How Much?! Barbers & the Price of Shaving.

One of the central themes of my new book is how the practice of shaving has changed over time and, more importantly, who has been responsible for it. From the second half of the eighteenth century, individual men began to take more responsibility for shaving themselves, helped on by the availability of newer, sharper steel razors. Being able to shave yourself or (if you were wealthy enough) having a servant to do it for you, was a mark of status. 

But throughout the early modern period, and indeed through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, it was still the barber who was the main provider of shaving for the vast majority of men. A couple of things that I have long wondered about as I worked on my project was how much a visit to the barber cost in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and how frequently men went for a shave.  

The second part of the question is easier to answer than the first. Passing references in diaries do sometimes mention when men visited a barber although, because it was a routine occurrence, they didn’t usually give much detail…unless, of course, something went wrong! Samuel Pepys, for example, often noted in his diary when he was trimmed or shaved by his barber, Jervis. But establishing how much individual men paid, and for what, is more difficult since this wasn’t generally noted. Since barbers were very often small businesses too, they seldom left details of their charges in the historical record, especially in this period. 

One type of source – household accounts – does provide useful clues not only about how much (admittedly middling and elite) men paid for a shave, but how often they went to their barber. Even here, though, matters are complicated by the terminology used surrounding the practices of the barber. Often, men referred to being ‘trimmed’ by the barber. This could refer to shaving, but it could also refer to a haircut. Equally, the word ‘shaved’ is problematic, because it might refer to shaving the face or the head. Even a generic entry such as ‘paid the barber’ masks what was actually done. 

Also problematic is the habit of paying barbers on account, rather than in cash on the day. Some men simply paid a blanket sum either quarterly or sometimes annually. In 1717, for example, Thomas Milward, a Stourbridge attorney paid ‘Mr Hopkins the barber [for] 1 yrs shaving and powdring me’, but the number or frequency of visits covered by this sum is unknown, as is whether ‘shaving’ referred to the head, face, or both. But, even despite these limitations, it is still possible to make some educated guesses!

One thing that is clear is how important a figure was the barber to early modern men. Barbers took responsibility for a wide range of bodily tasks, from shaving and haircutting to digging out earwax, scraping tongues, lancing boils and any number of other minor running repairs. Barber’s shops were hugely important spaces for men to gather, gossip, eat and drink, and also sometimes to play music. Some barbershops even had their own instruments for customers to use whilst they waited. So it is firstly important to note that visiting the barber’s shop might not necessarily always been to have something ‘done’, but instead just to hang out with other male friends. 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Having gone through lots of entries across many different sets of accounts though, some patterns do begin to emerge. Most common, it seems, at least for wealthier men, was to visit a barber either once or twice a week to be shaved. Given the preference for the clean-shaven face from the late seventeenth century, this likely meant having the stubble scythed off, but might also include the head, to accommodate a fashionable wig. In 17th-Century Westminster, the barber John Phillips noted that he shaved John Powell up to three times a week…sometimes washing his feet and cutting his corns into the bargain. 

For men lower down the social scale, however, a single weekly shave (referred to as a ‘hebdomadal shave’!) was more likely. In these cases, we can also pinpoint the day, which was almost always a Saturday, due to the need to This was because of the social importance of appearing decent in church on Sunday mornings.

Adding together the evidence from lots of different accounts also starts to give a picture of how much men paid for the services of the barber. Costs could vary according to where you lived, your social status, and where the shave took place. A mark of wealth was having a barber attend you at your own home, rather than sit amongst the proles in a grubby shop. This possibly carried a higher charge because of the inconvenience and extra cost to the barber, although it also meant that some barbers (known as ‘flying barbers’) could dispense with running a shop altogether.


In shops, costs also varied widely, from a penny to as much as a shilling, and even sometimes more. Some accounts note instances where haircutting was included with shaving, incurring a higher cost, which allows some direct comparison. Overall, the most common charge occurring across many different accounts for shaving was sixpence each time. When men paid quarterly for barbering services, they usually paid between three and seven shillings, again depending on circumstances. 

This last point also highlights the issue of status. A common feature of barbers was the tailoring of prices according to the means of their customer. Barbers serving poorer punters charged less, by necessity. But, ministering to the podgy faces of elites offered the chance for greater fees. The issue of charges also lets us address the long-held assumption that barbers were low status practitioners. Even if a barber charged only sixpence for a shave, and carried out 20 shaves a day for 300 days a year, it was entirely possible, depending on profit margins, to make around £75 per year, representing a solid, middling income.

So perhaps we need to rethink the whole issue of barbers and status. For a long time they were regarded (and often depicted) unfairly as low-rank chatterers, who scraped the faces of the poor for a few pennies. In fact, barbers were – and in fact still are – key practitioners for men, not only in terms of fashioning heads and faces but, in providing important social spaces for men.

