Barber Chairs - Nancy McIntyre (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Barber Chairs - Nancy McIntyre (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Trimming through time: a hair-raising journey through the history of hair cutting

With each snip of the scissors and buzz of the clippers, a wave of curiosity washes over me.

Whilst sitting in the barber’s chair, I found myself wondering about the history of barbers and the practice of hair cutting. While my own journey has had its share of questionable cuts and styles, some due to the barber and some where I have had only myself to blame, the art of hair cutting has witnessed an extraordinary evolution, reflecting not only personal style choices but also the shifting trends and cultural influences of different eras.

From ancient civilisations to the modern day, the history of hair cutting encompasses a captivating journey through time, with some practices and eras being just as questionable as my hair in college.

Tracing back to the earliest days of human existence, cavemen likely removed hair from their head and face as a preventative measure against mites and insects that could create nests or lay eggs. Given the absence of razors, they resorted to scraping off their hair using sharpened rocks or seashells.

Whilst cavemen focused on practical grooming, ancient Egyptians valued elaborate hairstyles, wigs, and headdresses, which served as symbols of social status and cultural significance. These intricate hair arrangements reflected the importance placed on personal appearance and cultural norms in ancient Egyptian society.

Barber Pole by Emile Cero (1939)
Barber Pole by Emile Cero (1939)

Both men and women initially favoured shorter hairstyles, including shaved heads. Men occasionally sported small tufts of hair at the front, while women opted for braids or simple bob cuts. However, over time, longer and more intricate hairstyles became popular. Wigs, made from human hair or wool, gained prominence and served various functions, such as providing protection from the sun and symbolising social status and wealth. Pharaohs and members of the royal court even decorated their wigs with gold and jewels.

Haircuts in ancient Greece and Rome also became essential indicators of social status, with distinct styles denoting one’s position in society. Barbering was introduced to Rome by Greek colonies in Sicily, and barbershops became popular centres for news and gossip. Think of them as the ancient equivalent of a social media feed.

Morning travel, alongside haircutting, shaving, and public baths, were an important part of the Roman daily routine. The first trip for a shave was also regarded as an essential rite of passage for young men, marking their coming of age.

We can find valuable lessons to apply in our modern lives from the Roman daily routine. Their commitment to morning travel, grooming, and engaging in public debates is a great reminder of the importance of self-care, connection, and intellectual stimulation.

Egyptian painting of a woman with a wig and head cone, circa 1250-1200 BCE
Egyptian painting of a woman with a wig and head cone, circa 1250-1200 BCE

During the early Middle Ages, barbers also frequently took on the roles of surgeons and dentists. Alongside their primary tasks of haircutting and shaving, barbers developed skills in surgical procedures, such as wound dressing, bloodletting (a historical medical practice that involves deliberately draining blood from the body), burn treatments, and even tooth extractions. These versatile practitioners became known as “Barber Surgeons” and, at times, even earned more than doctors. You can see where the inspiration for Sweeney Todd came from!

The traditional barber pole, commonly found outside barber shops, also dates back to the Middle Ages. The vertical pole with a spiral design featuring red, white, and blue stripes, was a way for barbers to advertise their medical expertise. The red colour symbolised blood, in association with bloodletting, which was a common medical practice throughout history, as it was believed that removing blood from the body could cure various ailments. The white colour represented the bandages and towels used during the procedures, and the blue colour is believed to represent the venous blood or the veins.

It is quite astonishing to think about the past and how sitting in the barber’s chair meant more than just a simple haircut. In those days, you could ask for a shave and get a tooth extraction as a bonus. People would get a ‘two-for-one’ deal, leaving customers with a clean shave and a little less of their smile.

In the late 1800s, a man named A.B. Moler established the first barber school in Chicago, which lead to the establishment of numerous barbing schools all across the United States. These barber schools were the first of their kind, not only in the United States but the whole world. By this time, barbers had transitioned away from practising medicine due to the establishment of medical colleges and the growing recognition of the need for specialised medical training.

My journey with haircuts has been an evolution in itself. From the days of cutting my own hair from the comfort of my own home to embracing the routine of visiting a skilled barber, my perspective has shifted. Now, I find joy and satisfaction in the experience of sitting in the barber’s chair (especially now that bloodletting and tooth pulling is no longer included). I can’t help but appreciate the artistry and expertise that goes into creating a professional and well-groomed look.

So, whether it’s adopting a consistent grooming ritual, cherishing the relationship with your trusted barber, or embracing elements from the Roman daily routine, there are timeless lessons to be learned from one of the world’s most ancient practises.

By Jay Costa Owen

|| [email protected]
Jay works for a private charter airline, and is also a UX designer and aspiring author who enjoys learning about history and other cultures