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The Unheard of History of the Hairdresser

To satisfy my curiosity, I have researched many different subjects that pique my interest. The following article is based on my own research

The History of Hairdressers

Oh hairdresser, what went wrong? Many of us get our hair trimmed or cut every two or three weeks. Some may even have a daily routine, but as the years have passed, we have forgotten the history of the hairdresser.

We take our hairdressers for granted nowadays because there are so many of them to choose from. Many hairdressers struggle to keep a returning customer base, especially in today's economy. It is amazing how much the profession has changed over the past 2,400 years. They have gone from surgeon to dentist to priest. Can you imagine seeing a priest carrying around a straight razor?

Would you believe that hairdressers were once paid more than doctors? What if I told you that they practiced something similar to an exorcism?

Barbershop in Virgil, Kansas around the year 1900.

Barbershop in Virgil, Kansas around the year 1900.

Early History

The history of barbers can be traced back all the way to the beginning of mankind. There have even been several razors discovered in Egypt that date back to over 6,000 years ago. Some of the earliest accounts we have of barbers stem back to 2,300 years ago in Sicily, thus giving us the term "Sicilian Barber" and operas like "The Barber of Seville."

The Barber trade in Rome was adopted by many amateurs. The profession was a lot different than it is today because many barbers didn't even have their own shops. Some would cut hair in their households or even on the streets. Shaves were usually offered for very little money because of the amount of competition; however, some barbers managed to become very wealthy because they were favored by the upper-class citizens and could charge more for their services.

The musical film "Sweeney Todd" was actually inspired by such Sicilian barbers who earned the moniker "butcher" because of their dull, copper razors, which would sometimes scar their customer's necks, chins, and cheeks. Because of this, many customers refused to be shaved with a razor, forcing barbers to come up with new methods of hair removal.

Art made by Pascal Coste, "View Inside a Barber's Shop in the French Quarter  Near Quantarat El Gedyde," 1800s

Art made by Pascal Coste, "View Inside a Barber's Shop in the French Quarter Near Quantarat El Gedyde," 1800s

The Barber as a Priest

Some of the earliest barbers stemmed from surgeons and priests. The reason priests became barbers is because the people of ancient Egypt were very superstitious. They believed that spirits entered the body from the tips of the hair on one's head. Cutting these hairs from the head was thought to expel the evil spirits like some sort of exorcism. This placed barbers at a very high standard in their community. Since barbers were thought to be religious men, they would often be called upon to baptize others and conduct marriage ceremonies.

The Barber as a Surgeon and Dentist

Since barbers were so good with their razors, they also were entrusted with performing surgeries such as enemas, dental work, and bloodletting, which was thought to cure all types of illness a long time ago. Since these barbers were performing surgery, they came to be known as "Barber Surgeons" in England. The barbers were actually paid more than the average surgeon because they possessed multiple skills.

History of the Barber Pole

Bloodletting, which was the most common method of curing many illnesses, was a primary duty of the first barbers. The original barber pole was usually nothing more than a column or banister outside of the barber's shop. Barbers started to wrap their cloths, which were covered in blood, around those poles, which would let people know that this was a barbershop. Since many people during that time were illiterate, this became a common practice. Around 1100 A.D., barbers stopped hanging their bloody rags out and developed a painted, red and white striped barber's pole which hung or stood outside their building, marking their shop as a place of barbering and surgery.

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The Fall and Resurrection of the Hairdresser

During the 15th century, many surgeons began to complain that barbers had too many rights to be deemed hairdressers, dentists, and surgeons. Most barbers had no previous medical education and, in turn, resorted to unconventional methods to try to cure their customers, which would usually end up hurting more people than it helped. Towards the middle of the 15th century, more and more medical discoveries were being made, making it hard for barbers to keep up with surgical procedures. This led Parliament to restrict their surgical duties. By the year 1450, barbers were limited to pulling teeth, cauterizing wounds, and bloodletting. With the barbers out of the picture, this opened up a brand new path for up-and-coming, educated surgeons. However, up until the 18th century, each new surgeon would have to be approved by two barbers before they could receive their surgeon's license. So unless you knew someone high up or were good friends with many barbers, it was pretty difficult to break into the surgical profession.

