The history of barbershops

November 2, 2023

You may not be surprised to know that barbering has evolved quite a lot over the years. However, it dates back much further than you may realise.

The history of barbershops reflects the shifting attitudes toward grooming, fashion, and masculinity throughout the ages. While the craft itself has changed quite dramatically in many ways, the role of the barbershop as a place for camaraderie and social connection remains an enduring aspect of its cultural significance.

In this guide to barbering’s fascinating past, we explore the industry’s origins, the services previously offered, and how the profession has transformed over time.

A brief history of barbering

The first razor blades are thought to originate from the Bronze Age, so barbering can be traced back to early tribes and ancient civilisations. In ancient Egypt, just like today, barbers’ core duties were cutting hair and grooming, including beard trimming and head shaving. However, barbers also led religious ceremonies in priest-like roles, due to the belief that evil spirits could enter a person through their hair. People thought that barbers had special powers and could interact with the divine, so they would play a central part in weddings and even baptise people.

In ancient Greece, barbering was considered a highly respected occupation. Barbershops were social centres where men got together to engage in conversation, often themed around politics and philosophy. The Romans then adopted the practice of barbering from the Greeks, establishing public barbershops where men could receive haircuts and shaves.

During the Middle Ages, barbers actually functioned much like today’s surgeons and dentists. In fact, they were widely known as barber-surgeons. They performed surgical procedures alongside their grooming services like bloodletting, setting broken bones, tooth extraction, trepanation (drilling holes into skulls) and – just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse – amputations. Maggots would be employed to purify infected wounds. Removing blood from patients for medical reasons was a common practice at the time, for conditions such as epilepsy, plague, smallpox and gout. Incredibly, no formal training was given for any of this, as the first barber schools didn’t open until the late 1700s.

In the Renaissance period, barbering gained more prominence as grooming and personal hygiene became increasingly important to people’s reputations. This surge was also due to the increase in urban centres, where affluent men would network around public spaces containing civil buildings. These areas were held in high regard as places to get together to discuss art and culture.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, barbershops continued to offer medical services, while also serving as social places where people could meet for lively interaction, discussions, and news sharing (otherwise known as gossiping). Men could buy cosmetic products to take home and continue their self-care routine in between appointments.

The mid-18th century saw the division of the barbering and medical professions, as medicine became more specialised. A bill was passed in 1745 to separate these lines of work; the surgeons who instated this went on to found the Royal College of Surgeons of England.  However, barbers weren’t actually banned from performing surgery; they just ceased to be the primary providers of these procedures. It took a good while until grisly scenes around the barber’s chair were finally phased out. The surgical element of a barber’s duties didn’t die out until around the mid-1800s. After this, barbershops became places offering more relaxation and enjoyment, with these important social spaces for men becoming pleasant community gathering spots once again.

In the 1900s, electric clippers and other modern grooming tools were introduced, making haircuts and shaves more efficient. Barbershops became more simplified in terms of the services they offered, focusing on haircuts, shaves, and grooming. Towards the latter part of the century, unisex salons were established, which led to the rise of hairdressing chains. As a result of people preferring these types of businesses for their haircare needs, there was a decline in traditional barbershops. However, there was a resurgence of interest in traditional barbershops towards the end of the 1900s and the beginning of the Noughties. This was driven by nostalgia and a desire for more personal grooming experiences.

Today, modern barbershops offer a blend of traditional grooming services with contemporary styling and products. Barbershops have once again become social hubs, often offering beverages, music, and a returning sense of community as people hang out and chat.

Barber Blog Tile

The origin of the barber pole

The barber pole is a widely-recognised marker of the profession, still seen outside many establishments today. Barber-surgeons began using a red and white pole as a symbol of their dual duties, after being prohibited from placing blood in their windows. The red colour represented the blood, while the white represented the bandages. In medieval Europe, when barber-surgeons formed guilds to regulate their profession, the barber pole was placed outside their premises to signify the services they offered.

The barber pole was often a wooden or metal pole with a top that could rotate, just like the swirling varieties still around today. This turning feature had practical significance, serving as a visual advertisement for attracting customers. It signalled that the barber-surgeon was open for business. Over time, some variations were added, such as the colour blue to represent veins and a brass basin at the top, depicting the containers used for bloodletting.

Despite the separation of the barber and surgeon professions as the latter sought more extensive medical training, the barber pole’s symbolism endured. It remains a signifier of barbering’s historical ties to the medical field.

What services did barbers used to offer?

There have been pretty vast changes over the years in what customers could typically expect their barber to provide. While surgeries have been the most shocking on the list, barbershops have offered a wide range of other services beyond haircuts, shaving and grooming.

