I remember only three barber shops in my little home town. Maybe there were more but this brain can’t come up with any other than one on Main Street next to the Bargain Store (called something like Sanitary, I think) one on Madison Street next to the Brunswick Hotel, and another along the railroad behind Bradley’s Grocery and the food locker. The first one I ever experienced was the one on Main Street. It was bright, well-lit shop. I think it had three chairs, but it could have been two. When I first went to get my haircut I was being dragged along by mom. Before I knew it she had already gone through the doorway and was pulling me along for this new adventure.
Well, that’s what mom called it. With a kid first being subjected to the care of a stranger with sharp scissors it was not a ‘fun’ idea, but it was definitely an adventure! In fact, it was a major trauma producing thing like many more to come that I would just have to try and live through. Making matters worse, the men hanging out in the shop took notice of this hairy boy that would soon be under the loud, buzzing devices that alternately sent tickles and vibrations enough to churn butter or electrocute those who resisted by wiggling under the cape. From what I could see the men sitting around the shop were hanging out there reading men’s magazines or playing checkers, and changing ‘looks’ with one another with a smile and a nod. I think that mom was concerned that I might rebel in some fashion, but she had an equal concern for the men’s behaviors since she was the lone woman in the shop. While I didn’t realize her worst fear, I can look back now and see she suffered a bit of trauma, as well. Hoping she would not hear whistles or ‘catcalls,’ she trudged onward to expose me to the enemy without regard to her own well-being.
I was lifted into a booster seat that fit over the arms of the chromed and padded chair. This put me high on a pedestal easily within the reach of the tall man behind me. He operated pedals that lifted me further and allowed the chair to turn according to his desires. I felt the eyes of everyone but felt a level of pride that I had behaved thus far. Things changed when I first saw those black locks fall onto the apron that had be tied around me. A part of me had been amputated and was covering the floor many feet below! I swallowed and decided that I would show no fear. I looked to mom for encouragement but she was busy looking away, as if she didn’t want to see the destructive actions perpetrated upon her precious baby boy. I thought to myself, ‘If only I hang on this will soon be over.’ The barbers hand reached out and positioned the angle of my head. This made me a little mad considering I wanted control of my own body. I felt the urge to cry as tears formed, but then I found new strength and purposed to be brave. I vowed that I would not bring shame to my family or to those men around me that had already surely faced this abuse and survived. One day, I would sit in their chairs and cheer on another youth to victory!
Suddenly it happened. I hadn’t expected it, so it was a complete shock. After all, I had not been in a barber shop before. The loud, vibrating noise was coming toward my head from behind! It traveled up just behind my ear and sent shivers down my back. The barber was using the dreaded electric clippers mom had mentioned earlier when she briefed me on what was to happen. I could not stand it any further! I cried out loudly and shot two arms out from under the cover toward what I knew would be a sympathetic mother… but wait! She had seen it coming and had quickly escaped outside to the sidewalk. The poor barber was left to deal with a kid in utter panic! My support was gone and I was alone among men I had only just met. Everyone was trying to calm me but it was a wise fellow that handed me a candy sucker. Hmmmm. That, like a pacifier distracted me. Thank goodness, I was saved. I learned a lesson then and there. All I need to do in panic is to scream out and I’d get a sucker. Beats the modern ‘happy faces’ all to pieces.
Some years ago my fellow classmate, Delbert Caudill, told me of his haircut experiences. “One of the more traumatic events of my childhood was getting a haircut, believe it or not. Doesn’t sound like much, but you never had to endure my dad’s clippers! They were not electric, but hand operated. The cutters worked on the same principle as electric ones do, with two blades shuttling back and forth, but were operated by squeezing the handles together. Each time the handles were squeezed the blades cut. When they were released they came back to the starting point. Still doesn’t sound too bad except for being slow…very slow. Did I mention they had one tooth broken?”
“Dad squeezed the handles to make them work and in the process was wiggling the cutting head a little each time. It was impossible to keep his hand from moving as he was squeezing with the broken tooth pulling hair on every cycle of the blades. It seemed to take forever! I think those clippers pulled out about as much hair as they cut. It’s a wonder I’m not bald, but I guess the hair grew back. To make matters even worse is was well before long hair was in. Even if it had been in style, it wouldn’t have been in with mom and dad. We had to have haircuts regularly. Haircut day was one time that I was a little envious of my sisters. They had just the opposite problem. They weren’t allowed to cut their hair.”
“What a relief it was when dad started taking me with him into town to get my haircut. I not only got a trip to town, but the haircut was over much faster and less painfully than it would have been at home. Barber shops not only had barbers but a shoeshine boy, or more accurately a shoeshine man. Some were as old as dad.”
“Back then you never saw a woman in a barber shop and if a man ever set foot in a beauty parlor he would have been harassed by his friends for the rest of his days and people would have expressed serious doubts about his manhood. The barber shop was a place for men to gather to get a haircut or to relax, cuss if they wanted to, swap lies and tell tall tales.”
“Dad’s favorite barber was John Burton. John was also an avid hunter and an experienced bird dog trainer who came out to the farm to hunt with us two or three times each season. Since dad had his favorite barber, I had my choice of all the other barbers in the shop. Of course there was just one other so I got him. His name was John Justice. His grandson, Johnny Justice, was in my class at school. I always thought that would be a good name for an old western hero. “Here, riding out of the sunset to right wrongs and catch all the bad guys comes Johnny Justice, hero of the old west.””
