In the 18th and 19th centuries, the chattering barber was a comic stereotype. All sorts of satires and images lampooned the loquacious shaver, more intent on the sound of his own voice than the customer’s comfort. But in 1869 an unusual case came before the Greenwich Magistrates. Here, it wasn’t the barber’s chatter that caused the problem…but another talkative inhabitant of the shop.
(Image from Wellcome Images)
The case centered upon a dispute between Stephen White, and Edwin Fox, a barber. White was accused of using foul language towards the barber and fleeing the shop without paying for his shave. Fox was determined to get his fee and have his day in court. So far, this all sounds fairly mundane – the sort of routine case doubtless heard in magistrates’ courts across the land. But the circumstances surrounding this particular case were anything but routine.
The dispute arose began as White was in the chair in Fox’s shop, with the barber busily removing his stubble, and doubtless chatting away. According to Fox, the defendant ‘suddenly moved from his seat’, causing him to move the razor rapidly away. Remembering that he had once before cut Mr. White quite severely when the man had wriggled around in the chair, he cautioned him to sit still, or risk another painful accident.
Upon this, Mr. White leapt from his seat, and let rip a furious tirade of profanities and oaths, threatening to ruin the barber in his business, before running out into the street, with the angry and bemused barber in hot pursuit. Fearful that the customer would carry out his threats both to his business and person, Fox felt compelled to bring the matter to court. It seemed like an open and shut case.
When he came to the stand, however, Mr. White’s version of events was somewhat different. The cause of his outrage, he argued, was ‘the indelicate conduct’ of the barber’s two pet parrots, one of which he described as ‘irritating and annoying’.
(Parrot of Carolina on Cypress Tree, 1731, Wellcome Images)
White claimed to have been feeling out of sorts, due to a recent bout of gout and bronchitis, and was in no mood to be provoked that day. All initially seemed well. But, just as the shave commenced, one of the parrots apparently called out ‘Fox, I shan’t be able to pay for this shave till Saturday night!’.
Notwithstanding the fact that it came from a bird, White took clearly took the remark personally, seeing it as a slur on his creditworthiness. He believed that the barber had primed the parrot with the phrase deliberately for him. It was this, he claimed, that ‘irritated him and caused him to move his seat’.
(Bob Foster, the Cambridge Flying Barber (!), Wellcome Images)
But worse was to come. Just as Mr. White ‘felt the razor passing across his flesh under the chin’, the parrot delivered its perfectly-timed coup de grace: “Fox…cut his throat!’ White ‘felt naturally alarmed at the recommendation of the bird and hastened his exit’.
Struggling to keep a straight face, the chief clerk of the court asked Mr. Fox if he kept parrots, and whether they were capable of such language. If so, said the clerk, it might be necessary to bind the barber over in sureties for the birds’ good behaviour. [general merriment in court]
With his feathers clearly ruffled, Mr Fox indignantly admitted that he did indeed own two parrots but was unable to explain their linguistic capacity.
The judge had heard enough and sent the two men on their way, telling them to settle their squabbles themselves, leaving ‘the whole court convulsed with laughter’. The parrots, it seems, escaped being brought before the beak!
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.
Last week, for the first time in my life, I was the lucky recipient of a wet shave with a cut throat razor. As part of my duties as a BBC/AHRC ‘New Generation Thinker’ I was making a short film about shaving in Georgian Britain, the conclusion of which sees me having my beard shorn off in the Pall Mall barbers in Fitzrovia, central London, a traditional barbers’ shop with a history dating back to the nineteenth century. http://www.pallmallbarbers.com/ (I don’t usually go in for endorsements in the blog, but will make an exception here and say a big thanks to Richard and his team for looking after us. Much appreciated guys).
For someone who has always used safety razors, I must admit that I was slightly nervous. After all, sitting recumbent in a chair while someone sweeps a lethally sharp blade over your neck might not immediately seem like a good plan. I needn’t have worried. My barber, Michael, was an expert and, after a bit of preparatory work with hot towels and various creams and lotions, six months’ worth of beard was gone(smoothly and painlessly) in less than half an hour.
