Barbers may be branching out a bit more these days but you wont believe what barbers used to do!
The barbering business is growing day by day at the minute. With barbers aiming for a much more relaxing and personalised experience, as opposed to the quick 15 minute meeting with the clippers that some men may be used to.
Barbershops like Glasgow’s House Martin Barbers and Manchester’s RPB boast a more time consuming and individual experience. Complete with an in house coffee shop and bar. Organisations are springing up across the country like the Men’s Hair Federation (MHFED) and The Outlaw Barber Collective to teach and explore the ever-expanding world of barbering.
Although the barbering world seems like its expanding now, what barbers used to in the day to day running of their business may shock you.
Starting in Defacto’s hometown, The Trades House of Glasgow, recognises 14 different trades under its name and barbering is one of them. The Trades House of Glasgow was created in a time of reform of Glasgow’s local government in 1605 and at that time the electorate was basically divided into two groups, the Merchants and the Craftsmen. Barbering is recognised under craft and the Glasgow craft has the motto of: “Munda hæc vigebat diebus Josephi patriarchæ Jacobi filii, Aegypti præfecti”, which translates into English as “This elegant art flourished in the days of Joseph, son of Jacob the patriarch, Governor of Egypt”. Incorporation of the Chirurgeons and Barbers was the original name, until surgeons fell out of the recognised crafts and trades and it became the Incorporation of Barbers.
However, its believed that a form of barbering dates back long ago where primitive tribesmen would have their hair cut by their medicine men and priests. Earlier tribes were of the belief that good and bad spirits entered your body through your hair and could only be expelled by a haircut. Over time different tribes developed different hairstyles and the ‘barbers’ became chief figures in the community. Early razor blades can be found dating back to the Bronze Age.
Ancient Egyptians were also superstitious about hair and their priests were ‘de-haired’ every few days, as shown in their monuments and papyrus. Some men were shaved before meeting Pharaohs as they were seen to have a ‘dirty face’. Romans and Greeks saw the barbers as a place to socialise and remove facial hair that set them apart from commoners, but moving into the Middle Ages we see the bloody history that barbering grew from. No we don’t mean Sweeny Todd style stuff.
In the Middle Ages barbers didn’t only cut hair and shave beards, they also pulled your teeth, dressed your wounds and performed simple operations. Barber Surgeons were highly sought after, until 1492 when surgeons decided to have their own guild. However, in 1308 the world’s oldest barbering organisation was created. Founded in England and still know in London as the ‘Worshipful Company of Barbers’.
King Henry VIII merged the guilds again in 1540 as the ‘United Barber-Surgeons Company’ and until the late 18th century, they performed a variety of services: they lanced abscesses, set bone fractures, picked lice from hair and they even pulled rotten teeth. One of the corner stones of the barber-surgeon’s duties was bloodletting or phlebotomy. In the past there were many reasons why people were drained of their blood. One of the main reasons was the belief that blood was the product of food. When you ate, the food was digested in the stomach and then processed in the liver, where it was turned into blood. Sometimes, a person would produce an excess of blood, which led to a stream of illnesses such as fevers, headaches, even apoplexy.
Physicians believed that bloodletting was beneath them and therefore referred patients to barbers to have their bloodletting carried out and like any business they had to advertise. They did this by displaying bowls of patient’s congealed blood on the windowsills of their shops (until it was banned). After the first method of advertising was banned they turned to what we know now, the barber pole. The barber’s pole relates to the rod that the patient gripped to make their veins bulge, therefore making it an easier task to slice them open. A brass ball at the top symbolised the basin that collected the blood. The pole’s red and white stripes represent the bloodied bandages, which would be washed and hung to dry on the rod outside the shop. The bandages would twist in the wind, forming the familiar spiral pattern we see on the barber poles of today. Although some poles also include blue stripes which is heavily debated.
Some believe that the blue stripes relate to veins, but, medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris says otherwise. Along with Henry VIII realigning the guilds, in the same year it was required that they must distinguish their businesses, barbers were prevented from proceeding with surgeries and where limited to teeth pulling and bloodletting. Therefore, blue and white poles meant that you were going to a barber and a red and white pole meant you were going to a surgeon. Red, blue and white poles are mainly found in the United States and its likely that is has more to do with the countries flag rather than this English statute.
So there you have it! The bloody past of barbering, though we are glad that we do any kinds of medical and dental treatments where they should be done nowadays, it’s still pretty interesting!