Barbering Then and Now

Today, modern barbershops are seen as a quaint business for men to get their hair fixed while also enjoying the perks of socializing. Long has the peppermint colors in the blue, white and red stripped pole been the emblem of the business, yet this seemingly delicious symbol is actually a marker for the gruesome history of barbering.

“Gruesome” and “barbering” may bring about horrific images of a knife slip gone wrong; however, these accidents were part of what barbers dealt with back in the day, when barbers also played the roles of surgeon and dentist. Rather than a sweet treat, the National Barber Museum reveals that the red on barbershop poles is symbolic for blood, the white for bandages and blue for veins.

The Telegraph, a newspaper from England, shares that Greece’s Alexander the Great decreed all soldiers shave before battle, so their enemies could not pull their beards during close combat. In Rome at around 1094 AD, in addition to shaving and hair cutting, barbers performed medicinal duties such as pulling teeth, surgery and bloodletting. This led to barbers being called barber-surgeons. 

According to PBS, in the 1500s an unsuspecting subject influenced the practice of barber-surgeons bloodletting and surgery: astrology. Yes, the position of the stars and what zodiac occupied the sky, including the alignment of the very planets themselves, decided the times and what parts of the body bloodletting was done for and when a patient could have surgery. Many barber-surgeons at the time were uneducated and illiterate—educated physicians did not perform surgery, as it was not seen as a respectful method of treatment. 

Gradually, the two professions began to separate, drawing closer to how we view barbers today. The National Barber Museum indicates that in 14th Century England, barbers became divided. Some focused solely on grooming while others continued to perform surgery. Continuing forward into history and across the pond, barbering was eventually passed on as a task to black slaves. They would shave and cut the hair of wealthy white men, and following the Civil War, European immigrants flooded the United States and the profession took a new course. 

In today’s world, what was once a male dominated profession is now split in half by women, graduating as half of the barber student population. While the current barbershop is vastly different from its historical counterpart, the stripes of the barbershop pole link the old profession to its history so that it may not be truly forgotten.

Modern barbers have transformed themselves into artisans, doing things as simple as a buzz cut to crafted works of art on the canvas of a client’s head. Las Cruces is home to its own host of barbers, some of whom have made it their mission to bring barbering closer to what it was years ago.

One of these barbers is Lita Lujan, a master barber of 15 years and the owner of Gent’s Barber Spa in downtown Las Cruces. To her, barbering is more of an art than it is a craft. While barbering has evolved into both an art and a craft all on its own, it has decreased in its popularity now that most men have the ability to shave and groom themselves at home. With the invention of at home razors, the role barbers used to play for men in day to day life dwindled.

As such, modern barbers are forced to find ways in order to draw in customers. For some, the appeal of going to a barber involves being able to have pictures or tribal-esque designs shaved into their head, a skill which not all barbers possess. It requires a combination of not only razor skills but also the ability to draw and invent designs.

For others, they offer a dedicated and thorough service to bring people to their shops. Barbering also has health benefits. Lita Lujan does manicures and pedicures at her shop, a service that helps elderly men who can’t clip their toenails or diabetics. There are also many who come for the “old fashioned” treatment of a straight razor shave with a hot towel.

Lita Lujan uses disposable straight razors, a touch of the new to go with the old, and she has also seen the evolution of the infamously stylish 80s to today, where men’s hairstyles have jumped back in time to reflect the humble clean 50s. A seat in the barber’s chair is not male exclusive; women also go to Lita Lujan’s shop for simple trims and hairstyles.

While the current barbershop is vastly different from its historical counterpart, they both arguably deal with the same thing: Health and cleanliness. A well-groomed man delivers a striking appearance like none other, and Lita Lujan shared the best part of the job for her was seeing a previously disheveled man leave her barbershop refreshed and like new. Albeit much less grim, the spirit of barbering has stayed very close to those who decide to make their living by clippers and razors.

Spring 2015
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