Barber shops are proving to be one of the big growth industries of the past few years. All across the country, and indeed across the world, it seems that there has been a marked return in what we might think of as ‘traditional’ barber shops. Not only this, many barbers have also now begun to return to what was certainly, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the task with which they were most synonymous – shaving. More about that in a future post.
But barbers are, and always have been, closely associated with their shops. When we think of those shops we also think of the signs of their trade, most notably the pole, but also the barber’s chair, mirror and paraphernalia. (See Lindsey Fitzharris’s great post about the barber’s pole) The barber’s shop was (and still is) an important social space, somewhere to meet and gossip, as well as to purchase ‘product’. This too was no different in the past. In the early modern period, the barber was an important source of goods. It was, for example, pretty much the only place where men could legitimately buy cosmetic products, such as shaving lotions or soaps, and perhaps even razors, as well as having them applied as part of the service.
Other things were sold by barbers to boost their incomes, including alcohol and foodstuffs. As Margaret Pelling has shown too, music was an important part of the barber’s shop experience, and some even had house instruments that customers could use to kick up a sing-song. Eleanor Decamp’s recent book ‘Civic and Medical Worlds’ has also highlighted the ‘soundscape’ of the early modern barbershop, with the snip-snap of scissors, the click and slap of the barber’s hands as they did their work, and their notoriously incessant chatter.
(Image copyright Wellcome Images)
But, as part of my project on the history of facial hair, I’ve been doing lots of research into the records of early modern barbers recently, and this is beginning to show a more complex picture than perhaps first thought. Despite the emphasis on shops, it is becoming clear that not all barbers in fact had shops. Indeed, there are good reasons why many might have chosen not to.
Fitting out a barber shop in the seventeenth century was actually extremely expensive and required quite a considerable outlay to get it up and running. In 1688, Randle Holme’s book Academy of Armoury set out the list of equipment in an idealized barbershop. It was quite substantial.
Once established, the ongoing costs of maintaining the equipment must also have been onerous. Razors and scissors needed constant stropping and sharpening – a job likely to have been done by an apprentice. Waters and powders needed to be continually replenished, whilst shop fittings needed cleaning and repairing with the stress of daily use. To establish even a fairly modest business, therefore, needed money.
A search through the probate inventories of barbers in the 17th and 18th century reveals a wide range in size, quality, and equipment levels. There were certainly barber businesses in towns across Britain, for example, that did seem to follow Randle Holme’s ideal. In 1674, Edward Wheeler’s Salisbury barbershop contained three basins, some chafers and ‘barbers instruments’ valued at a total of ten shillings. Basins and chafing dishes were both requisites for warming and holding water for shaving. In Newark, Nottinghamshire, barber Thomas Claredge’s shop contained glass cases and furniture, a large number of hones, brushes and basins, wash balls and a quantity of shop linen. The inventory of the Nottingham barber William Hutchinson also gives a glimpse into a high-end barber’s business. Customers entering Hutchinson’s shop would have been greeted by a variety of furniture, including tables, chairs and benches, and shelves occupied by wig blocks, along with wigs, salve and powder boxes, and a number of pewter pots and candlesticks. Amongst Hutchinson’s equipment were 2 mirrors, 6 brushes, 13 razors and a hone, and a number of pairs of scissors and curling irons. A pile of ‘trimming cloths’ stood in readiness for use, whilst the customer’s eye might also be diverted by the ‘small pictures’ on the walls, or by the noisy occupant of the bird cage also noted by the inventory takers.
(Copyright Wellcome Images)
But in many cases too, there were clearly more basic surroundings. Some shops, like that of the Chippenham barber Thomas Holly in 1697, were clearly very basic, with an entry for ‘the shoppe’ listing just ‘2 chaires 1 lookeing glasse [and] 1 stool’, valued at five shillings. In Chepstow, in 1697, Roger Williams’ shop contained only a looking glass, a basin, some razors, one hone and a small amount of ‘trimming cloth’, while the Nottingham barber Thomas Rickaby’s shop inventory contained ‘1 lookeing glass, some razours, three old chaires’ and three wigs. Such examples suggest small, part time or occasional businesses, capable of attending only a few customers at one time.
Some sources suggest that barbers simply used space in their own houses to trim customers, keeping a bare minimum of equipment to use at need, avoiding the need to equip a ‘formal’ shop space altogether. Here trimming was likely a simple expedient. Customers would turn up ad hoc and be shaved, but perhaps without the frippery and frills of the high-end barber
But equally, as Susan Vincent has noted, there was actually little need for barbers to run a shop since this was an activity that could be performed at any time of day, and in the customer’s own house. Barbers were effectively on call at any time of day. Until at least the early nineteenth century itinerant ‘flying’ barbers offered shaving services to customers, either in their own homes or even in ad hoc stalls in town centres and markets. In 1815 John Thomas Smith reported the dying trade of the ‘flying barber’ in his study of London. Their standard equipment was reported to be a basin, soap and napkin, and ‘a deep leaden vessel, something like a chocolate pot’, enabling them to move relatively swiftly to find custom. Many barbers were likely able to eke out a living by providing a mobile service in this way, rather than operating from fixed premises. Securing a regular contract with a wealthy gentry family, for example, providing shaving services in the comfort of their own country pile, could be lucrative and might dispense with the need for a shop altogether.
The history of barbershops, then, may be more complex than has previously been assumed. Barber businesses varied greatly. Some were well-equipped, almost luxury affairs, with pots of pastes and lotions, powder and pomatum and a bustling atmosphere. Others were smaller, cheaper and more prosaic. But many barbers had no shop at all, simply fulfilling a demand in their community, and building up a reputation, as was the case with medical practitioners in general. The need for the weekly trim ahead of Sunday service (the ‘hebdomadal shave’) meant that there was almost always a need for a parish barber. It also reminds us of the changing landscape of shaving and haircutting through time though, and the fact that, three centuries ago, you didn’t necessarily go to the barber’s and sit in a queue. If you had the means, they came to you.