A Little Off the Top!
By: Wayne Brown
Just the other day I sat in my hair stylist chair as she practiced her expertise on my thriving head of hair. As I sat there, I thought back on my childhood and my early visits to the barber shop, first with my dad, then in later years I would go alone. My memories caused me to marvel at how much things have changed since those times and I found myself missing that old barbershop on the town square.
When I was a pre-teen there were three or four barbershops around our little town. Each had three or four barber chairs with barbers working steadily at the process of cutting hair. Each shop had a long line of chairs for those patrons who patiently awaited their turn in one of the hydraulic chairs. Barbering, even in my small home town of 3,000 people, was big business and it was done on a production scale. In those days, some men got their hair cut weekly or at least every two weeks. Everyone had short hair mostly combed in a “parted style” of the day.
As I became old enough not to fear the barber and need holding down to gain a hair-cut, I found that I was still quite intimidated by the environment. The barbershop was a gathering place for adult men who talked politics, told jokes, and traded stories. They seem to just tolerate us young boys. For most of us, the barbershop was the first place we ever heard politics discussed and solutions to world hunger offered up. There were some men in the shop who seemed to know something about everything and who were we young boys to question the validity of any of it…we bought it all hook, line, and sinker.
The barber pole hung outside the shop marking the presence of the business. Often, there was various types of hair oil displayed in the window. Those were the days when everyone used hair oil for some unknown reason. My theory developed in later life was that it was a great cure-all for “bed-head”. Most folks woke up with it and since they normally took their baths the night before, there was no curing it in the shore…thus ,the hair-oil business was red hot. One of the hair-oils displayed was a bottle of oil of various weights and colors all in the same bottle. Each of the oils would seek its own level based on its weight and thickness. The barber would shake it up and mix it, only to have it magically assume its original layering. We were pretty sure this was a function of some kind of barber voo-doo.
In later years, I discovered that barbering is one of the oldest professions around likely only taking second place due to the prevalence of prostitution since the beginning of time in the world. Barbers, especially back in the era of the Romans, were men of statue and considered to be quite skilled with their ability to sculpt the hair and beard. In fact, the term “barber” is used in reference to the beard. These men were envied for their skills. In years to come they expanded their cutting abilities to become “blood-letters” and then to practice the art of surgery. It is a little known fact but barbering was the driving force behind the development of surgery principles and schooling in the world. Humanity has much to thank the barber for. Even the barber pole arose from those times when bandages would be hung out on poles in front of the establishments to advertise that it was a place of “bloodletting”. One bandage would be red to signify the blood and the other white to signify the bandaging of the cut. Thus…the barber pole.
But I digress, my purpose is not to review the history of barbering in the world but simply to use this tangent to put into perspective how important barbering has been in the lives of people for time on end. One then must wonder if that is why the barber always seemed so intelligent to us young boys as they spoke to us while sitting in their big chairs. It seemed that way to me anyway.
Early on, when I began going to the barbershop by myself, I hated it if the barber thought that I needed to use the cheater board across the chair arms to sit on for the cut. Barbers are a picky lot and they want the head at just the right level. I hated sitting on that board and celebrated the day when the first barber actually acknowledge that I was indeed tall enough to sit like a big boy in the chair. Finally, I was a man!
The chair was quite the fixture as well…much different than what we see today. The chairs of those day were a mixture porcelain, painted metal, steel attachments, and large padded leather seats and backs. It was complete with a head rest that had a rolled of paper on it which allowed the barber to quick prepare it for the next head. Each head which leaned against it left a greasy spot from the hair-oil in use. On the side, there was a large lever that looked much like the draft beer pull handles you see in bars today. Once one was in the chair, the barber would hit that handle and literally jack you right up there in the chair. As we sat waiting we could see the secret of the chair. It had a hydraulic shaft that seemed to come right up out of the floor. Us young boys were pretty sure that shaft reached all the way to China underneath that platform base. We were also convinced that if the barber wanted to, he could easily jack your ass up right through the ceiling. On the basis of that belief, we were always cooperative and sat very still.
The barber offered hot shaves with steamy towels applied over the men’s faces to soften the whiskers. Once that step was complete, the barber ran some hot water into his soap cup and lathered his brush. He then applied the lather liberally to all of the man’s facial area. Next came the straight razor and we sat welded gazing upon its bright blade. The barber would slap it a few times against the leather strap attached to the side of the chair and then go to work on the man’s face. He had a special, dainty-like way of holding that razor that made me want to learn to do it too.
Barbers always seemed to speak at about the same rate that they cut hair. If they were emphasizing some particular line of thought, their speech would slow and so would their cutting…they became very meticulous in both speech and action. Once past the point, they began to move a bit faster again until the next point of emphasis arose. Due to the coming and goings of the community people and all the talking, it was easy to see why the barber was in the know on just about every subject around town.
I don’t remember the barber ever really asking what kind of haircut I wanted. Back in that day, it seemed that the law required that everyone get the same style which meant we left the place with that “new cut” head look which was highlighted by white walling the sides of our head. The last step which signaled the haircut was nearing an end came when the barber would get out the straight razor and peel all the hair from around my ears and all around the base of my neck. The blade tickled but I dared not laugh or move for fear that he would cut my fool head off or worse…like run me through the ceiling in that chair! Then, the barber oiled up my hair and parted it with a comb. The final touch was to powder his big blonde brush and apply the powder to the perimeter of my head and neck. This step helped all the loose hair slide off and left you smelling like you just got a haircut…which you did!
With that I was ready for another two weeks without the barber in my life. For that timeframe, my mother would amply apply a large dose of Wildroot Crème Oil to my head and gingerly part each hair into place. Wildroot was apparently some good stuff cause my dad used it too. I could attest to its fine qualities and holding power as I had tested it many times walking to school in a cold north wind only to arrive and still have every hair in place. It had lasting power too as evidenced by the fact that you could run your comb through your hair after a long day and still see the white residue on your comb left by the Wildroot pulled from your hair. I’ll bet a barber invented it.
Some might say we have come a long way since that time. Now, it is not perfectly normal to see a man getting his hair colored and styled by some cute little blonde in hot pants. I have to smile when I think back about how many more men would have been getting haircuts on a much higher frequency if the barbers had been blonde and in hot pants…those really would have been some days to remember.
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