But the experience was interesting for me on another level. Having been researching and writing in various ways about shaving for the past five or six years, this was a chance to get close to the experience of men in the past. Maybe sixty or seventy years ago, the cut throat razor was still extremely popular. Today, being shaved by a barber is something of a luxury. As I sat there in the comfortable chair, being shaved with a modern blade that was…well…razor sharp, I was reminded that this wasn’t always the experience of stubbly men in the past.
In Georgian Britain, shaving could be an extremely uncomfortable experience. Steel razors were already in use in the first half of the eighteenth century. These were often made of a type of steel called ‘shear steel’, which was made through an older process involving heating iron with layers of charcoal so that it absorbed the carbon. Whilst tough, this type of steel was prone to be brittle and not best suited to holding an extremely sharp edge for long. It needed constant re-sharpening with a strop –a leather strap which was held while the razor was swept up and down in long strokes.
After 1750, a new type of steel – cast steel – began to be introduced. Cast steel was more uniform in quality, capable of carrying a sharper edge, and had the added benefit of being capable of carrying a high polish. This meant that razors could look good, as well as working well. This is a model by the prominent razor maker and metallurgist James Stodart.
But even despite the availability of new razors, and the increasing habit of auto-pogonotomy (shaving yourself!), the barber was still the mainstay of shaving services. The problem was that the quality of barbering was, like the razors, not always uniform in quality. In fact, unlike today, barbers had something of a bad reputation for the treatment sometimes meted out to men coming into their shop for a shave!
Part of the problem was the routine use of blunted razors. Anyone who has ever tried to use a razor with modern disposable blades one too many times will probably sympathise with the uncomfortable rasping feeling as the blade scrapes, rather than cuts through the beard. So it was with a blunted cutthroat. Unlike today, there were no ‘lubricating strips’ in razors to help it glide. Shaving soaps and powders were used, and doubtless helped a bit but the poor customer was in for 30 minutes or so of severe discomfort if the barber had ignored the strop. The caption in this cartoon says it all: “Zounds how you scrape!”
Even once the shave had finished the ordeal might not be over. Many would have left with a prodigious shaving rash, not to mention the nicks and cuts that would be difficult to cover. By the 1780s, some perfumers like Robert Sangwine of the Strand were beginning to sell various pastes and potions to soothe smarting skin.
On a more serious note, a visit to the barber could be a threat to health. Razors might be washed between customers, but not in clean water. Matter such as blood and debris left on the surface of the razor, and its handle, could easily be transferred to the next customer, perhaps even into a cut, leaving them susceptible to infection.
It is also likely that, even with well-sharpened cast steel razors, the shave would not be as close as those experienced by modern men. It is also unlikely that the majority of men either shaved themselves or visited a barber more than a couple of times a week. As such, even though beards were extremely out of fashion, a few days growth of beard could well have been the norm. It is interesting to note, though, that a ‘five o’clock shadow’ could render you a target. The prominent Whig politician Charles James Fox was almost always depicted with heavy stubble, partly to highlight his status as a ‘man of the people’. If nothing else, this does suggest that ‘ordinary’ men, especially lower down the social order, were routinely stubbly. Fox is the figure at the far left.
But barbers were sometimes unpopular for other reasons. A raft of satirical cartoons poked fun at barbers who paid little attention to the sufferings of their customers or, worse still, paid little attention to their customers at all! In this cartoon, the barber is lost in his own conversation, talking about an acquaintance in Amsterdam. ‘Hulloa there’ cries the poor customer, ‘don’t you know that you’re about to cut off my nose?”!
This was also a time when barbers were in a period of transition. After splitting from the barber-surgeons’ company in 1745 to create their own occupational identity, the shift away from medicine was also marked by a move towards specialisation in hair dressing. Indeed, the term ‘hairdresser’ was increasingly becoming common towards the end of the eighteenth century. The extent to which hairdressers still provided shaving services for men is one of the questions I’ll be addressing in my new project on the history of shaving in Britain between 1700 and 1918.
In any case, I’m getting used to beardless life again after six months of facial hirsuteness. Many times in the course of my work as a historian of seventeenth-century medicine and surgery I’ve had cause to be thankful for modern biomedicine. My experience at the hands of a modern barber has given me the same feeling with my work on the history of shaving!