Barbers and Shaving in the Eighteenth Century

“It is the business of the barber to cut and dress hair, to make wigs and false curls, and to shave the beards of other men. In ancient times he used, also, to trim the nails; and even in the present day, in Turkey, this is a part of his employment”. So wrote the author of an 1841 survey of professions and trades.

One of the main subjects of my forthcoming book is the history of barbers, and their place as providers of shaving, and also as practitioners of the male face and head. I’ve been looking at some of the important questions that have sometimes been overlooked: how well equipped were barbers’ shops?; how did barbers learn to shave, and who taught them?; what happened to the barbers when men began to shave themselves around the mid eighteenth century, and also when beards came hugely back into fashion in the mid nineteenth century? But I’ve also been interested in a much more basic question: what was it like to be shaved in an early modern barbershop?

V0019646 A barber's shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua
V0019646 A barber’s shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A barber’s shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aquatint. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see

Barbers have (very unfairly, in my opinion!) long been the whipping boys of the haircutting trades. In the eighteenth century the chattering barber was a comic staple. Many satirical cartoons lampooned the clumsy barber, engrossed in his own conversation and paying no attention to the safety of the customer in the chair. Country barbers, affecting airs and graces, were another favourite target of cartoonists. Worse still, the rise of hairdressing as a distinct occupation in the eighteenth century caused further tensions, as hairdressers sought to establish themselves as polite practitioners to the elites, and experts in tonsorial practice! In the process, they took every opportunity to barbers were relegated to the status of ‘mere’ shavers.

For an occupation like barbering/barber-surgery, with its long and proud tradition, not to mention considerable status in early modern towns, this must have been hard to take. Complaints from barbers about their diminished status were still rumbling on in trade journals late into the nineteenth century.

The problem was that a shave in an early modern barbershop varied considerably in quality. First was the question of how well equipped the barbershop was. Some high-end establishments had cases of razors, strops and hones for sharpening, bowls, basins, towels and some sweet-smelling creams or pomatums to apply afterwards. Other shops were much more basic, though, with only the minimum of equipment, and no fripperies. Perhaps the most important factor was the quality of the razor. Before the mid 18th century, the type of steel used in razor manufacture made them sometimes brittle, and difficult to sharpen. Once cast steel was introduced around 1750, things did begin to improve, although cast steel razors were expensive and beyond the reach of poorer barbers.

Being shaved with a blunted or poorly maintained razor was an ordeal for the customer. Rather than slicing off the beard hairs cleanly, a blunt razor rasped and bit, taking off layers of skin as well as stubble. Some barbers were more diligent than others in ensuring that their razors were up to the task. One account, from J. Torbuck’s Collection of Welsh travels, and memoirs of Wales (1749) gives us an interesting (if slightly tongue-in-cheek), insight into what could happen when things went wrong!

“I next sent out for a barber (resolving to see the best face upon matters I could) and, in about half an hour’s time, in comes a greasy fellow, swift to shed innocent blood, who, in a trice, from a protable cup-board call’d his cod-piece, pulls out a woollen night-cap that smelt very much of human sweat and candle-grease, and about two ells of towelling, of so coarse a thread, that they might well have serv’d a zealous catholick instead of a penitential hair-cloth.

After some fumbling, he pulls out a thing he call’d a razor, but both by the looks of effects, on would easily have mistaken it for a chopping-knife; and with pure strength of hand, in a short time, he shav’d me so clean, that not only the hairs of my face, but my very skin become invisible; and he left me not sufficient to make a patch for an Aethiopian lady of pleasure:

I gave him a small piece, bearing Caesar’s image and superscription; at which, he doffed me so low a bow, that the very clay floor was indented with his knuckles, and so he reverendly took his leave.”

V0019680 A barber shaving a disgruntled man. Coloured etching after H

(Image Copyright Wellcome Trust)

Images such as ‘Damn the Barber’ drew on what must have been a fairly common trope, of the painful shave, highlighting the lack of care and attention by some ‘Professors of the Tonsorial Arts’, or the damage done to customers. ‘Zounds! How you scrape’ cries the unfortunate victim of one blunt razor!

V0019687 A barber shaving a man in his shop. Etching, 1804.

(Image copyright Wellcome Trust)

But for all this, barbers remained hugely important in the lives of men throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The barbershop, as Margaret Pelling, Sandra Cavallo, Jess Clark and others have shown, was an important social space for men, as well as being a site for shaving, and also the purchase of cosmetic goods. Even when men did begin to shave themselves in greater numbers, they often did this in conjunction with visiting the barber. For many (perhaps even most) men too, it was simply cheaper and easier to go to the barber’s shop than to purchase and maintain shaving goods.

Barbers and their Shops in Early Modern Britain.

V0019646 A barber's shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua
V0019646 A barber’s shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A barber’s shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aquatint. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 10.48.15

(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.

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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.

Barber shop 2

(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.



Barbers and Advertising in the 18th century.

Over the past few years, I have spent a lot of time looking at polite advertising in the 18th century. During that 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 gently coaxed, cajoled and complimented their customers to become regular visitors. Politeness was, in many ways, a performance. Both customer and retailer played the game, turning shopping into something of an experience, often involving being served tea while you perused the items on show.

One of the primary ways of enticing customers back 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 polite language with elegant neoclassical imagery, they stressed the world of goods available, the opulence of the surroundings, and the care and attention promised to be lavished on the customer.

Thousands of these trade cards exist for all sorts of businesses. 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!

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(Trade card of Nathaniel Longbottom, skeleton seller – 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 should surely have been just the sort to benefit from attracting regular, returning custom.  As shavers of men, they played a pivotal role in the face of the polite gentleman. Indeed, dictionaries throughout the entire eighteenth century often gave the primary definition of barbers as ‘shavers’. Towards the end of the eighteenth century too, ‘hairdressers’ were important figures, especially in shaping female appearance. In other words, more than perhaps any other trade, it was barbers who helped men and women to meet new ideals of appearance, readying them for public view. And yet they chose not to bother with trade cards. Why might this have been?

V0040698 Men being shaved and having their hair cut, styled and crimp
Image from Wellcome Images

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’. The extent to which this is true is up for question; (it’s certainly something I’m interested in as part of my project on the history of facial hair). Certainly, in popular culture, though, the barber was 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.


(Lewis Walpole Digital Images)

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.

Perhaps for the same reasons, barbers did not seem to take advantage of the opportunities for relatively cheap advertisements in Georgian newspapers. If they appear at all, it is usually as an agent for some or other product – usually related to their trade, such as shaving soap, pomatum or even razors and other goods. But, as to their tonsorial skills….virtual silence.

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. I must admit to having doubts about the origins of the barber’s pole colours, and its red and white striped design. It’s often said that the pole represents the bloodletting process. Here the red signifies the blood being taken, the white denotes 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’s a story that was certainly in circulation by the late eighteenth century, and vigorously and enthusiastically repeated by Victorian antiquarians. It’s just that hard evidence is somewhat more difficult to come by. Perhaps we’ll never really know. 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, evidence for large, protruding poles outside barbershops can be found far back into the seventeenth century.

V0019646 A barber's shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua

(Wellcome Images)

So, it does seem that barbers were not necessarily ‘polite’ in the eighteenth century; perhaps they didn’t need to be; perhaps they didn’t even want to be! It’s interesting, nonetheless, to see how certain businesses relied on different means in order to advertise their services.

For more about the history of barbershops, have a look at Lindsey Fitzharris’s excellent articles on the subject, e.g.