First Tales in the Barbershop

Tales of the barbershop first appeared in American writing as far back as the 18th century in the most popular productions of the day, namely newspapers, magazines, and periodicals. An early mention of the beard in an American newspaper came on May 23, 1789, in the Gazette of the United States. Tellingly, the beard, or lack thereof, and the method of removing such facial hair, are immediately set as markers of identity and, in this case, as early symbols in the enduring narrative of the beard as a marker of Otherness. In the piece on “Aborigines of America,” the commentator remarks on the methods of the natives of American soil to appear like their new white neighbours, a slight, no doubt, against their lack of civilised manliness. As the reporter tells us, they stand with “their faces smooth and free from beard”; however, this is not due to shaping the typical shaving utensils but “owing to a custom among them of pulling [the beard] out by the roots.”13

In the March 1788 edition of The American Museum; or, Repository of Ancient and Modern Fugitive Pieces & c. Prose and Poetical, an untitled poem carried across the Atlantic Ocean offers what seems like a quite light-hearted fable, but one that illustrates how issues of race, class,

The Barbershop in American Literature 21 and social ordering of men in society permeate the writing and reading of such transatlantic tales.14 The poem tells the story of a barber in York, England, who once kept a monkey in his barbershop. While Jacko the monkey is initially there for the “amusement” of the barber and his patrons, the animal quickly develops the human abilities of “observation,” “imitation,” and “mimicking.” This inevitably leads Jacko to try out his barber skills on other animals that happen to wander into the barbershop. He lathers the cat and attempts to shave her whiskers but does little more than leave a gash. Jacko then makes his mark on a dog that happens to saunter in, leaving it “howling round and bleeding.” Undeterred by these incidents, and having seen the barber shave himself, Jacko the monkey sits down in the chair. As the speaker tells it, Jacko “drew razor swift as he could pull it, I And cut, from ear to ear, his gullet.” The moral of the story is rather apt within the parameters of a study on beards and barbershops in American writing:

Who cannot write, yet handle pens,

Are apt to hurt themselves and friends.

Tho’ others use them well, yet fools

Should never meddle with edge-tools.15

There is a telling analogy here, the resonance not only in terms of the place of the barber in society or barbering as a trade in the early stages of a developing American society but also in the literary connections of the barbershop as a stage for the dramatisations of major issues of the day. In the poem, barbering is seen as a worthwhile trade, one which benefits many men, but there is also the warning that barbering appears very simple, so simple, in fact, that many might think a monkey may very well be tempted to try it not only on other animals but also himself. On a literary level, the symbolic richness of the barber analogy resonates with relation to the purpose and process of writers and writing. While the act of writing is certainly a worthwhile craft, one which provides a service to society and indeed one that appears straightforward, the act of writing also has the potential to do great harm not only onto others but onto the writer himself.

In the final years of 18th-century America, parodies in newspapers emphasised the social currency of a well-trimmed appearance and a greater appreciation of the role of the barber in such presentations. Two concerned tonsors, quite serendipitously named Stephen Strapandscrape and Tobias Tamehair, call for a law that ensures “all Shavers (vulgarly called Barbers) to demand and receive respectively for every such beard they shall take off, double the sum hitherto accustomed.”16 The pride in such crafted bearded bushiness resonates in a sonnet printed in the Gazette of the United States and Daily Evening Advertiser which celebrates the “majesty of manhood, still unshorn.”17

The move into the 19th century saw a rise in the number of pieces that used the barbershop for anecdotes, flash fiction, small essays, and various reflective pieces that scrutinised the very ethos of what it meant to be American and, in particular, an American male. The cultural cache of barbershop writings is evidenced with the frequent feature of such topics in one of the most successful periodicals of the era: The Port-Folio. Created and edited by Joseph Dennie, the first volume of The Port-Folio promised a series on barbers and barbershops. The first entry of “The Barber’s Shop” (1801) series offers a treatise on the centrality of such an establishment in contemporary discussions of the progress of American men. As the speaker reflects,

[t]he exchange and the beer-house oft witness the inquisitive sport of man. But of all the lounges, where idleness may yawn, or curiosity peer, where the Marplots of the hour may unburthen their own brain, or pry into a neighbour’s, none seems, to have been frequented more than the Barber’s shop.'3

What emerges from this satirical take on the power of the mind of the ordinary man, is the gendered nature of the “curious mind” of such patrons. While “the pride of man has limited the operation of curiosity to the female mind,” the speaker warns that “man has not reflected that there are occasions, on which he acts under its impulse.” Gender discourses, then, are brought to the fore in the performance of the men within the barbershop. Such prying men folk are satirised for appearing too feminine in what is, one might expect, the most masculine-affirming establishment in such towns. Despite this satirical social commentary, and its exposé of the gender dynamics that underlie such writing set in the barbershop, it is quite sad to see that the series appears to have been abandoned as soon as it was launched, with not even a second instalment of “The Barber’s Shop” appearing in print.