Barbers and (the lack of!) Polite Advertising

Over the past few years, I have spent much time looking at ‘polite’ advertising in the 18th century. During this period, a whole range of retailers advertised their goods and services to appeal to ladies and gentlemen of taste. Without discussing anything so base as price or money, they instead tried to coax, cajole and compliment their customers to become regular visitors.

One of the most common ways of doing this was the trade card. These were small printed pamphlets or bills, handed out to the customer after purchase as a reminder to them to visit again. Combining the refined language of ‘politeness’ with elegant neoclassical imagery, they reminded the customer of the world of goods available, the opulence of the shop surroundings, and the care and attention lavished on the customer.

Hundreds of eighteenth-century trade cards still exist, and for all manner of trades. Unsurprisingly these were often high-end businesses. But even some small, prosaic trades also adopted the card, and examples can be found for anything from dentists to skeleton sellers!

Trade card of Nathan Colley, Skeleton Seller, Copyright Wellcome Images

One type of business that appears to have steadfastly resisted the trade card, however, was the barbershop. On the face of it (excuse the pun!) barbers might be seen as just the sort to benefit from attracting regular, returning custom.  As shavers of men, they were key practitioners in fashioning polite appearance. The face of the gentleman in the eighteenth century was expected to be smooth and shaved; facial hair at this point signalled a rougher version of masculinity, far away from the delicacy and sensibility of the Beau monde. Evidence from the eighteenth century suggests that gentlemen visited barbers to be shaved up to three times per week. Indeed, dictionaries throughout the eighteenth century often defined barbers as ‘shavers’. In other respects, then, barbers could lay claim to be key practitioners in the construction of the polite, public face, helping men to meet new ideals of appearance. And yet they chose not to bother with trade cards. Why might this have been?

It has been argued that barbering as a profession was in decline in the eighteenth century. It has long been assumed that the split between the barbers and surgeons in 1745 elevated the surgeons, at the same time as relegating the barbers to mere ‘mechanics’. In reality this is far from being the case, and barbers in fact remained extremely busy throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, remaining key figures, and especially for men. What actually happened is that hairdressers attempted to position themselves as polite practitioners, fashioning the wigs and curls of beaus and belles, whilst also consciously distancing themselves from the rough and ready trade of barbers. One thing that hairdressers were particularly keen to avoid was shaving. 

Trade card of Colley, ‘Hair Cutter’ – Image copyright British Museum –

It could also be argued that, as self-shaving became gradually more widespread in the later eighteenth century, barbers moved more towards men lower down the social scale. In popular culture too, the barber became something of a figure of fun, often portrayed as a rustic tradesman – the stereotypical bumbling, inept fool who did more damage to his customers appearance than good. In fact, barbers were sometimes singled out and mocked for trying to affect airs and graces. 

But did barbers actually even need trade cards in the first place? The business relied, first and foremost, on footfall and passing trade. A given street in an eighteenth-century English town might contain several barbershops of various size and quality to suit the pockets of a variety of customers.  Such accounts and references that do survive suggest strongly that people tended to keep to one particular barber, building a relationship over time…in fact quite similar to today. This being the case, was there in fact any need to remind the customer of where they had their last haircut or shave? 

Secondly, the nature of the barbering trade was arguably different to those of other, even related, trades. Wig (or peruke) makers, for example could trade on their range of the stock, the quality of their hair, and the service element of their business. Some cards survive for perukemakers  which demonstrate their easy assimilation into the world of polite advertising. For barbers, however, aside from selling the odd cake of soap, glass of beer, or keg of butter, they were unlikely to adopt (or need) the fawning, obsequious style of metropolitan shop owners.

Image from R.W. Proctor, The Barber’s Shop (London: 1883) – author’s photograph

If not trade cards or newspaper advertisements, then, did barbers even advertise at all? In fact it could be argued that barbers had the most striking advertisements of all, hidden in plain sight: the pole. Without wishing to be a ‘pole denier’ I do have some reservations about the origins of the red and white striped design, and the idea that it represents the bloodletting process. Whilst it’s a nice idea (the red signifying the blood being taken, the white denoting the bandages, and the pole itself is said to be the ‘fillet’ – the small stick gripped by the patient whilst their vein was being opened) it seems a little bit TOO convenient. Evidence can be found for barbers’ pole outside shops in the sixteenth century; the story of the colours was certainly in circulation by the late eighteenth century, and vigorously and enthusiastically repeated by Victorian antiquarians. Hard evidence, though, is somewhat more difficult to come by. There is some evidence, for example, that the pole sometimes had blue and white stripes, although this might suggest it represented the vein about to be cut.

Whatever the origins, the lack of trade cards might be taken as evidence that barbering itself was not a ‘polite’ trade; but equally it might just reflect that fact that barbers were so busy that no such expense or trouble was needed.