From surgery to style, we take a look at the history of our profession.
The oldest of trades
Barbering dates back to ancient and biblical times and a ‘barber’s razor’ is even mentioned in The Book of Ezekiel. Razor blades have been found among relics of the Bronze Age showing that men have been cutting and shaving their hair for an incredibly long time and have presumably been going to someone that has skill at doing it.
In 296BC, barbering was introduced to Rome. The city became famous for its fine baths and barber salons. The barbers themselves grew popular and prospered and their salons became a centre for the daily news and gossip – much like they are today! It is from the Latin word barba, meaning beard, that our word “barber” is derived.
A bloody beginning
There was a time when barbers did more than just cutting hair. Barbers also acted as surgeons and performed services such as lancing abscesses, picking lice from hair, pulling rotten teeth, and setting bone fractures. The first official organisation of barber-surgeons was formed in France in 1096 A.D and a formal school was established soon thereafter.
One of the main duties of the barber-surgeons was bloodletting. It was once believed that many ailments were caused by having an excess of blood and this could be cured by letting some of it out.
Even thought bloodletting was an essential part of medical practice at the time, doctors thought that the ‘cutters art’ was beneath them. Patients that needed bloodletting were referred to barbers who performed the duty instead.
The barber’s pole
Barbers recognised the need to advertise their services and used to place bowls of blood in the window to make passersby take notice and remember they needed to get their own bloodletting. However, in 1307 a law was passed that banned the putrid, congealing bowls of blood from being placed in the window.
What happened to the bodily fluids instead? They got chucked into the river Thames. Lovely.
It was because of this ban that the barbers came up with another way to advertise their services. The barber’s pole was once a rod which patients gripped to make their veins bulge so that they were easier to slice open. The brass ball on top of modern-day barber’s poles symbolises the basin which collected blood and the red and white stripes are reminiscent of the bloody bandages that barbers once hung out to dry on the pole outside their shop. The bandages would twist in the wind and form the spiral pattern that is still used today.
Fortunately, the days of barber-surgeons are well behind us and nowadays barbershops are once more places of style and banter – just like in the Roman times. Hopefully we haven’t put you off coming in for a haircut!