But the barber, and the history of barbering, was certainly a topic of interest in these early decades of the 19th century. In an exercise of what can only be read as brazen self-promotion, certain pieces mused on the importance of newspapers for barbershop clientele.19 These articles also discussed the changing role of the barber and the medical origins of the barber’s pole.20 By the time of the arrival of the barbershop on American soil, the pole had taken primary place in front of the shop, where, as was written in Dennie’s The Port-Folio, the pole “told the passengers, that within 'a vein might be breathed,' or a 'beard mowed.'21 Deeper reflections on the barber’s pole also appeared later in The Literary Companion. A leisurely literary wanderer on the streets of New York, aptly named The Lounger, tells of his curiosity to find out as to why a pole, rather than another object, should, first of all, be mounted outside of the barbershop and, second of all, why it should be

The Barbershop in American Literature 29 striped in such a serpentine manner.22 Notably, no mention is made of obvious phallic connotations.

Another thread from this time is the number of pieces in newspapers and magazines that feature visits to barbershops in foreign lands. Expeditions to German,23 Spanish,24 French,25 and Greek26 barbershops feature throughout this period. Moreover, many tales focus on the other side of this issue, with warnings of the changing face of barbering in the United States due to the incessant arrival of immigrant barbers. Pieces such as “The Whiskered Barber,” a short sketch of the experience of a professor, a man of high standing in society, with a French barber, offer a lighthearted comic tale injected with the tensions with the arrival of more Others to take over what had been American entrepreneurial pursuits. In this case, the speaker remains so incredibly outraged by the attitude and service of the foreign barber that he laments how “this trade has been most woefully perverted and has fallen from its original dignity and high standing.”27 Neither was barbering outside of the difficult relationship that American held with its British fatherland. In one comedic tale, “Prince of Wales and the Barber,” the young “embryo king” arrives in Boston and enters a barbershop. With the barber absent, he has his beard shaved off by the barber’s wife, whom the Prince of Wales “vouchsafed” with a “comely kiss.” As the Prince of Wales leaves the premises, he runs into the barber himself, who gives the British monarch a royal beating.28

The act of barbering was a feature of the changing focus towards the power of appearance in the United States during the 19th century. The barbershop features in many cutting pieces on male vanity, notably “Speculation in Whiskers; Or, Shaving in a Broker’s Office,” in which a man named Jenks, a fellow “who had a tolerably favourable opinion of his personal appearance,” is persuaded to part with one half of his whiskers for a certain sum and then made to repay double the price to shave it all off.29 There were also articles that underlined the influence that the barbershop was having on the young men, particularly in terms of the expectations of themselves calling for the removal of “licentious pictures” in certain public places, including barbershops. The correspondent calls attention to the fact that “in various public places in our City—in barbers’ shops, groggeries, &c.—pictures of the most licentious character, calculated to influence the passions of Young Men, are constantly exhibited.”30 Even during this period, the socialising power of the barbershop and its influence on impressionable young men is identified and critiqued.

Unfortunately, such changing attitudes towards barbering and the barbershop as the 19th century moved forward apace also included the barber. These included warnings of the perceived barbarity of the barber! In one piece, the speaker, echoing earlier days of the profession when the barber did more than simply trim hair, lets fly with his frustration with the “BLOOD-LETTING BARBER,” the “CHIRUGEON,” and the

“fierce little wretches armed with a soap-box and razor!”31 The vitriol continues: “Oh! that our BARBERS were men of compassion and bore in mind that the unhappy chins they operated upon, belonged to sensitive beings.”32 In a final call of quite startling brutality, the speaker proclaims, “In a word—they must first be murdered by their own scalping knives, drowned in their own soap suds, and buried in their own powder!”33 While this incendiary piece might seem out of place, the middle decades of the 19th century saw murder and massacre as prominent features in barbershop writings, entangled in the emerging narratives of race and violence, the significance of which is examined later in this chapter.