Wig making and maintenance

In past centuries, when wigs were fashionable, barbers were skilled in creating, fitting, and maintaining wigs for their clients. This included cutting and styling wigs to match the latest trends.

Ear piercing

In some cultures and time periods, barbers offered ear-piercing services, particularly for young boys.

Cupping therapy

Barbers traditionally used cupping in place of bloodletting if clients were too weak, young or old for the preferred practice. Seen as inferior to bloodletting, the process involved burning air out of a glass and applying it to the skin to remove dead blood cells. This practice declined with advances in medicine. However, hijamah cupping therapy has made a comeback today, to stimulate the flow of energy in the body, promote wellbeing and relieve pains.

Hair singeing

Originating in Turkish barbers centuries ago, this particular technique singed off split ends with a lit taper or wand. It had another function though, as hair was believed to be hollow at the time, so singeing was performed to seal the ends and prevent diseases from entering the head. There has actually been a resurgence in hair singeing in recent years, though strictly for grooming purposes.

The range of services offered by barbers has evolved over time, with today’s barbers primarily focusing on cutting, styling, beard grooming, and related services. However, some traditional barbershops still offer a few of the classic services, such as straight razor shaves, shoulder massages, nail trimming and facials, to maintain a connection to their roots as well as cater to today’s discerning customers.

Barber cutting the hair of a young man

The evolution of barber tools

As technology and customer needs have advanced, the contents of a barber’s kit have steadily changed. Ancient barbers would have used primitive tools like flint knives, bronze razors, and seashells, while the barber-surgeons that came a little later commonly made use of instruments that would look highly unsettling in the same environment today. They included scalpels, knives, probes, saws, cauteries (red-hot irons), clamps and hooks. Even more intimidatingly, they were often rusty and dirty, little being known about the benefits of hygiene at that time. This also meant surgery was typically performed in standard clothing, without changing afterwards, and used paraphernalia was left lying around the barbershop.

Straight razors, also known as cut-throat razors, became the tool of choice for barbers during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. These single, ultra-sharp blades were typical until the 19th century saw new innovations in razor design, with the introduction of the safety razor. This featured the protective guard we’re accustomed to today, reducing the risk of nicks and cuts. Around the same period, shaving brushes made from animal hair were brought to market, allowing barbers to create a lather with shaving soap and improving the quality of shaves.

There were quieter years for barbers, amounting to the best part of a century. During these decades, it looked like the trade may die out completely. It was largely down to personal grooming brand Gilette, which released the world’s first system razor (a two-piece safety razor) in 1903. This allowed the public to take personal grooming into their own hands like never before, without worrying about the risk of injury. During World War One, when soldiers had to have their own shaving kit to maintain their facial hair, personal razors took off like never before.

In 1921, Leo Wahl introduced the first electric hair clipper, revolutionising the haircutting process once again. They offered greater speed and consistency in hair cutting, allowing them to quickly gain popularity in barbershops and become a staple tool. In the 1970s, plastic disposable razors were invented by Bic, with a single blade.

An updated design, offering replaceable blades, was invented by Gilette in 1975. This was the first cartridge razor, also with a plastic handle, and a return to two blades. As they became widely available, these highly convenient razors eliminated the need for regular blade sharpening or having to throw away the whole razor. The plastic razor is, of course, still around today, with endless innovations continuing to provide a safer and more comfortable shaving experience at home. However, barbers now have much more sophisticated tools at their disposal too, allowing them to continue offering a premium experience.

Barber tools evolved in the late 20th century with the introduction of cordless, rechargeable clippers and trimmers, making grooming even more convenient. High-quality stainless steel straight razors are still used in traditional barbershops, though. Alongside these, advanced grooming tools like hair dryers, styling irons, and beard trimmers are also regularly used by barbers.

Digital technology has now taken barber tools to the inevitable next level, with clippers and trimmers featuring adjustable settings, digital displays and wireless connectivity. Even the furniture is a big draw for clients, with barber chairs now commonly equipped with massage features and adjustable settings. In recent years, there has also been a growing trend towards eco-friendly and sustainable barber tools, including reusable safety razors and brushes with synthetic bristles.

The evolution of barber tools reflects today’s priorities of efficiency, safety, and high-quality client experiences. Barbers now have access to a wide range of specialised tools and equipment, allowing them to offer a diverse range of grooming services to meet customer demands.

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This blog has been created as general information and should not be taken as advice. Make sure you have the correct level of insurance for your requirements and always review policy documentation.