Today, reflections in a barbershop. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Barbers and surgeons used to be one
and the same. The red stripes on a barber's pole signify
the once-bloody work of the surgeon. That goes back at
least to ancient Assyria, where the symbols for knife and
for barber are related. Barber-surgeons turn up in
Egyptian literature. Some Roman barbers did a form of
plastic surgery in which they removed the brand marks
from freed slaves.
British author William Andrews published a very popular
book on barbering, At the Sign of the Barber Pole,
in 1904. That was just as men's styles moved back from
bearded to clean-shaven. The book was reprinted in 1969,
as another shift in hair management was taking place. The
musical show Hair had reached Broadway the year
before and had become the rallying point for a populist
anti-war revolution. Long hair was the badge of that
Andrews' book tells about the profession of the
barber-surgeon from the fifteenth century onward. His
major interest is in changing beard and hairstyles.
Without our arrays of shaving creams and electric razors,
a shave or a trim was once far more labor-intensive than
it is today. (I've shaved my face some twenty thousand
times by now. Even with modern equipment, I've spent
almost a full working year doing so.)
In the world Andrews describes, the barbershop was a
meeting place where you socialized and listened to live
music (maybe a lute or, later, a vocal quartet). You
obeyed strict rules of decorum. The barber was the
respected manager of this public salon.
But, as a skilled wielder of instruments, he also worked
as a surgeon. He let blood, opened abscesses, pulled
teeth. And he did some remarkably complex operations. He
removed cataracts and kidney stones. Only as medicine
began taking its modern form in the sixteenth century did
the barber-surgeon's role begin to shrink.
Artist Hans Holbein's last and largest painting was a
six-by-ten-foot picture of Henry VIII receiving the
Company of Barber-Surgeons. Henry finally proclaimed that
barbers must limit themselves to such minor procedures as
bloodletting and tooth pulling, and that surgeons would
quit cutting hair and shaving people. An age was ending,
and Holbein's figures all look pretty grim.
Andrews goes on to talk about the longhaired Cavaliers
who fought Cromwell's cropped-headed forces during the
English Civil War in the seventeenth century. He talks
about eighteenth-century wigs. He tells how beards came
back around 1850, and how they were just going out of
favor once again in his own time.
My first barber was an august black gentleman whom I knew
only as Mr. Williams. Those haircuts, so long ago, were
moments of ceremony, quiet, and grace. I may've been only
six, but Mr. Williams' barber-chair was, in fact, a form
of Zen preparation for adulthood. For here it became
evident that even a moment of quiet could become a form
of life in motion.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Andrews, W., At the Sign of the Barber's Pole: Studies
in Hirsute History. Cottingham, Yorkshire: J. R. Tutin,
Majno, G., The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the
Ancient World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
For on the musical, Hair, Click here.
The intensity of people's responses to hair remains with
us. I have a colleague at the UH Library who told me
about a patron who, seeing that he wore his hair in a
long ponytail, told him he was violating a biblical
injunction that only women should wear their hair long.
The patron told the fellow that he was destined for
Andrews' rendering of Holbein's painting
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-2001 by John H. Lienhard.