Barbers and Barbershops

Barbers  have had  an influence on the evolution of the American beauty  industry that  is disproportionate to their  numbers. As members of the  oldest  trade  in the beauty  industry, they have, until  the  1970s,  maintained a system  of occupational segmentation that  let them  serve the  most  lucrative customers. They  controlled the  hair  care  market through apprenticeships, licensing laws, trade  associations, and unions. These institutions relied, in turn, on a male work culture, which helps to explain why so few women worked  as barbers. Moreover, as custodians of masculinity, barbers have  played  a role  in defining  male  identity that  gives them  an outsized influence in American society.

Although, until   recently, barbers  have  fended   off  competitors from   other trades, the  competition between different groups of men  has  long  been  fierce. Immigrants and  African  Americans flocked  to  the  trade,  attracted by the  small initial outlay  of capital needed to set up a barbershop. Because  of the competition between these  groups, the  ethnic and  racial identity of the American barber has changed repeatedly since  colonial times.  Each  large  wave of European and  later Asian  and  Caribbean immigration to  the  United States  intensified the  struggle to  control the  trade.  Other factors  also  influenced which  group had  the  upper hand, such  as changes in the services  offered  by barbers, who went  from  coiffing wigs and bloodletting to cutting and styling hair. The  one exception to the rule of change within  the tonsorial trade  has been  black barbers, whose  enduring appeal makes  them  central figures  in the African American community.

Colonial Origins

In  Africa  and  Europe, hairstyles indicated status within  hierarchical societies, making barbers arbiters of  class  distinctions. European  barbers, in  particular, earned a reputation as witty bon  vivants,  even though they were servants. When colonial merchants  and  planters sought  recognition as  gentlemen in  AngloAmerican culture, they donned wigs and relied primarily  on enslaved waiting men to attend to their  appearance. The  link between African Americans and barbering had  two important consequences. First, the  trade  became stigmatized. What  had been  a class relationship in Africa and  Europe became a race relationship in the United States.  As a consequence, white  men  generally  rejected working as barbers,  which  created an occupational niche  for black  men.  Second, black  barbers had the chance to become fluent  in European genteel  culture, making them  some of the  most  acculturated slaves in North America.  Slave barbers learned genteel ways and  negotiated the permission to hire out  their  own time, which  gave them more  independence and  sometimes let them  save the  money  to  purchase their freedom. During the  antebellum period, slave barbers tended to be the  sons  of white fathers, who arranged for them  to be apprenticed as barbers and freed them at manhood. Free black barbers accepted the sons  of family members and friends as apprentices, raising the young  men in their own households and fostering close ties among black barbers.

Race And Barbering In Antebellum America

Race largely determined how  barbers interacted with their  customers during the antebellum period. Since black men lacked the money  to pay for haircuts, they cut each  other’s  hair  informally. Almost  all barbershops consequently served  white men.  Part of the appeal  of black barbers to white  customers was their  willingness to provide  deferential service  that  validated  white  superiority. By contrast, white barbers treated their  white  customers with an air of easy familiarity.  Most  American barbers were black  until  1850,  when  German immigrant barbers supplanted them, at  least  numerically. Black  barbers, however, continued to  serve  affluent white  men  until  the  early 20th  century in increasingly palatial  barbershops that featured bath  houses and  luxurious furnishings. These first-class barbershops represented the most  consistently successful black-owned businesses in the 19th century.

The  trade  also bolstered the self-esteem of black barbers. As knights of the razor, a nickname that  emphasized their  link to the cosmopolitanism of European barbers as well as their  tonsorial skills, black barbers enjoyed a positive  occupational identity. Their success also let them  serve as the breadwinners in their  household, a role denied to black men  at that  time due  to low wages and  underemployment. Within the African American community, where  their  wealth  and  connections to powerful whites  made  them  influential leaders,  black  barbers promoted an alternative  version  of respectability based  on  the  shopkeeper’s virtues  of discipline, honesty, and thrift. Barbering, in sum,  gave African Americans the opportunity to contest negative  racial stereotypes and reformulate their  identity.

