Barbers and Barbershops in Early American Writing: Newspapers and Magazines

Two pieces in one edition of the New York-based National Magazine; Devoted to Literature, Art, and Religion (1853) offer a window into the polarising views of the barber and the barbershop in early American writing.6 The first, “Beards and Barbers,” illustrates an admirable awareness of the importance of studying and understanding the barbershop with the declaration: “beards and barbers are historical.”7 Beginning with a compact history of the bristling tensions caused by the natural (f)act of hairs growing on a man’s face, the piece signposts the bitter war between the Tartars and the Persians over “the growth and management of the beard,” underlines the symbolic power of the beard in civilisations throughout history by namechecking the Greeks, the Jews, the Gauls, and the English and, indeed, points to the social, political, and historical development of one of the oldest trades of in history of humankind: barbering. The contributor sources the origins of the barbershop as a social space in Rome and Sicily before the emergence of the “honourable body” of “barber-chirurgeons” in Great Britain in the time of Edward IV. Crossing the pond to the United States, the article discusses how barbering was an occupation tied to the complex discourses that were beginning to shape the formation of the American nation. Not only does the piece reflect on

The Barbershop in American Literature 25 the historicity of the barbershop, but it also offers interpretations of the symbolic resonance of many of the accoutrements that are unique to the barbershop, from the interior décor to the exterior accessories such as “the pole, with its painted fillet of blue or red.”8 Yet the overall tone of this article is one of reproach regarding the common barber of a developing American society. Once regarded as “a man of science and philosophy,” the barber is now “the cheap barber, with his pole, his jack-towel, his small looking-glass, his Windsor chair, his copy of the weekly paper, his pictures of a bear, his birds,—nearly all barbers have birds,—and his endless flow of intelligence and small talk. Talk!—all barbers talk.”9

In this very same issue of The National Magazine, another piece proclaims the need for greater appreciation of the important role of the barber in the formative years of the United States. In “A Few Words Upon Beards,” the writer displays a keen awareness of the value of the barber and the barbershop.10 Following the quip in the previous article that the barber is no longer a man of science and philosophy, the author of this piece salutes the beard as a symbol more telling than any ancient artefact which the archaeologist might find or any grand theory with which the philosopher may enlighten us; in fact, the contributor underlines the sociological power of a few hairs on a man’s face as indicators of the functioning of society, and, just as important, the role of the barber within that society. While the article acknowledges the changing attitude toward the barber and his apparent fall from grace, now “weltering in his lather,”11 tellingly, the contributor predicts a rise in the cultural currency of such “civilized chins” as symbols of status and masculinity. The beard, in all its stylisations, is recognised as something to be upheld in order to project a certain image of the self. Moreover, the article implies that cultivating and maintaining a tidy style of facial hair is in itself a sign of civility, one of the central components in the legitimacy of American values, particularly American democracy. Therefore, the barber, in cutting the hairs on a man’s head and deftly trimming follicles on his face, inhabits a key position in the functioning of new American communities: “the barber, no longer condemned to reap the barren crop of a stubble-field, shall be restored to his pristine dignity as the artistic cultivator of man’s distinguishing appendage.”12 Ultimately, the barber is shaping the face of American civilised society.

While these two mischievous pieces play on the divisive view of the barber at one particular period in American history, they capture the main thread that weaves through the history of the barber and the barbershop in American writing: the idea of the social space of the barbershop as the site for the dramatisation of the complex history of American masculinities and the crises that characterise particular historical moments. There are two points to address immediately from this premising statement: First, the plurality of masculinities is key here—writers from the richly diverse sections of American society employ the barbershop as the settingfor their explorations of the discourses that shape the socialisation of men in their particular communities. Second, the suggestion of a crisis of masculinity is, certainly, a recurrent argument in the critical examinations of men and their masculine identities in numerous disciplines and fields of study. While I am wary of adding to the cry of such hardships for those who are often the most privileged members of society, the research that has driven the writing of this chapter—both primary research of the archives of American magazines, periodicals and newspapers, as well as informed (re-)readings of literary fictions—points to the barbershop as a stage for the dramatisation of certain tensions underpinning the performance of masculinities, including hegemonic masculinities, and, indeed, the crisis that is often the driving force behind these tensions. The point should also be made that this “crisis” that is often set as the motive for the performance of the characters in such scenes is, for want of a better term, a critically conscious crisis; that is to say, the authors are not simply manufacturing a crisis as a motive for the manipulation of their characters in these scenes but are using such scenes to critique what “crisis” means for individual men and their collective view of their masculine identities. Ultimately, what emerges in these narratives is the symbolic power of the beard and the barbershop in narratives that explore the main issues connected to the negotiation of masculinities, namely race, class, social mobility, and social order. And the barbershop is presented as the ideal stage for these moments of unique intimacy—be it physical, psychological, or sociological—between American men.

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