“Well, Johnny wasn’t a western hero and neither was his grandpa. He was just a small town barber but a pretty good one. He was probably at least 70 at the time and had many years of experience. The only thing that bothered me was after the haircut he shaved around my ears. He had a little tremor in his hands. I could feel it when he was cutting my hair with the clippers but I wasn’t worried about them. What I was worried about was that straight razor! Out of the corner of my eye I could see the hand holding the razor as it moved toward my ear. The trembling in his hand was magnified in the movement of the razor. As the wagging razor blade came closer and closer I tried not to move a muscle. I don’t think I even breathed! When it finally reached my face his fingers would rest on my cheek and the razor would touch down light as a feather. He would make the stroke with the razor smoothly and confidently with never a nick. He never cut me, although I feared he would. Even though I knew he probably wouldn’t cut me, still every time he came at me with that razor wagging back and forth I expected an ear to land in my lap.”
“Everything considered, I don’t know which was worse, the pain of the pulling hair or the fear of losing my ears. Eventually, of course, I grew up and could choose any barber shop I wanted, but to this day I still get a little nervous when a barber shaves around my ears with a straight razor.”
Delbert’s experience brings to mind all the other kids that had to go through their respective experiences. I don’t think I ever when back to the shop on Main Street, but went to the one next to the food locker and behind Bradley’s Grocery. They never gave me a sucker but the haircutting sessions were much calmer.
I remember once when my Great Aunt Shirley convinced my mother that she could save us a lot of money by cutting my hair herself. The story is such that it likely has been repeated many times across America, if not the world. She totally botched the haircut so badly that I couldn’t be seen in public. My mother cried and fretted but everyone else laughed and pointed. That caused me to run to look in a mirror where I spotted the problem immediately. I cried out that my friends would laugh at me! (Bill Elkins, did) The only solution was to go to a barber for help. He listened politely to the explanation that he had heard a thousand times before. He had little choice but to give me a buzz cut. That hid much of the botched job and a new baseball cap did the rest.
It was a time when a movie came out with loads of whooping Indians wearing Mohawk haircuts. They looked so cool to several of us boys, so a fad was started. We thought we were so cool! Instead of praise and admiration, we heard snickers wherever we went, so maybe we needed to have the tall center hairs cut low to match the rest. It grew out again, thank goodness.
Most barber shops had a raised platform with chairs or benches that provided for a ‘shoeshine boy.’ Often a misnomer, the operator for these common services was a man. While many shoeshine stands were operated by blacks, they were also manned by white men or boys. These shoeshine stands were all around America in the better hotels, barber shops, and even train or bus depots. It was a lucky fellow that had a permanent stand on a busy corner, perhaps next to a newsstand. Signs were erected to show the various level of services provided or you could ask the proprietor for the cost of a good shine. Usually this was in the area of ‘four-bits,’ ($.50) but a two-bit tip ($.25) was usually earned. I’m reminded of the old high-school cheer: “Two-bits, four-bits, three-bits, a dollar, all for Louisa, stand up and holler!” Calling a quarter a ‘bit’ had long been out of fashion during my youth, but the term ‘bits’ hung around on in some avenues of trade.
Inasmuch as I usually wore tennis shoes, a shine was rarely needed by me, but I often watched the well-practiced skills of popping the shine rag and two hands working brushes at the same time. Often bare hands would dip into the wax polish and apply the correct color onto the leather, rubbing the shoe so the brushes would bring out a new appearance, but it was the rag that did the finished work. Sitting high upon the stand in a padded chair the customer put each of his feet onto standing metal shoe-shaped foot-rests so the ‘shine-boy’ could get at the job at hand. Even the back of the brogans were made into a mirror finish that would draw the attention of others when the gentleman customer finally stepped down and strolled down the street.
Very few men had the barber shave their beards with a straight-razor. I got my first barbershop shave early on my wedding day. The hot towels and that splash of aftershave were new to my face, but the occasion seemed to fit. I remember the barber was attentive to keep the blade keenly sharp by use of a leather strop that hung from the barber’s chair. I remember being told that in barber school the students had to put shaving cream on an inflated rubber balloon and then shave the balloon clean without causing it to pop. Only then would an upcoming barber be released on the public.
It was only in the finest of hotels and elite shops that a manicurist was employed. After all, miners, farmers, builders, and teachers would see such things as wasteful and extravagant. Besides, that kind of work was usually done by women.
These were the days before ‘unisex’ was a thing and a good ways from having our hair cut or trimmed by a stylist. The barbers of the day were men in a man’s shop. As men became more aware of fashionable appearances, women and men alike worked side -by-side creating well-groomed customers who modeled the latest, modern style. After all, if a movie star could look great on the big screen, then we, too, could follow the example. The day of a Mohawk haircut was over and the barber who wanted to be successful needed to learn some new tricks to stay relevant. With that came higher prices and more frequent ‘standing appointments,’ with the stylist. I think mom would have been more comfortable dragging me into one of those shops… Well, maybe not.