Tuesday, 1 March 2005

Ye Olde Barbershop

The barbershop has always been a part of life in the United States. Indeed, there can be no doubt that barbers numbered among the Colonists who settled here. I suspect that for most Americans the barbershop does not bring to mind a place where men can have their hair cut and their beards shaved, but a meeting place where they can discuss everything from politics to the latest gossip. For many small towns, the barbersop was often a gathering place for men.

This is even reflected in American pop culture. Floyd the Barber (Howard McNear) was one of the main characters on The Andy Griffith Show. In fact, until Howard McNear's death, Floyd's Barbershop appeared in nearly every episode of the show. I got the feeling it was to Mayberry what the Forum was to Rome... Of course, the neighbourhood barbershop also played a central role in Barbershop and its sequel. There, like Floyd's Barbershop in Mayberry, it was also the local gathering place. Babershops have appeared in movies from The Music Man to Chinatown. In fact, the word barbershop has even been applied to a genre of music. Whether barbershop harmony originated in barbershops or not is debatable, but one thing or not. The musical genre and the place of business have been connected for a very long time.

Of course, barbers were around before Europeans even set foot on American soil. Barbershops existed in Rome, where even there they were gathering places for the latest gossip. In medieval Europe, barbers were also dentists and surgeons. "The Company of Barbers" was chartered as a guild in England under King Edward IV in 1462. Thirty years later a guild for surgeons was founded. Under Henry VII, in 1540, the two guilds were combined. Indeed, the barber pole that is so much a part of barbershop imagery owes it look to the fact that barbers originally engaged in blood letting as surgeons. The red and white stripes symbolised bandages. Of course, as medical science progressed, eventually barbers would cease being physicians and physicians would cease being barbers.

As a young child my father cut both my hair and my brother's hair, owning one of those electric clipper sets so popular in the Sixties. Eventually, however, we got our hair cut at a barber. The first barber I remember going to was Leon in Huntsville. He had the red and white striped pole in front of his shop. And I remember that he had a cache of classic Marvel comic books. It was in that shop that I first encountered both The Avengers and The Fantastic Four.

Of course, it wasn't long before we started going to Nathan Logan's barbershop in Salisbury. Nathan Logan was perhaps the foremost barber in either Chariton or Randolph Counties. Indeed, he had cut four generations of hair in our family--he cut my father's hair, my brother's hair, my hair, and my nephew's hair. I remember his shop had a barberpole in front and a sign bearing his shop's rather fancy name--I think it was called "Logan's Tonsorial Parlor" or something like that. While Nathan didn't have any comic books, I always liked going there. It smelled of witch hazel and shaving cream. And Nathan was a jovial, red haired man with a gift for jokes. He was in many ways the perfect barber--skilled with scissors and comb and possessing the gift of the gab. To give you an idea of Nathan's importance in the history of mid-Missouri, the Charition County Historical Society Museum has a reconstruction of his barbershop--complete with his original barber chair and pole!

As the twentieth century many men started going to hair stylists rather than barbers. I have to admit that I am one of them. That having been said, I still have a fondness for barbershops. They bring to mind images of smalltown life, of men gathered together discussing the latest news, weather, and, of course, gossip. And to this day I love the smell of witch hazel.

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