Call them the modern day hairdressers or hairstylists or even more in refined sophistication something as chic sounding as coiffeurs, but the fact remains that barbering has long been a necessary way of life for people in the world perhaps as long as the early man age gave way to more self conscious humans of the gradually changing times. Having found mention within the holy precincts of the Bible itself, it is no surprise that more clearly documented early accounts of barbers date back to really ancient times. Since 5000 B.C. at least, barbering services had been rendered by and to ancient Egyptians with such instruments they had made from oyster shells or sharpened flint.
But despite the existence of such implements that do not find expression into the modern times, it is quite intriguing that razors found place in the barber’s toolkit even back then as evidenced from discovery of these bladed tools among relics of the Bronze Age in Egypt, dating to 5000 B.C. Beyond Egypt, it were the Greeks and the Mayans and the Aztecs and the Iroquois and the Vikings and the Mongolians for whom shaving body hair, either of the face or the head or the hands and the legs came to occupy top priority. Rome became party to the barbering craze much letter, precisely in 296 B.C., upon introduction by the Greek colonies in Sicily, but catching on to it pretty quickly as a visit to the barber became a ‘first thing in the morning’ tradition soon thereafter. The primary motive indeed was hygiene and grooming, spurred though by also the ulterior end of socialising, much in line with what the ancient Greeks famously did. In fact tonsors and tonsures became so integral a part of the cultural existence then that a young boy’s first shave of the head came to be an essential part of his coming to age ceremony. Indeed, barbers came to occupy a real place of prominence within the Roman realm, with even the etymology of its name traceable to it. The term barber was derived from the Roman (Latin) word barba, meaning beard and the Rome of that time dictated all free men to be clean shaven and all slaves to be bearded men. Echoing this adherence to norms pertaining to the job done by these barbers was the famous Alexander the Great who required his Greek soldiers to be clean shaven so as to enjoy an advantage in hand-to-hand combat with bearded enemy soldiers who could be pulled by their flowing facial hair. No wonder with such relevance that they came to enjoy, a few Roman barbers rose to be quite wealthy and influential, asserting therefore barbering as a profession of repute and character.
Barbers however came to encompass a more interesting role in the times that followed much later, starting from the Middle Ages when emerged the all inclusive practice of the barber surgeon. The practice however has its roots in times soon after the decline of the Roman Empire that reverted barbers to catering mainly to practices considered ritual in monasteries such as tonsuring the heads of monks and shaving them. The monks of those times practiced also as doctors but deigned it beneath their dignity to perform operations on the human body thus leaving the job open to the barbers who, armed with the sharp pointed equipment of their own trade began to indeed double up as surgeons. Recognized as commencing with their ‘operations’ in monasteries sometime in 1000 A.D., these barber surgeons continued to dabble in their dual characteristics till upto the 19th century, although declining considerably in stature and number by then.
But while barber surgeons in the real sense of the term rose to be one of the most common European medical practitioners by the 5th century, the professionals involved in barbering had long been entrusted for activities other than those that catered to grooming of the human body. In Egypt for instance, the civilization from where barbers had their beginning, these men often doubled up as religious priests though working still by cutting hair for a different end goal- of rooting out the evil that could enter the body through the hair. This revered prominence of them also led barbers to often conduct auspicious and religious ceremonies like weddings and baptisms. Aptly enough then, it was either the priest or chief of the clan who were entrusted with the role of barbers as that indeed was a profession held in much esteem. Likewise the ancient barbers of the Mayan civilization were also called upon to create ritual tattoos and scars while their contemporaries in China took upon somewhat medical roles of castrating eunuchs and performing circumcisions as well as assisting midwives. The medical association continued into the later times particularly since barbers were the only ones who would perform the ancient technique of blood letting, which became so innately connected to them that they began to use the now ubiquitous red and white striped barber’s pole as a marker of their identity.
Apart from surgery, other medical connotations that barbers found themselves accounting for was the practice of dentistry as extraction of teeth was another of their strongpoints. Particularly significant had been similar services rendered by them to soldiers during and after war time. Apart from their many portfolios of neck manipulation, cutting out gallstones, draining out boils, fistula and lancing of cysts with wicks,, barbers also became skilled amputators of limbs and casters of fractures continuing therefore to add more dimension to their skill sets, facilitated of course by their handy possession of sharp objects and implements crucial to their basic task of shaving and cutting hair. In fact so pervasive had been the realm of barbering with surgery that a barber surgeon Ambrose Pare rose to become one of the many people regarded as the father of modern surgery. Himself a pioneer in surgical techniques and battlefield medicine, especially in the treatment of wounds, Pare also had been a member of the Parisian barber surgeon guild, one of several such organised forums of barber surgeons that flourished during the time when their clan was one much coveted necessity for the world.
Gradually however, there ensued a split between barbers and surgeons to the extent that they exist as completely and exclusively distinct professions in the modern world. Particularly from the 17th and 18th centuries, this division became all the more prominent but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the world’s first barber school was opened in Chicago, thereby establishing as very much a separate and unique profession that required its own set of skills to master. Earlier the first barbering school that imparted surgery training to the barbers was opened in Paris way back in the 13th century. Even uptill then though, the barber surgeons did enjoy the royal patronage of some of the most famous rulers in history like Henry VIII, Charles II, and Queen Anne who appointed them to high positions in their administrations. This influence diminished over time until barber surgeons were limited to being just barbers, particularly in the years of the 1700s and the 1800s when the trend of wigs caught on and barbers suddenly had another whole new exploration to take over in their field. The 20th century saw a much more modern dimension added to barbering when in 1920 efforts were made to further advance the prospects of the profession. Today expanding the range of their services to seemingly more nuanced requirements of styling and dressing of hair as well as removal of body hair and other such related beauty treatments and such, barbers have well lived upto their legacy of many a thousand odd years to be an indispensable asset of the modern world so steeped in the concept of style and grooming.