Despite these outbursts of disdain and derision towards the barber, it is during this period that the dominant trope of barbershop writing—that of the barbershop as a place of safety and sanctuary for the everyday male— is established. One notable piece, titled “Meditations in a Barber’s Shop” (1832), appeared in the New-England Magazine, a publication that also published the writings of many literary people from the period, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and Nathaniel Hawthorne (Hawthorne himself used the barbershop as a symbolic space in his Grandfather’s Chair series in the 1840s).34 This meditation presents the barbershop as a sanctuary for men to take a few moments and reflect on their sense of self, and crucially, the piece also celebrates the role of the barber in supporting such men. Here, as the main figure, Mr. Willis, reports, “I will gather up and preserve my reflections, though, as there is no Testament in the room, I must record them on the tablets of my brain, to be afterwards transferred to a sheet of common paper.”35 In fact, the speaker continues to champion the role of this “tonsorial artist”36 in not only improving the physical appearance of the men in society but also improving their psychological condition by simply listening to them. This, in the speaker’s view, is the barber’s main duty. The barber is the “philanthropic artist,”37 a modest man to true merit, content in the impact that he makes on everyday men: “And such is his daily life— constantly making men happier and better—seeing them arise, from under his hand, more satisfied with themselves and the world.”38 The speaker continues to wax lyrical about the humble barber:

his mind is a dainty piece of Mosaic—a tessellated pavement, inlaid with fragments of various forms and colours. Here a bit of politics, there a bit of poetry; here a little law, there a little physic. ... He can discourse to a farmer, of bullocks; to a merchant, of ships; to a broker, or stocks, and to a fine gentleman, of himself.3

Put simply, the barber “sees a man’s character as well as his person.”40 And yet the speaker laments how these finely tuned social skills, these abilities of observation and interpretation of the feelings of the patrons and their sense of selves in a changing American society, are no longer

The Barbershop in American Literature 31 considered of value: “He has fallen upon evil times. He is shorn of the honours that were once his. The world is changed to him.”41 Indeed, there are also stories of the exploitation of barbers. On this occasion in particular, our barber profiler reports the barber puts too much trust into the moral fibre of his clients and lends the substantial sum of 50 dollars to one new “gentleman” patron. The gentleman in question offers to repay the barber by check, but inevitably, the check bounces, and the gentleman disappears into the New Orleans crowd.42 Various tales, comedic or otherwise, sympathise with the plight of the barber, warning that the barber is not a machine but a human being, and it is important for the customer to also let the barber talk.43 This sense of “tender melancholy” underpins the view that barbers are no longer treated with the same reverence as in earlier periods but are now regarded as tonsorial tortures.

This changing attitude towards the barber—to see the barber as more of a nuisance than a source of guidance—continues throughout the 19th century. This view is dealt with directly in the barbershop writings of a certain Mark Twain. Twain, of course, sported one of the most recognisable stylings of facial hair in the history of American writing, namely the white walrus moustache. But Twain appeared to have little time for beards. In “About Barbers,” Twain’s speaker opens with the telling lines:

All things change except barbers, the ways of barbers, and the surroundings of barbers. These never change. What one experiences in a barber’s shop the first time he enters one is what he always experiences in barbers’ shops afterward till the end of his days.44

The piece bemoans the stress of getting “the best barber” or having to occupy a small space with clientele who are “silent, unsociable, distraught, and looking bored, as men always do who are waiting their turn in a barber’s shop.” The barbers are giving equally short thrift by Twain’s speaker in the text. They are criticised for their lack of attention, their lack of professionalism, their stubbornness, their heavy-handedness, and, of course, their blunt razors.

Twain’s satirical tale on the experience in the barbershop is preceded by a more caustic commentary in “Barbarous,” which appeared a few years before in the New York Sunday Mercury.45 Twain’s short piece opens with the declaration: “If I do not get a chance to disgorge my opinions about barbers, I shall burst with malignant animosity.” The next line is even more vicious: “Barbers are an unholy invention of Satan, and all their instincts are cruel and revolting.” Twain’s speaker remarks on their pride towards their “unwholesome breath,” their heavy-handedness, and their intelligence (or lack thereof) and even scoffs at their right to vote (due to the Republican government, no less). The piece pulls apart the “degraded nature” of the barber and encapsulates the abhorrence that public opinion appears to have for the profession.

