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.
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.