As a fine artist and photographer, I’ve always been obsessed with barber shops – visually. I don’t particularly like going to beauty salons to get my hair cut. I think barber shops are far more interesting and less snooty. After graduating early from high school, I would go on outings with my mom (who is also an artist) on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, where I photographed interesting storefronts. Even back then I was drawn to barber shops. My admiration of a few select photographers informed my early photographic work – especially those who worked for the Farm Security Administration, such as Walker Evans and Russell Lee, as well as the great photographer Berenice Abbott. All of them took wonderful photos of barber shops.
Back when I was an art student at RISD, I photographed quite a few barber shops in Providence and NYC. Unfortunately, I didn’t note where the NYC barber shops were located, however, I do remember one because of the circumstances. The below barber (on Lafayette Street) came outside when he saw me photographing the exterior. He volunteered to pose, which seemed nice enough. Nobody else was there and after he made a few suggestive comments and asked inappropriate questions, I high tailed it out of there rather quickly.
Many barber shops are still decorated with really cool ephemera and antiques that add to the appeal of getting your hair cut. An example is the JMC Barber Shop, which I stumbled upon last August in Elmhurst, Ill. I have never seen such a visual explosion covering every imaginable wall space – you couldn’t possibly get bored when you get your hair cut here!
While I prefer my vintage late 1970s black and white shots, I have taken color photos of barber shops when I traveled for business and leisure. The below color photos were taken more recently in St. Maarten, NYC, San Francisco, and Baltimore. The iconic barber shop poles and other visual elements still entrance me after all these years. The Baltimore photo is a ladies beauty salon – I couldn’t resist the unusual visual composition.
Museums and Barber Shop-Related Collections
If you love barber shops, you can visit several museums devoted to the art of barbering. I was impressed with the wonderful barbering ephemera displayed at the NYC Barber Shop Museum when I visited in 2018. The National Barber Museum and Hall of Fame in Canal Winchester, Ohio is open by appointment only, but they have interesting galleries online.
Many people specialize in collecting just one aspect of barbering – like Tuscaloosa barber Rev. Thomas Linton who has an awesome collection of shaving mugs. Linton was an instrumental figure in the Civil Rights Movement in Tuscaloosa. In fact, shaving mugs are so plentiful, you could build a nice collection with one overriding theme, like these beautiful BPOE Elk mugs.
10 Intriguing Facts About Barber Shops
- As long as 6,000 years ago, Egyptian nobility used sharpened flint and oyster shells to cut hair.
- In ancient cultures such as Egypt, priests specializing in warding off evil spirits trimmed, styled, and shaved the hair which they believed acted as a channel for demons to enter the body.
- In the Middle Ages, barber-surgeons cut hair, dressed wounds, and performed surgical operations.
- In 1450, a law was enacted that united the barber’s company and surgeon’s guild. The purpose was to ensure that no one practice barbering during surgery and no barber practice any type of surgery except pulling teeth.
- After the Civil War, barber shops were re-established as accepted institutions on main streets throughout America. In many small towns and some large cities, barber shops offered a place for men to socialize.
- The visual appearance of the barber pole is linked to bloodletting performed by barber-surgeons. Red represents blood and white represents the bandages used to stem the bleeding. It is theorized that blue is symbolic of the veins cut during bloodletting, however, another interpretation suggests blue was added to poles in America as a show of patriotism and nod to the flag.
- In 1880, the average barber shop measured about 10 by 12 feet and cost just $20 to equip. Haircuts were five or ten cents and shaves were three cents.
- In 1893, A.B. Moler opened the first Barber School in Chicago and also published barbering textbooks.
- The most famous barbershop on television has to be Floyd’s from the Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968). Howard McNear played Floyd Lawson until 1967 and passed away in 1969 due to complications from a debilitating stroke he suffered six years earlier.
- By 1985, more than 50% of barbering students were female.
Betsy: My two favorite things from the barber shop that I went to in the 1950’s in Chicago were the haircut chart and the Coca Cola machine. The haircut chart showed various choices of hair cuts that could be given. My favorite one was the “Flattop with Fenders”. It wasn’t my favorite because that’s what I received, it was my favorite because of the fantastic drawing that accompanied that style.
The Coca Cola machine was beautiful. It was a large red upright machine with a glass door that you could pull open with a metal handle and then slide the 6 1/2 oz. bottle of Coke down to the place where you could remove it once you put in your dime. There was an opener right in the machine to open the bottle and the cap would fall into the machine. Next to it was a yellow wooden crate with slots where you could put your bottle when you were done so it could be picked up by the Coke man when he came the next time to fill up the machine. When my mother dropped me off to get a haircut, she would give me an extra dime to get a Coke. It sure tasted good, especially in the summer time.
In those days it was safe to drive your little kid to the barber and then leave him there to get his hair cut and pick him up later. When I was about 12 years old, she would just give me the 12 cents for the bus and I would go there after school and then come home on the bus.
Bob – Your 70 year old friend from “My Magnificent Mile”
Thanks so much for sharing your barber shop memories, Bob. This sounds as wonderful as Mayberry – I loved the haircut chart at Floyd’s Barber Shop!
Betsy, I can’t find a email address so I hope you get this comment. I have some photos I would like to share with you. My Great Great Grandfather is Emil Rinke – he was a hat trimmer and partner in Edelhoff Rinke Imports. I would love to send you photos of some of the pieces that have been kept in the family.
I would love to see the photos of these pieces and any history you can provide about the business! Please email me at email@example.com. Thanks much!