These strong feelings towards barbering permeate Twain’s humorous tale of his travels in Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrims’ Progress (1869). In one scene, titled “A Barbarous Atrocity,” Twain searches for a barbershop on the streets of Paris, an experience that he expects to be of the highest gentility. In fact, this is one of his life’s ambitions: “From earliest infancy it had been a cherished ambition of mine to be shaved some day at a palatial barber-shop of Paris” (113). Inevitably, however, the experience is not what dreams are made of. Twain returns to the tropes mentioned in “Barbarous”—the incessant lathering, the suds in the mouth, the rake of the blunt razor, the blood, their enjoyment of such torturing. Twain leaves the establishment refusing the offers or a haircut with the stinging remark: “I denied, with withering irony, that it was sufficient to be skinned—I declined to be scalped” (115).46

Miscellaneous engagements with the barbershop in American newspaper and magazine writings continued throughout these middle decades of the 19th century during what was a testing time for the barber. By then, the barbershop had lost some of its social standing. After the Civil War ended in 1865, immigrants from Europe brought barbering back to the fore in American society. Working alongside these immigrants were African Americans, who were cutting along the colour line. But social commentators and enthusiastic scribblers still turned to the barbershop for their cutting critiques of the discrepancies in American society. In one piece, titled “Shavings,” the clients congregated together as they wait for their turn to criticise the American railway prices and ticketing.47 In one particularly comical skit, an artist named Beard arrives in Louisville, Louisiana, and enquires about the political position in Kentucky, having claimed to have been in a barbershop there and overheard the barber and a client discussing the fact that they did not allow too much “abolition talk,” “secession talk,” or “union talk.”48 Another, titled “Bank: A kind of barber’s shop, where the pocket is shaved instead of the face,” tells the story of a man confused as to what establishment he has entered.49 As the story goes, “[t]he teller informed him that he was in the wrong ‘shop.’ ‘You are in a bank, sir, not a barber’s shop.’ ‘Bank, eh!’ ejaculated the stranger, ’hang me, they told me it was a shaving shop'.'50 Barbering was also tied to the issues of citizenry and rights of barbers to cut the hair of their patrons on Sunday51 while others, in later years, would support the barbers who abstained from trimming patrons on the Sabbath.52

The second half of the 19th century saw a number of changes in relation to writings on the barbershop that certainly pointed to wider changes within American society. On one hand, writers began to lament the lost past of “their” barbershop. In “Manners Upon the Road,” the figure of the “Old Bachelor” complains that “the barber’s shop is no longer what it used to be”; that is, it is no longer a social place for men to congregate, celebrate, or commiserate about the changing face of society. And the barber himself is at the centre of such transformations. As the

“Old Bachelor” mourns, rather than the “genius of gossip and goodhumor,” the barber, once the voice of reason, wit, and humour, now stands “silent.”5’ This longevity of the symbolic power of the beard in all discourses of writing in the 19th century is perhaps best encapsulated by one sketch in which it is revealed that a man had made a promise not to shave until a Democrat was elected as president. Following the election of Stephen Grover Cleveland as the 22nd president of the United States in 1884, and almost three decades of growth(!) that saw his beard reach below his knees, the man enters a barbershop to be shaved in order to present the hairs to Mr. Cleveland.54

In the later years of the 19th century, the beard faced certain resistance, mainly due to concerns regarding the hygiene of beard growing and beard wearing. From newspapers to magazines to periodicals to medical journals, the issue of the germs and bacteria in the barbershop became a topic of rich discussion. Barbershops were considered “contagion shops” for various skin diseases, with The Atlanta Medical and Surgical Journal warning that “[t]he unhygienic manner in which the large majority of these shops are managed would certainly seem to make them ‘contagion shops’ for various skin diseases”:55

For the good of the public we believe that men should be educated to see the error of being attended in barber-shops by men who themselves look uncleanly and use instruments which pass over a hundred faces in one day without even being cleaned.56

