesting. I’ve always been intrigued by the barbers you see, practicing their trade by the side of the road, in third world countries. I was recently in Cambodia, and every market seemed to have a barber. I assume this is because it is cheap to set up – chair, razor, towels, basin – and labour intensive, and a professional shave is an affordable luxury even for a poor man, so it’s an accessible business to enter. It was almost the equivalent of a shoeshine stall, where the purpose of the transaction is clearly the charitable redistribution of money to the deserving poor.

    Your man was clearly at the opposite end of the social and economic scale – but of course, those in the first category don’t leave probate records!

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