Mom brings brother and sister to the barber shop so brother can get his hair cut. The little girl asks mom, “Are you going to get your hair cut?” Mom says, “No, I get my hair cut at the beauty shop.” “Can I get my hair cut?” asks the little girl. “Barbers don’t cut little girls hair,” replies mom. More than a few times I’ve heard this exchange or something very close to it.
It has long been a misconception that women are either not allowed or cannot get their hair cut in a barber shop. I’m going to set the record straight. The only instance I have ever found that women were not permitted in a barber shop was specifically for women teachers in the early 20th century in Kansas. It was in fact a part of their contract that while they were employed as a teacher they could not enter a barber shop.
The only explanation I have for such a strict contract is that barber shops have long had a reputation of being a seedy place. Often selling cigars and occasionally housing a billiard table or two, chewing and spitting, it did not promote a very feminine atmosphere.
From the New York Times of 1876, we find that some shops were even serving beer. “Those who style themselves the only legitimate and artistic practitioners of the tonsorial art denounce with vast energy the conduct of certain interlopers who have lowered the dignity of the profession by bribing the public with free cigars and gratuitous beer, to come be shaved at half the regular rate. Barbers that have hitherto found no lack of customers who were anxious to be shaved at the rate of ten cents per head, foresee that when a rival offers to shave for five cents, and to throw in a glass of beer or a cigar, the dignity and interests of legitimate practitioners must suffer.”
Sent to me last week from Cher Olson was a clipping from a magazine. The subject was old fashioned barbershops from various places where beer and stiff drinks are served with the service of a shave. At the Proper Barbershop in Los Angeles you can have a cold beer and play Xbox games while having your hair done. The Blind Barber in New York City has a cocktail lounge. Miami Beach and New Orleans also boast shops with bars. All I can say is real smart, get their blood thinned out and then shave ‘em.
When I am told that only beauticians cut women’s hair I ask, “Who cut women’s hair before beauticians?” It is very plain that barbers have been around much longer, and I assure you women not only patronized barber shops, they also operated them. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, November 23rd, 1867, “Madam Gardoni is doing a good business in Galveston, Texas, having taken up the razor for a living. She is the first woman who has successfully invaded this particular masculine business, and her customers praise the style in which she harvests the stubble from the face of men. She is a thirty-year-old immigrant employing two men to assist in her shop. A female barber would probably do well in New York City, if as good-looking. Fancy the sensation of being asked, in dulcet, flute-like tones, ‘Does the razor pull, sir?”
As further proof of barbers tending to ladies hair care, I have in my possession a 1906 edition of A.B. Moler’s ‘The Barbers’, Hairdressers’ and Manicurers’ Manual.’ Moler wrote the book on barbering, literally. His book was the first on the subject and printed in 1893. That same year he also opened the first barber school in the nation in Chicago. He has a section that is very detailed in doing women’s hair. Parting, crimping, puffing, tieing(sic), roughing, forming dips, high French knot, bow knot, half figure eight, marcel wave, trimming, shampooing, drying (my word you should see the dryers they once used), singeing (yikes!), clipping, everything! If the Moler graduate can’t do it, you don’t need it.
When the bob became popular in the 1920s young women were lined up at the barber shop to have their long hair cropped. Barbers began to realize the income they were missing by not advertising to the fairer sex. From the 1920s on through the end of the 30s barbers started advertising ‘hair bobbing done here’ or ‘beauty parlor’ in order to attract the feminine crowed.
According to some, barbershops were casualties of WWII. In 1880 there were 44,851 barbers employed in this country. By 1939 barbershops numbered close to 122,000 nationwide. At the end of WWII only 92,000 shops remained in business. Research done in 1996 shows that 62,034 barbershops were listed in the Yellow Pages in the United States. Beauty Shops numbered 202,000. Council Grove has its own history of few or no barber shops and many beauty shops. Council Grove was without a barber from 1982-1992 and from 1995-2003 when I opened my shop. There were nine beauty shops listed in town when I arrived and several more listed in the area.
Barber shops are making a slow come back, but due to the changing of the times and peoples habits, barber shops will never be like they once were. Very few men get weekly or biweekly haircuts like they once did. They do not come in every day or two for a shave. And never again will the barber remain busy until midnight on Sunday as he did in the days when Saturday night made the town bustle.