The message during this period was clear: that a man should learn to shave himself. This “Barber Shop Contagion” extended to scares of ringworm and other affections of the scalp, transmitted by the cushioned headrest, brush, and comb.57 The barbershop was regarded as a “menace to health” and the call was made to regulate the operation of the barbershop.58 Practical guidance was therefore offered to the barbers to maintain a sanitary establishment, some obvious pieces of advice, such as disinfecting utensils, using alcohol to clean apparatus, while some were somewhat crucial for a man holding a razor to a patron’s neck: “the barber himself should be free from epilepsy, spasms of any kind, drunkenness, and infectious diseases.”59 Following these preoccupations, it was reported later in 1899 that a law was passed in Missouri requiring barbers to keep the regulations prescribed by the State Board of Health.60

But there was again a reaction against the changing attitudes towards beard wearing in the 1880s. One extensive piece in The St. Paul Daily Globe, titled “Smugmugism Reigns,” laments the growing taboo of beard wearing. The piece reports that these men are “discussing the advisability of depriving themselves of their hirsute appendages” in a time “when the beard is becoming and sets off to advantage the face of the individual wearing it.” The article sets out what it sees as valid reasons for the wearing of the beard, be it “because they improve their general appearance” or even those “who desire to appear older than they really are.” There are also health reasons, with certain men “who are obliged to wear them because of throat affections, or faces so tender as not to permit of being shaved frequently.” But the article focuses on a certain group of men, “the older heads,” who NEVER SHAVE OFF THEIR BEARD. The piece calls to the example of Stanford Newel and ridicules his apparent obsession with his “mutton chops,” an obsession that runs so deep that he would as soon as quit the Republican Party as “think of bidding adieu to his side partners.” Joe Wheelock, the editor of the Pioneer Press, and Matt Breen, the baseball slugger, are also given due attention due to their cultivation of their whiskers. The final section reflects on the actions of the young bearded man in the barbershop. He enters such establishments “with feelings of trepidation,” worried about how others will see him after the event. And indeed, such men emerge from the barbershop and their friends pass by them, and even their girlfriends and wives struggle to forgive them. But, as the piece ends, its laments the fact that “the fashion for the young man just at this time, then, is the cleanly shaven face, and if you want to be in the popular swim be sure to get shaved.”61

A final challenge to the barbershop in the later years of the 19th century was a challenge led by women. One piece details the experience in a “Woman’s Barber Shop” on the streets of uptown Broadway in New York City. During this period, reflecting the gendered aspects of the public and private spheres, the barbershop was a very public place of masculine beautification while such practices for females were kept within domestic limits. But this piece in the Bostonian publication works hard to celebrate the “little similarity” with a man’s barbershop. The atmosphere and decoration in such an establishment are described to the highest point of feminine splendour with the apparent intention of indirectly criticising the sraleness of the masculinity that lies heavily within men’s barbershops of the period. (Walt Whitman, of course, wrote around this period that the barbershop was always “something that turns stale and musty in a few hours anyhow.”62) The female barber of this piece is celebrated as a unique figure, one whose capabilities go far beyond those of her male counterparts. As the speaker reports,

probably there isn’t a woman in the entire town that knows so much of human nature, or has a greater fund of personal anecdotes and reminiscences of the ladies whose names fill the columns of the society papers, than this merry philosopher.63

Reports of Honey Brook, a female barber, who is regarded as “an expert in the tonsorial line,” led to an increase in men coming for a shave, in some cases up to three times a week!64 The masculinity-affirming nature of the barbershop is also an issue that appears. In The Richmond

Palladium and Sun-Telegram, one piece appears affronted by the rumour of the possible opening of a women-run barbershop in Richmond. As the report quips,

[c]an’t you just see some of the old gallants sauntering into a feminine barber shop late Saturday night, with a week’s growth of beard on their faces, to have their chins tickled for about fifteen minutes by the fair knights of the steel and brush?65

Unfortunately, there is little further development of the narrative of the female barber in American society, due, we can imagine, to the strict delineations of gender in society at this time. Still, as this article notes, it is a curious detail worth mentioning that only adds to the richness of beards and barbershops in the history of American writing.

From this overview of the rich history of the barbershop and the barber in the early years of American writing, it is evident how such a unique social space and how such a unique social figure featured prominently in the American consciousness. From sketches of the complex role of the barber in society to fantastical fictions on wild happenings in the barbershop, the barber and his place of work were seen as being ideal for social commentary or satirical critique. Ultimately, such pieces underline the symbolic power of the barbershop and the barber in literary reflections on the functioning of American society in the formative years of the United States.

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