A Brief History of the Barber: Old, New, and Weird Traditions

Before the days of disposable razors and aerosol cans of shaving cream, there were barbers; in big cities, small cities, urban cities and rural cities, most every man went to the town barber for a clean shave.

Barber image via Flickr

Who Were The First Barbers?

Yet what many people don’t know is that barbers existed even before the invention of modern cities – there were ancient barbers from as early as 6000 B.C.E.!

These early barbers did almost exactly the same things that modern barbers do; they cut hair, colored hair, shaved beards, trimmed beards, and even did facial makeup (okay, maybe modern barbers don’t do everything that the older ones did).

Whether it’s a Boston barber or a Chicago barber, all barbers share a rich historical lineage that weaves through some of the most identifiable times in history.

Here are a few highlights.

Military Advantages of a Clean Shave

Greece was one of the first societies to embrace barbers, as well-trimmed beards were a sign of fashion and wealth in this area during 500 B.C.E.

However, by 334 B.C.E., Alexander the Great ordered that all men must shave their beards, thus giving Greece a military advantage over their enemies.

Alexander’s reasoning was that his men could grab and hold their enemies by the beards, yet their enemies would not be able to grab them back; this gave Alexander’s army a distinct advantage from a military perspective.

One can only imagine that the barbers of this time period were exceedingly busy keeping Alexander’s army clean-shaven throughout Greece’s many military conquests.

The Social Implications of Roman Barbers

Less than 100 years after Alexander demanded his army go beardless, the practice of barbering became popular in Rome.

Around 296 B.C.E., barber salons became a popular sign of luxury, similar to the recreational fine baths of that era. These salons skyrocketed in popularity, becoming hubs for daily gossip and town news.

But the Roman barber salons were more than just recreational hotspots; they were also figurative representations of social status in a very segregated culture. Free men set themselves apart by being clean-shaven, while slaves were actually forced to grow a beard.

The societal implications of barber salons reached every nook and cranny in Rome’s societal class system. Unlike the world today, where both rich and free men alike grow beards for various reasons, the men in Rome lived by a very strict set of societal rules pertaining to their facial hair.

Old, New and Weird Barbering Practices

If you were to list off the services that modern barbers provide, “bloodletting”, “pulling teeth”, and “administering medicine” probably wouldn’t be among them.

Thankfully, modern barbers don’t continue these practices, although many barbers during the early Christian era did all of these things – plus more.

The practice of barbering, fortunately, has involved the same skill set for the last couple hundred years by eliminating both bloodletting and dentistry from their services.

Today, a Boston barber and a San Diego barber will both offer similar services: a smooth shave, a quick hair trim, a hot towel treatment, and much more. But at the end of the day, all barbers ultimately offer one thing a relaxing experience that has been a mainstay in American culture for hundreds of years.

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About Donna May

Author Donna May is an at home skin care specialist who researches and writes about skin care products, does product reviews, and likes to discover new techniques for dealing with the many different kinds of skin issues that people develop over the course of their lives.