Trade Transformed In The  Gilded Age

Following the  Civil War, several  developments changed the  marketplace for barbers. The  proliferation of barber schools created a surplus of poorly  trained barbers who eked out a meager  living by charging low prices and working long hours. After  several  false  starts  at  forming a union, white,  mainly  German American, barbers formed the Journeymen Barbers  International Union of America  ( JBIUA) in  1886  and  affiliated  their  union with  the  American Federation of Labor.  In 1896,  the  JBIUA began  lobbying for laws requiring that  barbers have  a state  license.  Black barbers such  as Cleveland’s George  Meyers  objected that  licensing laws were  designed to  exclude  African  Americans from  the  trade  serving  white men.  In Ohio, Meyers  defeated the  union effort,  but  licensing laws became the norm over the  next 30 years. In the Atlanta  Race Riot of 1904,  tensions between white union barbers and black barbers led to violence. A white mob ransacked the barbershop of Alonzo  Herndon and  murdered one  of his  bootblacks; the  black community maintained that  the mob  was led by white union barbers. During the 1920s,  Herndon was the target  of another campaign to regulate barbering. White women had gone  to the black man  to have their  hair bobbed, scandalizing public opinion. In response, the Atlanta  City Council enacted a law prohibiting African Americans from  serving  whites  in a barbershop, and  the local newspapers attributed  the proposal to the barbers’  union. The  courts subsequently overturned the law. Public  health had  provided the  rationalization for  the  licensing campaign, and  the  union benefited from  a white  tendency to associate African  Americans with  disease.  Ironically,  Gillette  Razors  used  the  same  argument against  union barbers in the  company’s successful campaign to get middle-class men  to shave themselves during the 1920s.

Small Businesses In A Corporate Era

During the 20th  century, barbershops exemplified trends in small business and in the service sector. Every main  street  had at least one barbershop where men  gathered  to talk. Unlike in the  past,  these  shops, with  a few exceptions, were segregated. Black barbers, pushed by Jim Crow and pulled  by the growing  urban black market, switched to a black  clientele. Because  of the  personal service involved  in barbering, the  locally owned  barbershop was not  easily replaced with  corporate chains. During the  Great  Depression, the  federal  government exerted  influence over  the  trade  for  the  first  time,  regulating hours, prices,  and  wages  under the National Recovery  Administration. In  addition, the  armed  forces  imposed new standards for grooming and  haircuts on millions of American soldiers. The  military created a significant niche  for barbers who worked  on bases  as independent contractors. Following the  return of prosperity in the  1950s,  the  JBIUA encouraged its members to upgrade their  skills and  learn  how  to style hair. Techniques developed by female beauty  culture, such  as coloring and  permanents, were increasingly  adopted by barbers.

Gradually, the  differences that  had  separated barbershops from  beauty  salons broke  down.  Not  all barbers embraced change, which  left them  ill prepared for the 1960s when  young American men  let their  hair grow long. The  Afro hairstyle best  illustrates the  change brought by long  hair.  Young  black  barbers such  as Nathaniel Mathis, aka the Bush Doctor, of Washington, D.C.,  and Willie Morrow of San  Diego  understood that  the Afro was an important symbol  of black  pride. Their Afro shops celebrated African heritage and the counterculture of the 1960s. Both men  started corporations that  sold Afro-care products, and existing  companies such  as Johnson Hair Products also capitalized on the style with Afro Sheen. Although the  Afro and  longer  hair  on  white  men  would  be depoliticized by the mid  1970s  and  become just  another style, the  baby  boom generation had  been exposed to a new type of business—the unisex  salon—and they liked it.

During the  1970s,  barbering finally experienced the  same  corporate transformation as other traditional service  businesses. Entrepreneurs capitalized on  the trend by franchising salons  in chains such  as Fantastic Sam’s.  Hiring primarily female  graduates straight from  beauty schools, the  chains offer low prices  and untested talent. These chain  salons  have  increasingly attracted white  men  away from  the  traditional barbershop, which  is a dying  institution. In sharp contrast, a significant portion  of  women have  remained faithful  to  their  neighborhood beauty  shop. Black men  also rejected corporate standardization and  overwhelmingly support their  neighborhood barbershop. Functioning as a men’s  club, black men  gather  at the local barbershop to air opinions, share  gossip, and tell off-color jokes. As one of the few spaces controlled by and reserved for black men, the black barbershop is at once  a refuge  and a community institution.

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