Barbershop in the 1920s, location unknown.

Barbershop in the 1920s, location unknown.

By 1745, the barber and surgeon professions were split into two different fields. One now had to either be a barber or surgeon or possess both licenses. By the end of the 18th century, all surgical duties were stripped from barbers, including bloodletting. They were strictly limited to styling hair and shaving beards and mustaches. Since the late 18th and early 19th centuries were dominated by wig-wearing, most barbers were forced to become wig makers or go out of business. Instead of being known as men of an artistic profession, barbers were now mere production laborers.

Up until the end of the 19th century, the barber profession was not a much sought-after career. It wasn't until the popularity of motion pictures that the hairdressing profession came back into popularity. In the 1920s, hair styling schools began to open up, and students were taught a whole new way of hairdressing. Since many people wanted the latest hairdo to resemble their favorite actor, actress, athlete, politician, or singer, the cost of haircuts and styling skyrocketed. To make it easier for women, cosmetology was now combined into the same certification so that one could get all of their pampering needs in one place.

A far more modern salon.

A far more modern salon.

Barbers vs. Cosmetologists

Barbers and Cosmetologists actually have the same type of certification. Their license is what makes them different. While cosmetologists are allowed to cut hair, they are actually not certified to use a straight razor. That duty is actually limited to those with a barber license. This is still a law about this in every state except New Jersey. So even though cosmetologists are licensed hairdressers, they must also possess a barber's license in order to use a straight razor.

This is another fun fact that I'm sure every lady will love to hear: If you have ever spent an extended amount of time in a salon, you know that there is a lot of gossip/news exchanged each day. This actually stems back to the earliest barber shops. Some people would come in on a daily basis just to freshen up on the latest news and/or gossip. If you wanted to know what was going on in town, the Barber Shop was the place to go. Since all barbers were men, back then, this means that the male is actually the one to blame for all this gossip going around at salons today.

Modern Day

Nowadays, barbers aren't expected to pull teeth, perform surgery, or intentionally remove anyone's blood. Instead, hairdressers have gone back to doing exactly what their name suggests: dressing hair.

Sources and Further Reading

  • “Hairdressing.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,
  • “History of Barbering.” Monument Barbershop, 7 Mar. 2019,
  • Nix, Elizabeth. “Why Are Barber Poles Red, White and Blue?”, A&E Television Networks, 25 June 2014,,more%20prominently%20for%20the%20procedure.
  • Wood, Hollee, et al. “The Evolution of Hairstyling: A History Timeline.” HolleewoodHair, 9 July 2019,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Tamarajo on November 20, 2010:

interesting tidbit about the difference between the Barber and the cosmetologist.

I'm still looking for a hair dresser that cares about what I look like before I leave her chair.

Interesting article.

charmgirl on November 18, 2010:

Always thought men were the biggest gossipers! Interesting Hub thankyou

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on November 18, 2010:

This is a great informational piece that should be part of the cosmetology training program. I still keep up my license although I don't use it professionally anymore, just for family members. When I worked in a huge salon (the late 70s) in the men's styling section upstairs (The Man), we were trained to use a straight razor and give a hot towel facial. Never did surgery though! Good one here.

BobbiRant from New York on November 18, 2010:

Cool I used to be a hairdresser. Talking all day was part of the fun.

libby101a from KY on November 17, 2010:

Wow. Amazing! Very educational hub!

Helen Bolam on November 17, 2010:

Another interesting hub.

bcatgray from United States of America on November 17, 2010:

Very interesting. Had no idea what the Barber's Pole meant. Now I'm wondering when and why the blue stripe was added.

sameerk from India on November 17, 2010:

nice one

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