Barbers: A Short History Pt. 2

And now, for the exciting conclusion of “Barbers: A Brief History”!

Following the fall of Rome to the (largely unshaven) barbarians, the barber profession added a few more services to their areas of expertise. After several proclamations from more than one Pope, the clergy, who at that point were the main fount of medicinal knowledge, were forbidden from practicing any operations which involved blood. To get around this tricky regulation, the clergy called upon barbers to help them with surgeries, as barbers had had experience with dental extractions for some time. Thus the barber-surgeon was born: a one-stop-shop for all your haircutting, tooth-pulling, surgical, and blood-letting needs.

pope innocent semion barbershop
Pope Innocent III: I decree blood to be icky!

It is around this time that the famous red and white-striped barber pole is thought to have originated. However, there are a couple of competing, albeit similar, theories. One theory holds that the barber pole originates with the bloody bandages barbers would use to mop up blood during a customer’s blood-letting. The barber would hang the dirty bandages outside of his shop on a pole to dry, creating a gory-version of the barber poles we all know and love. Another theory states that, during blood-letting, customers would hold onto a bandage-wrapped pole in order to keep their arms steady and to soak up the blood. Either way, it’s clear that the barber pole has a bloodier history than you probably ever thought!

barber pole semion barbershop
Check out the striped pole held by the guy seated on the left.

In 1096 AD, barber-surgeons organized for the first time in France, where they established the world’s first formal school of surgery in Paris. Around one hundred years later, a guild of surgeons branched out from within the barber-surgeons and began to study medicine and drugs in a highly focused manner. These developments, and the gradual improvement in medicine at the time, led to surgeons suddenly being far more knowledgeable than their barber-surgeon peers when it came to medicine. Eventually, this disparity led the British Parliament in the 15th century to prohibit barber-surgeons from performing any medical operations other than blood-letting, tooth-pulling, and simple cauterization of wounds.

steve martin medieval barber semion barbershop
For more information, here’s a link to a “historic documentary” on medieval barbers, featuring Steve Martin.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, barbers found a new service to add to their repertoire: wig making. Among both men and women, wigs became a symbol of high-class, wealth, and nobility. Barbers became wig makers, wig designers, and performed wig maintenance for their posh clientele. Unfortunately, wigs became increasingly less popular following the French Revolution, removing a major source of income from many barbers. In 1745, things continued going downhill for barbers as the tentative relationship between barber-surgeons and surgeons formally dissolved. Between the improvement in medicine and the dying practice of blood-letting, barber-surgeons were relegated to small villages and communities where there were no other physicians available.

By the early 19th century, barbers found themselves in their lowest social position since prehistoric times. However, a few bold and intrepid barbers decided to try to improve the standing of their once noble profession and organized themselves into formal organizations. In December of 1887, the Journeyman Barbers International Union was formed, with a close affiliation with the American Federation of Labor. A few years later in 1893, Mr. A.B. Moler published the first known barber text book, entitled “The Moler Manual of Barbering.” As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth, the profession of barbers increasingly began to resemble its present day form, and the rest, as they say, is history.

semion barbershop
A modern barbershop.