The traditional American barbershop was an emporium where men congregated to have their hair cut, faces shaved, and fingernails manicured. Barbershops, particularly those in small towns, also served a wider purpose within the community. They were places where men gathered, relaxed, read magazines, and enjoyed each other's company while passing gossip, sharing the latest joke, talking sports and politics, and debating the events of the day.
For many centuries a man's hair was trimmed at home, usually by a servant or a family member. Shaving before the invention of the razor blade was a messy and sometimes painful affair. All this began to change in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, first with the increasing number of small towns sprouting up across the country and, later on, with the evolution of the razor blade. In the early twentieth century shaving and short hairstyles became fashionable, and a barbershop could be found on the main street of just about every small town and all over the major cities.
The traditional barbershop was distinguished from other businesses by the red and white or red, white, and blue-striped pole that stood out front. The red and white were historic symbols of the blood and bandages of surgeons, who were once called barbers; the blue was added to make the pole resemble the American flag. On the inside the barbershop was outfitted with the supplies that were necessary for a barber to practice his trade: razors; strops, or strips of leather or horsehide, for sharpening blades; shaving bowls and mugs; hair combs and brushes; soap; scissors; mirrors; popular hair tonics; barber's chairs; talcum powder; and towel steamers.
The men in barbershops occasionally sang together for their amusement, a trend that gave rise to the barbershop quartet. These musical groups performed the types of songs that were popular between the 1860s and the 1920s: tunes featuring innocent, sentimental lyrics and simple melodies that were easily harmonized. By the early 1900s the term "barbershop" was commonly used to indicate singing. An early written reference is a barbershop-style song, "Play That Barbershop Chord," published in 1910.
For decades men visited the barbershop for their daily shave; however, the evolution of the electric and the safety razor and the increasingly hectic pace of modern life combined to make shaving at home a more practical pursuit. The traditional barbershop fell out of favor in the 1960s as young men began wearing their hair longer. By the twenty-first century the traditional barbershop had been largely replaced by the modern, unisex hair salon, although barbershops still exist across the United States.
Barlow, Ronald S. The Vanishing American Barbershop. El Cajon, CA: Windmill Publishing Company, 1993.
Hunter, Mic. The Vanishing American Barbershop: A Closer Look at a Disappearing Place. Mount Horeb, WI: Face to Face Books, 1996.
Staten, Vince. Do Bald Men Get Half-Price Haircuts?: In Search of America's Great Barbershops. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.