A Close Shave

Barber shop
Earl (Bob) Tammen cutting the hair of Gary Tammen sitting in the barber chair inside Earl’s Barber Shop located at 720 Main Street, Nov. 12, 1956; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

Barber shops experienced a decline in the latter half of the 20th century but in recent years have seen an upsurge. In 2017, an article in Forbes explored this new increase. According to National Association of Barber Boards of America Executive Officer Charles Kirkpatrick, the growth of barbers is estimated at roughly 10%, on par with the number of licensed barbers in the last two years. Men go for the experience; a good shave and haircut and sometimes extra amenities like drinks. While some of these shops will provide services for children and women, they cater to men.

Barbers were originally known as barber surgeons since they would frequently perform minor surgical procedures. This could include pulling teeth and blood-letting. For a large part of history doctors believed many things could be cured by letting the “bad humors” out through bleeding the patient. It usually just meant the patient died more quickly since now they had blood loss to add to their symptoms.

Barber’s poles are potentially thought to allude to this bloody history of barbers in both shape and color. The shape of the pole is like the rod that patients would grip to make their veins bulge so they were easier to cut. The red symbolized the blood while white was the bandages that would be hung out to dry and would twist in the wind. In 1540, barbers and surgeons were required to distinguish their services; surgeons had red and white poles while barbers had blue and white. In America, many poles have red, white, and blue, which likely have more to do with the colors of the nation than anything else.

During the mid-19th century, men would go to the barber for a wet shave. According to Berks History Center, “to perform a wet shave, the barber placed a round bar of soap into a mug, and then scrubbed that bar with a brush to produce a thick lather.” This could lead down a dangerous path since using the same mug, brush, and soap for each patron was highly unsanitary and the spread of contagion wasn’t unusual. One account of this took place in 1909. The Cañon City Record posted an article on April 15, 1909 of one unfortunate customer titled “Critically Ill in Denver from Effects of Blood Poisoning”.

A telephone message was received at the sheriff’s office here on Thursday announcing the serious illness in Denver of Andrew Snyder of Custer County. Snyder went into a barber shop there one day last week to get shaved and was poisoned by the barber while attempting to remove an ingrowing hair from his face. A very slight wound was made in endeavoring to get rid of the troublesome hair and but little attention was given to it for a day or two when his face began to swell and become very painful. In short time it had swollen to nearly twice its normal size and Mr. Snyder suffered the most excruciating pain. His condition is reported as critical in the extreme.

Unfortunately, there were no news articles to be found indicating if he recovered or not. With safety a concern, the rise of personalized shaving mugs kept in the shops began. Not only was it safer but it was also more economical since the soap stayed the bottom and it showed some prestige for barbers. The more cups, the better the barber appeared with so many consistent customers. They would be prominently displayed on shelves in the shop.

While some shaving mugs were intricate with colorful designs showing the occupation of the owner or even the fraternal organization they were in, other mugs were simple with only the name printed. It was up to the owner of the mug as to what he chose for his design.

Shaving mug of W.M. Boyce; Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center collection
Shaving mug of H. Pilmore; Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center collection
Shaving mug of T.C. Hendrix; Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center collection

The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.

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