barber dentistStereotype-in-English

The barber and his pivotal role in societies

barber dentist

Representation of a dentist-barber performing an extraction

(it continues from: Beard trends through History)…

More than just taking care of style, the figure of the barber – revalued thanks to hipsters – historically dealt with a lot of aspects which, apparently, had nothing to do with razors, scissors or shaving foam.

It seems that since the Paleolithic, when the first technologies were introduced, getting a haircut was fashionable. Many populations believed that hair had a soul, so only certain classes, basically the clergy, could have performed the cut. In ancient Egypt the barber was highly considered, the priests of the Temple of Amun received a ritual total shaving every three days, as a sign of purification.

The ancient Greeks didn’t have the habit tho shave, except for the mustache. But they had crescent-shaped razors and barber shops, meeting places where calluses removal and manicure were also practiced. During the Macedonian age, people started to shave more regularly and the barber increased his status: he also hosted symposia, where the guests discussed politics, philosophy or just did small talk.

The contacts between Greeks and Italics during the III-IV century b.C. introduced those kinds of stores in Italy, starting from Sicily. Some of the barbers were itinerant (circitores), the others (tonsores) worked inside the shop, where people also used to gossip – exactly like nowadays. The Latin writer Horace wrote in a satirical work that something could have been known lippis et tonsoribus, that means by everyone, shortsighted and barbers. Those who could afford it, had a slave used as a barber.

rasoio specchio barbiere

Barber tools in ancient Egypt

With the so-called barbarian invasions, peoples from central Europe discovered barbers. In the XIII century France barbers still performed in the streets and squares, not having their own stores. But in that time they gathered as a corporation, under the king jurisdiction. England, at the half of XV century, will follow the example.

Barbers started to extend their competences all around Europe, becoming surgeons – for easier operations and bloodletting – and dentists, or better teeth extractors. These, in the past, were prerogatives of the priests, the only ones who were more instructed than nobles. Since 1123, after the First Lateran Council, the clergy was relieved of medical duties, to avoid who knows what kind of sin. Step by step, barbers earned their stripes and between the XVI and XVII century Henry the VIII let them receive basics of anatomy.

Il caratteristico palo da barbiere

The carachteristic barber pole, born in England and perfected in the USA

The typical barber pole became iconic such as the cross of hospitals or pharmacies is now. Initially, the British version was just white and red, to represent bandages and blood, the bloodletting protagonists. The origin of the third color, blue, is unclear. It could be the color of veins or, as it was added in the United States, a reference to the American flag.

Originally, the sign didn’t rotate, but was placed on a pole and even this particular is not surely motivated. The solution might be in the pages of Orbis Pictus, a precursor of modern primary school textbooks wrote by Comenius. In a picture, a patient of a surgeon/barber is holding a stick during the bloodletting, to keep the arm tensed and under stress.

In 1745 there is the next turning point. The English king George II decided to deprive barbers from their multi-purpose role, from now on they will take care of beard and hair. A few years later, France will do the same. This “decline” was stopped at the end of XIX century, when in the U.S. the first unions and associations of professional barbers settle down quality standards, to ensure proper education and training.

Barbers are now associated again to socialization and conversation and because of globalization their position is leveling all around the world. Andrew Esiebo is a Nigerian photographer who realized the project “Pride”, in which he traveled among the barber shops of western Africa. “Barbers help people to gain an identity”, he said when interviewed by The Guardian. “The way people look, through their hairstyle, influences the way they feel about themselves, the way the others see them and address them”.

barbiere pride andrew esiebo

One of the pictures of the project “Pride”, by the Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo

At those latitudes as well, customers chat, discuss, relax or even do business, Esiebo explains that it goes that way without big differences among regions or Nations. There are particular cases, of course. Shops are usually full of “religious images, hip hop artists, soccer teams, icons of global black culture”. But “there was a place in Mali where the guy had posters of Bin Laden and Gadafi next to Obama. I found this contrasting use of icons interesting. The barber said that Bin Laden and Gadafi were his heroes while Obama is a global symbol of black power”…

Obviously, someone is immune to fascination generated by the figure of the barber. The American writer and journalist Ambrose Bierce once said that the barber is a “savage whose laceration of your cheek is unobserved in the superior torment of his conversation”.


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