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Updated on August 23, 2010

Barbering dates back to antiquity. Barbers are mentioned in Egyptian papyri, and in ancient Greece and Rome barbershops were favorite meeting places where men discussed the affairs of the day. In folklore, the barber has been represented as a talkative person, the retailer of news, gossip, and homely advice.

In early Christian monasteries barbers rendered the important services of cutting and shaving the hair of monks, who were required by ecclesiastical law to wear the tonsure. After a papal decree of 1163 had forbidden the clergy to shed blood, the practice of periodic bloodletting as a health measure was also given over to barbers. The monastery barber was called Rasor et Minutor (barber and remover of blood).

Photo by Andrew Mogridge
Photo by Andrew Mogridge

Barber Surgeons

Barbers figured importantly in the history of medicine, especially in the development of surgery as a recognized branch of medical practice. Most early physicians disdained surgery and gave over to barbers this and other ministrations such as bloodletting, cupping and leeching, treating wounds, and extracting teeth. In this they followed the dictates of the Arab physician Avicenna (980-1037), the leading medical authority of medieval times, and a staunch opponent of surgery.

Nevertheless, surgery gradually gained recognition and was admitted to the curriculum of many European universities. In an effort to distinguish between academic surgeons and barber-surgeons, the College de St. Come, founded in Paris about 1210, identified the former as surgeons of the long robe and the latter as surgeons of the short robe. French barbers and surgeons were organized as a guild in 1361, and barber-surgeons were admitted to the faculty of the University of Paris in 1505. The father of modern surgery, Ambroise Pare (1510-1590), began his career as an itinerant barber-surgeon.

In England the barbers were chartered as a guild by Edward IV in 1462, and were merged with the guild of surgeons under a charter by Henry VIII in 1540. In practice, however, barbers who cut hair and gave shaves were forbidden to practice surgery. In France, a decree by Louis XV in 1743 prohibited barbers from practicing surgery, and in England in 1745 the surgeons were separated from the barbers by acts passed during the reign of George II. Their final separation came in 1800 with the founding of the Royal College of Surgeons during the reign of George III. From then on, barbers were specialists in haircutting, and not surgeons.

The traditional barber's pole of red and white stripes symbolizes the bloodletting and bandages formerly associated with barbers.

Modern Barbering

Today many barbershops offer additional services such as shampoos, scalp treatments, facial massages, manicures, and the fitting of hair pieces. In the United States barbers are usually trained in special schools and must pass examinations and be licensed by the states in which they work. In the mid-1960's there were 200,000 barbers in the United States, most of whom managed or were employed in small shops.


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