The Barbershop in American Literature
The barbershop is a unique social space in society.1 If we think of a barbershop, we think of crewcuts or pomaded quiffs, of sculpted sideburns or lusciously oiled beards, of tattoos and chains and motorcycle helmets. The inside of the barbershop is wood panels, red leather chairs, and memorabilia of rock stars, actors, and sporting heroes nailed to the walls. You can even enjoy craft beers and IPAs. The outside of the barbershop is marked by the symbolic power of the barber’s pole (see Figure 1.1). All in all, the barbershop is proudly masculine. The barbershop is again regarded by men a safe space to celebrate these archetypes of manhood and manliness, a sanctuary from the perceived threat towards their masculine identities in everyday life. And the data support this. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a growth of 10.1% of the barbershop industry up to 2024, compared to the national average of 6.5% over the same period.2 The barbershop is a cornerstone of the service industry to men, but it sells more than a sharp haircut or a quick trim of the beard; the barbershop sells a sense of the collective, a sense of camaraderie for men in their shared struggle of finding ways to perform and affirm their masculine identities which, in men’s eyes, have never been more unstable.
And this resurgence in the social significance of the barbershop for many men is because the barbershop is a place of socialisation. For young boys, it is most likely the first all-male place they visit. Brought there by their fathers, grandfathers, or other male guardians, the masculine codes of their particular community are presented and performed to the young boys in the barbershop. Through story and conversation, through magazines and music, and through discussion and debate, young boys turning into young men learn what is expected of them in their community. And the barbershop is the ideal arena to perform these masculinity forming rituals.
If we have the barbershop, then, of course, we have the barber. The barber shoulders a range of responsibilities from behind the barber’s chair (see Figure 1.2). While barbering is a trade defined by its skill set— cutting and trimming and washing and waxing—there are other essential skills that the barber must cultivate. While the barber appears to be
Figure 1.1 The barber’s pole outside the barbershop
Figure 1.2 The barber’s chair
actively working on improving the client’s exterior, he is often working just as hard on his client’s interior. Barbering is an intimate profession in all aspects, not only in the physical sense but also in terms of the emotional and psychological support a barber must offer each individual client. The barber is many men to his many customers: he is a talker, a listener, a therapist, an advisor.3 And these skills are essential for building the necessary trust with each client. Barbering requires a level of trust and confidence for a client to sit still or lay prone while another human being slides a sharp knife down his face or across his throat. And so, in this unique setting, the client is sure to show his trust and confidence in the barber by discussing personal and professional issues with this stranger during the few minutes that they share together. In many ways, the client expects the same confidentiality arrangement that they might share with a doctor or priest or rabbi. Ultimately, being a barber is more than mastering the scissor or the razor; it is mastering the minds of men.
The history of the barber and the barbershop in the United States is a complicated one. What has remained constant throughout this time is the central role of the barber in the changing face of American society. As Victoria Sherrow notes in An Encyclopedia of Hair (2006), in earliest colonial America, the barber took on extra duties, not only cutting the hair of his customers but also cutting into their bodies in his extended role as physician and surgeon (have you ever wondered where the red and
The Barbershop in American Literature 23 white of the barber’s pole comes from?) (52). During the 1700s, barber-ing was an occupation tied to the complex discourses that were beginning to shape the formation of the American nation, particularly race and slavery. In southern states, African American slaves adopted hair-cutting and beard-clipping duties for many years, before the first free African American men finally began to open barbershops.4 Unsurprisingly, the racial tensions that underpinned changing ideas in American society often emerged as incidents of serious if not fatal violence in the barber’s chair.
After the Civil War, immigrants from Europe brought barbering back to the fore in American society and began to challenge the African Americans who were “cutting along the color line.”5 This was the period when certain groups of African Americans flourished by focusing on gentile society, their barbershops decorated to the highest detail to serve white society men. The barbering profession continued to thrive, and soon barbers certified their professional status by founding the Barbers’ Protective Union in 1886 in Columbus, Ohio. A year later, the Journeyman Barbers International Union, known today as the Barbers, Beauticians, and Allied Industries International Association, was formed in Buffalo. In 1893, A. B. Moler founded the first barber school in Chicago and produced the first textbooks on barbering. If men wanted to become barbers, they had to attend classes on cutting and shaving techniques, face treatments, and the sanitation of their instruments (Sherrow 53-54). The move into the 20th century saw laws passed to further regulate the training and licensing of the barbering profession.
As barbering was enjoying the benefits of greater professionalisation, American society was beginning to change. The turn to the 20th century saw a growing pressure for men to be clean-shaven. While it might be expected that this societal shift would have helped the barbering trade to prosper, the reality was that the barber faced a serious challenge from the Gillette razor. Wanting to appear like the fresh-faced Hollywood stars on billboards or like the clean-shaven presidents who dominated this time in the history of American facial hair, the early decades of the 20th century, with rapid industrialisation and the emergence of the clean-cut white-collar worker, meant that it was quicker and easier for men to shave themselves in front of their own mirrors at home. Post-World War II, however, saw the emergence of diverse counter-culture styles of grooming. The rise in long hairstyles for men, and sometimes even longer beards, led many barbershops to go out of business in the 1960s and 1970s (Sherrow 54). The 1980s and 1990s saw a change in the gender dynamics of the barbershop, with women making up half of all student barbers. Now in the new millennium, the barbershop has enjoyed a recent resurgence in social significance. As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, recent times have seen barbershops once again thrive as places that sell a masculinity-affirming experience. The barbershop is more than its four walls, its leather seats, or even its red-and-white pole.
The barbershop is a sanctuary from the pressures of everyday society. It is a place where men feel they are not being challenged from their often self-created “Other.” The barbershop is a place where men feel they can be the men they ought to be.
Throughout the history of American literature, the barber and the barbershop have been tied into the major narratives that have shaped the American literary tradition. It is worth stating, at this early juncture, that the intention of this chapter is not to be exhaustive. Such ambitions are simply not realistic within the restrictions of a single chapter. Neither is it the intention to offer a historical mapping of such literary engagements. Rather, following extensive research on barbershops in American writing, the intention is to explore and discuss the rich symbolic power of the barbershop in a wide range of writing—from works of social commentary and satire in early American newspapers, the highly charged narratives of race and violence in short stories or poetry in American magazines, or indeed the return to the barbershop in more recent works of contemporary American fiction. These three strands of the rich narrative of barbershop writing will be the focus of this multisectional chapter with the aim of demonstrating the need to celebrate the barbershop is a sociologically charged stage for the examination of the dynamics underlying the formation of masculinity in particular moments in American history, culture, and society.