It is not uncommon to take for granted the things you see on a daily basis. Take, for instance, the gentleman’s barbershops. While some know the origin of the striped pole or remember a bit of trivia about barber’s once being surgeons, many do not know the whole tale of the barber and his changing role in modern civilization.

Pre-History and Early Civilization

While it is impossible to know the exact role of the barber before recorded history, archaeologists have uncovered sharpened stones and other tools apparently used for the purposes of personal grooming and cutting hair. Some archaeologists believe that Paleolithic civilizations held the hair cutter in high regard, as many cultures believed the hair had spiritual significance.

Excavations in Egypt have uncovered not only the tools of cutting hair and shaving, but also statutes of early barbershops. They were responsible for shaving the heads and bodies of priests and other affluent members of society. This had both spiritual significance and practical importance, as lice infestations were a constant problem in ancient Egypt.

Ancient Greek men took great pride in styling their hair and beards. Thus, the art of trimming hair and beards became quite valuable. Men often styled their hair in waves or curls. Some even took to dying their hair, as well, requiring the development of innovative hairstyling technologies. Greeks began early barbering establishments where skilled barbers could earn a wage for their proficiency. These early barbershops became important meeting places for Greek men to discuss news of the day, philosophy, and politics.

In 296 BC, a Roman Senator named Ticinius Mena returned to Rome from a trip to Sicily. Upon his return, he introduced the custom of the barbershops. While Roman men had traditionally sported long hair and beards, Plinius the Elder writes that a general and Consul named Scipius the African introduced the style of short hair and a clean shaven face. The look caught on in a big way. Indeed, the short and clean hair style and beardless face remained the fashion in Rome until shortly before its fall.

Roman barbershops were called “tonsors,” and today barbers are said to be in the “tonsorial” profession. Romans shaved their beards with water and razors made of bronze, or by using beeswax and tweezers (the first waxing). Tonsors also offered services ”head massages, manicures and pedicures, and the application of scented oils as seen in many contemporary day spas. The Romans also introduced the idea of the barber surgeon, as tonsors often performed dental extractions as part of their ordinary service offerings.


After the fall of the Roman Empire, the grooming trends reverted to a scruffier look, with full beards and long hair. Thus, the barber’s position in society declined. However, given their tradition of tooth extraction, barbershops became a natural choice for tending to other forms of surgery. By the 13th Century, the Catholic Church had forbidden all priests and other clergy ”the well-educated branch of society” from performing any operation in which blood would be present, the common treatment for most ailments at the time being bloodletting. Thus, barbers filled the void and began performing as both cutters of hair and medieval surgeons.

Some illustrations from the time depict barbers using a pole with a ball at the top as a prop for the arm of a patient undergoing a bloodletting. The patient’s arm would be affixed to the pole by a bandage wrapped around the pole and the patient’s arm, and spun to tighten the two together. This may be the origin of the red and white barber pole that is famous as a symbol of the barbershop.

Modern Barbershops

By the 18th Century, scientific understanding made resurgence across Europe, and some men of science opted to pursue surgery as a profession. The barber, who was more of a tradesman, became marginalized as a medical practitioner. By the end of the 18th Century, several countries had codified this separation between surgeon and barber.

However, technology and the Renaissance brought with them many changes, including a wide array of new hairstyles and fashions for men. Ancient ways of tending to a man’s grooming needs were rediscovered and new trends were developed by enterprising barbers. Shaving returned to fashion, as did shorter hairstyles. Wigs also became quite fashionable, and many barbers moved into the arena of wig making. The most expensive wigs were made from human hair, while cheaper ones were made from animal hair or cotton.

By the 19th Century, wigs had gone back out of fashion, and short haircuts with clean faces or neatly trimmed and styled facial hair became popular once more. Barbershops became quite all the rage again, often revered for their ability to create unique looks with both head and facial hair. Barbershops appeared in every town across Europe and in the New World.

With the need for regular upkeep of a shaved face and short haircut, barbershops became frequent haunts for men of this age. Thus, as in ancient Greece, matters of intellectual interest became common matters of discussion between patrons and barbers.

During the Victorian era, mixing between the genders was often seen as unseemly, particularly when it came to grooming rituals. Thus, women began to have their hair cut at beauty salons while men attended barbers. This custom was perpetuated across most of the 20th Century.

While it is possible today for men to go to beauty salons and women to go to barbershops, many of the traditions of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries remain. As a result, most barbers do not offer services like hair dying, curling, waxing, and so on. Most beauty salons do not offer warm lather shaves. Today, the barbershop may be more of a specialty service provider, but it is one with a long and storied history. Gentlemen still often prefer to visit a barbershop for the camaraderie and esprit de corpsthey experience with other men. And, there is nothing nicer than the smooth, clean feeling of one’s face after a nice, professional barber shave.

Thus, the tradition of the gentleman’s barber lives on to this day at 34 Duke St, Kettering, Northamptonshire, NN16 9DY, England. Stepping inside, one immediately feels the great presence of history in the traditions and methods employed by these modern practitioners of an ancient and noble art.