Remembering The Barbershop

Among the many hallowed traditions to have fallen by the wayside in these modern times is the Saturday morning haircut at a classic American barbershop. And, like so many aspects of our lives that we once took for granted but now sorely miss, barbershops have left a practical and cultural void in the 21st century.

So ingrained were these institutions in the American experience that Norman Rockwell immortalized them in several illustrations, one of which graced the January 1946 cover of another bygone American tradition, The Saturday Evening Post.

Where did it go, this delightful male ritual that seemed, for more than a century, to help define who we were as a nation? (Ladies, of course, had their own, similar experience in local hair salons, but that tradition seems to live on with a constancy that, for some reason, men’s barbershops have not managed to follow.)

With little effort, many of us can rekindle that glorious rite: the red, white and blue-swirled barber pole marking the entrance to the welcoming shop. Inside, a couple of gleaming, throne-like chairs that swiveled grandly before a broad mirror. The sharp, spicy aromas of bay rum and talcum powder. The long leather razor strops suspended from the chair sides. And, on the opposite wall, the waiting area, with a few chairs and a pile of newspapers and some dog-eared Field & Stream magazines.

Wearing crisp white jackets that buttoned up tightly under their necks, the barbers worked quickly and carefully, scissoring away six weeks’ worth of wild growth. The stiff, paper collars they wrapped around your neck as they readied you for the cape. A snip here, a trim there, along with a bit of conversation about last night’s ballgame or how neighbor Smith crashed his truck into a ditch and had to hoof it back home. And then the pièce de résistance: a slathering of heated shaving cream behind your ears and on your neckline, the prelude to the delicate scrape of the straight razor as it traced an exacting line you got to admire afterward, when the barber gave you a mirror so you could appraise his handiwork.

Finally, a bracing splash of bay rum, a quick dust-off with a soft-bristled barber’s brush and you were on your way.

Thankfully, no tradition this meaningful and memorable can vanish entirely. Over the past several years, classic barbershops are finding their way back to towns and cities all across the country. Chicago’s Belmont Barbershop, for one, recreates the experience for its customers, offering them, as their website notes, “. . . the simple beauty of a regular barbershop.” And, in Nashville, with the shop, “Trim,” the owner has taken the concept one step further, offering a traditional haircutting experience to both men and women.

Barbershops’ comeback is a very welcome sign for those of us yearning to once again say aloud, “Just a little off the top and keep the sideburns short, please.”

Did You Know?

Barbering and barbershops aren’t a modern idea. In fact, the practice of barbershops dates back to ancient Rome. Much like they have been in our time, ancient Roman barbershops were very popular centers for daily news and gossip. A morning visit to the “tonsor” became a part of a Roman man’s daily routine, and a young man’s first shave, called a “tonsura,” was an essential part of his coming-of-age ceremony.

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