Barbershop History 
barber shop
home grooming

Shave and a haircut:
A brief history of modern barbering

    In Barber Shop History and Antiques, Christian R. Jones reckons the golden age of barbering as stretching from 1880 to 1940.  A. B. Moler opened his first barber college in 1893. Hair tonics were previously made from carefully guarded formulas and dispensed from ornate decanters. Moler's students learned both how to make tonics, shampoos, and other  grooming aids, and how to sell them in their shops. Trained in all aspects of barbering, fresh out of the college they found work in established shops.

    F.W. Fitch, who would become known as "the Shampoo King", sold his Ideal Dandruff Remover Hair Tonic through barber shops. Many other tonics of the time consisted of up to 95% poisonous wood alchohol, which Fitch was convinced was the cause of many scalp and hair problems. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, outlawing wood alchohol, and Fitch's sales skyrocketed. His tonic was used in conjunction with Fitch's Ideal Shampoo Soap, which he later combined into Fitch Dandruff Remover Shampoo.

    Fitch and Moler worked to raise the barbering profession. Railroads brought expansion and 15 chair city shops became common. Improvements in sanitation, plumbing, and electricity helped to create "gentlemen's grooming and social institutions where amiable, polite conversation was anticipated nearly as much as the services rendered", as Christian Jones notes. You could also have your top hat ironed at these lavish salons, sometimes called shaving parlours, and they were awash with various scents from tonics, shaving cream, after shave, and cigar smoke.

    In 1904, mass production began on King Camp Gillette's safety razor, which would soon overtake straight razors, and spell the end of the barber shop shave. The U.S. government issued both straight and safety razors to troops in World War I.

    Tonic bottles were used during Prohibition to smuggle bootlegged alchohol. Tonic manufacturers and barber supply dealers had licenses to draw alchohol to make tonic, but how much they could draw was based on use and sales. Bootleggers would buy the alchohol from the dealers. This clever ruse required refilling empty bottles with fake tonic to be sold through the barber shop. Fitch created bottles with shaker holes too small to be refilled, although ads claimed the reason was to "eliminate spilling and wasting".

    After the crash of 1929, and throughout the Depression, many men could scarcely afford even a haircut, and shops declined in size, services offered, and decor. WWI, WWII, and the Korean War, also greatly decreased the number of customers. Sears and other retailers began selling home haircut kits, with electric clippers, which furthered the decline.

    Brylcreem, invented in Britain, was issued to G.I.s, and also became popular stateside. Available in stores, it was also used and sold by barbers. In the U.K., it was a verb, with adverts urging gents to "Brylcreem your hair". Wildroot Cream Oil, invented in the states, went head to head with Brylcreem (literally) in ads, stores, and barber shops, as the epitome of good grooming. Both became so popular that competing brands, such as Vitalis and Vaseline, famous for their liquid tonics, also made hair creams, or cream hair tonics, as they were usually known.

Grooming Products

barber shop harmony

1906 barber shampoo

barber college shampoo





Above, top to bottom: barber shop aboard ship; Regimental barber shop; Navy Recruit Depot Barber Shop; Navy Exchange Barber Shop.
Right: top to bottom: 1963 "first haircut"; Krew Comb barber shop poster showing Latest Haircut Styles: "The Campus Leader", "The Executive", "The Continental", "The Sportsman", "Today", and "Yesterday".
Below: matchbooks given out by barber shops.

The 'Fifties Revival

The '40s are generally considered the end of the golden age of the barber shop. With the decline of male customers during the wars, shops became more functional and stripped down, replacing the rich wood paneling with painted white walls, removing the once lucrative cigar humidors, unable to afford the additional staff for manicures  and shoe shines. Ornate carved backbars, hand blown tonic bottles, upholstered wooden barber chairs, and other items from the golden age are today avidly sought by collectors.

But the '50s saw a renaissance of sorts in returning servicemen who, used to a short military cut, both sought out remaining shops and opened their own. During the Baby Boom, they brought their sons to their favorite shops, who in turn brought their sons, and the shop revived as a masculine gathering place as G.I.s homed in on the red and white pole.

Multi-chair shops sprang up in the new shopping centers, gleaming white and stainless steel. Many took on hunting or sports themes, and installed the new invention of television so patrons could watch the game. Used to military discipline, the new clientele was clean-cut and well-groomed.

A number of short haircuts made their debuts in the '50s, among them the duck tail and flat top. Numerous variations on the crew cut or brush cut appeared. Along with Brylcreem to slick down the executive cut, there was crew cut wax to stand up  the short cuts. Not to mention Wildroot, Vitalis, Vaseline, Lucky Tiger, Stephan's, Sandahl's, Fitch, and Jeris, to name a few. Barbers  poured on bottles, squeezed out tubes, and scooped out jars, since all patrons got the "wet look". Since most of these products were sold through barber shops, it meant lucrative trade for barbers. As one  slogan often seen in shops advised, "Buy your home needs from your barber; he has the best!"

Not all barbers were decorators, not all were salesmen. But in these halcyon days, they didn't have to be. Shops featured bright, appealing,  graphic advertisements for the same products used by, and sold by, the barbers of the shop. Barbers could make a good living, and Barber College was often a career choice for Varsity men. A three legged stool, it's said, is the strongest, and barbering was firmly established by the triad of the barber school, the barber supply house, whose reps, known as "jobbers", visited shops to deliver supplies, and thirdly, the ever- present barber shops.

Top left: Boys in the '50s practice barbering at Boys' Town.
Top right: ad in life magazine announcing that barbers will be selling Stephan's shampoos and tonics for home use.
Bottom left: '60s Mennen ad for Protein 29 hair groom, available as gel or cream.
Bottom right: Andis clipper ad in a '60s barber magazine.

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