The history of barbering
We’re all familiar with the term ‘barber’ and hopefully recognize it’s a person whose occupation is mainly to cut, groom, style and shave men’s hair. A barber’s place of work is known as a ‘barber shop’ or more commonly the ‘barber’s’.
The actual word comes from the Latin ‘barba’, meaning ‘beard’.
Seems pretty straightforward doesn’t it…. just a place to get a haircut!
However the history of ‘barbering’ is far from straightforward!
Earliest records go back to primitive man where the foremost men of their tribe were medicine men and priests – who were also the ‘barbers’. The early tribes were very superstitious and believed that both good and bad spirits entered the body through the hairs on the head and the bad spirits could only be driven out by cutting the hair. Different tribes developed different styles of haircut.
In tribal times the barbers became the chief figures in religious ceremonies, where elaborate rituals included dances where the long hair hung loose and afterwards the hair was cut, then held back tightly in order that the good spirits couldn’t get out and no evil spirits could get back in. Early razor blades have been found dating back to the Bronze Ages!
Ancient monuments and papyrus show that the early Egyptians were extremely fussy about hair and held lots of superstitions around it. Lots illustrate men being shaved, and the priests were ‘de-haired’ every few days. Even Joseph was described as being shaved before seeing the Pharaoh so he didn’t have a ‘dirty face’.
Romans and Greeks and Persians
Romans had barbers since 296 BC, when Ticinius Mensa came from Sicily bring the art of shaving with him. Here they set the trend of ‘barbers’ being the place to meet, socialize and gossip much as they are today. The absence of beards actually set apart ‘Free’ men from the slaves. Barbers in Greece have continued to have an important role in society since the 5th century BC where they have been fastidious about facial hair.
The Persians are said to have beaten Alexander the Great’s men because they had beards! The Persians could grab the Macedonians’ beards, pulling them to the ground and spearing them. Later Alexander ordered all his army to shave!
In the Middle Ages barbers were not only cutting hair and shaving, but also pulling teeth, dressing wounds and performing simple operations. These barber-surgeons actually formed their first organisation in France in 1096, after the archbishop of Rouen prohibited the wearing of beards!
It was later that the split of these combined roles of barbers and surgeons was sought. In 1210 in Paris they identified the academic surgeons as surgeons by their long robes and the barber surgeons in short robes.
In 1308 the world’s oldest barber organisation was founded in England-still known in London as the ’Worshipful Company of barbers’. It wasn’t until 1462 that Edward IV chartered barbers as a guild called the ‘Company of Barbers’; the surgeons established their own guild 30 years later.
However these two guilds were merged again by statute of Henry VIII in 1540, as the ‘United Barber-Surgeons Company’, but they were still differentiated: barbers displayed blue and white poles, and were forbidden to carry out surgery except for teeth-pulling and bloodletting; surgeons displayed red and white-striped poles, and were not allowed to shave people or cut their hair. In 1745 George II passed several acts to separate surgeons from barbers. The ‘Masters, Governors and Commonalty of the Honorable Society of the Surgeons’ were formed in London, but in 1800 during the reign of George III it was replaced by the ‘Royal College of Surgeons’.
Up until the 18th century the barber-surgeons duties consisted of not only cutting hair and shaving, but picking out lice from hair, pulling rotten teeth, lancing abscesses, setting bone fractures and very often ‘bloodletting’.
‘Bloodletting’ was an important practice, as it was believed that as a person ate and digested food it was turned into blood and if a person had an excess of blood, all sorts of ailments would follow, and so it was felt ‘bloodletting’ would help. Many physicians thought this cutter’s art beneath them so left it to the barbers.
These barber-surgeons just like other craftsmen needed to advertise their services and in Medieval London placed bowls of blood in their windows, to remind passers-by they may be overdue for their own ‘bloodletting’! But these bowls of blood congealed and putrefied and eventually a law was passed banning the practice of leaving blood in the windows. This caused a problem – where to dispose of the blood? Why easy – throw it in the River Thames!!!!
The barber-surgeons still needed somehow to advertise and that when the barber’s pole became the recognized symbol.