"A barbershop should be a place of repose for men, a haven away from wives and children and the cares of the world. In France, some still recall the old days when a man could slough off his worries as easily as a snakeskin."
—Henri Lefèvre, French novelist, 1920s
Throughout its lengthy and captivating history, the barber shop has been far more than just a place for a trim and a shave.
Since ancient times, these spaces have uniquely served cultural roles beyond mere grooming.
The history of the barber shop is one of medical care, social connection, community empowerment, and discreet vice.
Tracing the barber shop's timeline reveals surprising functions and services in different eras, from medieval bloodletting to colonial gossip hubs to Prohibition-era speakeasies.
While tools and hairstyles have evolved, the cultural significance of these spaces has remained consistent over centuries.
More than just a business, the barber shop has long been an institution and refuge embedded in many cultures across time.
The history of the barber shop reaches back thousands of years, to a time when a visit to the barber involved far more than just a haircut and shave.
In ancient Egypt and Rome, barbers provided an array of medical services alongside their grooming duties.
Archaeological evidence indicates the early beginnings of barbering in Egypt as early as 5000 BCE. Barbers of the time used sharp stone instruments such as flint to trim hair and perform procedures ranging from dental extractions to minor surgery.
In ancient Rome, barbers were known as tonsores, and they similarly provided cutting and shaving services while also pulling teeth, lancing abscesses, and the ubiquitous practice of bloodletting.
Thought to balance the humors and heal the sick, bloodletting involved the drawing of blood, often by applying leeches.
Afterward, the bloody rags and bandages were hung outside the tonsor's shop.
It is this symbolic act of hanging bloodied linens outside that gave rise to the iconic barber pole seen outside shops even today.
The red signifies blood, while the white represents the bandages.
Some early medieval barber poles even sported a brass leech basin at the top.
Though barbers no longer perform medical procedures, the barber pole remains, speaking to an intriguing and gory past when a trip to the barber meant both a trim and a tooth pulled.
In medieval Europe, barbers served as more than just groomers—they were among the era's prominent medical practitioners.
From the 5th to 15th centuries, most European barbers pulled double duty as surgeons and dentists. Their services ranged from bloodletting and lancing abscesses to extracting teeth and performing minor surgeries.
Barbers received reputable medical training at European universities alongside physicians of the day.
After procedures, it was customary to hang freshly bloodied linens outside the barber shop to advertise services and symbolize the craft.
Barber surgeons didn't perform invasive procedures like amputations—these were reserved for physicians alone. But they regularly saw patients for tasks like bloodletting, dental extractions, blistering, cupping therapy and enemas.
Medieval manuscripts even depict barbers performing tricky procedures like removing arrowheads from soldiers' bodies on the battlefield.
In the Islamic world, barbers held special religious significance due to their connection to the Prophet Muhammad.
According to hadiths and early biographies, Muhammad was known to trim his own hair and beard, as well as the hair of his family and companions. He was even said to have worked as a barber at times during his youth.
Because of Muhammad's personal example, cutting hair became linked to religious piety in Islam.
Barbers were seen as continuing the Prophet's work and practicing a sacred act blessed by Muhammad himself. Trimming hair and beards was not seen as just basic grooming—it was an act of faith.
By the medieval period, barbers in the Islamic world were considered honorable practitioners who followed the Prophet's way.
Their shops became places to get a haircut while also socializing, hearing news, playing chess and even reciting poetry. The Turkish adventurer Evliya Çelebi wrote in the 17th century about barber shops in Istanbul where "pages sang songs and barbers told stories."
So while barbering had more menial associations in Europe, it held an elevated status in the Islamic world.
Barbers inherited the legacy of Muhammad, which rendered haircutting a venerated act.
During the American Revolution era, the local barber shop was far more than just a place to get spruced up—it was a bustling hub for community gatherings and lively discussions.
During the 1700s, barbers in the American colonies often doubled as surgeons and dentists, providing a range of medical services while also trimming wigs and beards.
These barber-surgeons typically operated on the bottom floor of their homes, with the barber shop in the front.
While settlers stopped in for a shave or tooth extraction, they'd also catch up on the latest news and debate the pressing issues of the day. The barber shop functioned as the epicenter for sharing information and ideas in early American villages and towns.
After perusing newspapers and pamphlets from Europe, barbers would read highlights to their waiting customers.
Shop patrons would then kick debates into high gear, deliberating everything from local gossip to colonial politics. At a time lacking social media and 24-hour news, the barber shop was vital for colonists to learn what was happening in their community and in the wider world.
While carefully wielding their razor straight blades, early American barbers also provided a seminal gathering spot for pioneers hungry for connection and discussion on the topics shaping a young America.
Throughout American history, black barber shops have uniquely served as hubs of community and discourse for African American men.
This vital role was especially amplified during the Jim Crow era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when black people faced extreme marginalization and exclusion from many public spaces.
As Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation across the South, black Americans were barred from patronizing white-owned businesses and venues.
The local black barber shop provided a refuge—a place where African American men could gather, build community, and speak openly.
Away from the eyes and ears of white society, barber shops became sanctuaries to debate issues of civil rights, politics, business, and more.
In an era of oppression, the barber shop was perhaps the only public space where African American men could freely voice their perspectives, concerns, and ideas amongst peers.
Black newspapers were frequently read and discussed. Many civil rights leaders and organizers met in barber shops to plan strategies.
The barber shop provided a haven for black joy, debate, and organizing in the heart of Jim Crow America.
So while just a typical business on the surface, the local barber shop has held deep cultural meaning in African American history.
It was an incubator for community and ideas when black spaces were severely limited across the United States.
For most of history, barber shops were exclusively male spaces that barred women from patronizing or working in the shops.
This strict gender convention began changing slowly in the late 20th century, but well into the 1900s, female customers or barbers remained unheard of.
In fact, civil rights icon Rosa Parks drew inspiration for her defining bus protest from an early memory of discrimination at a barber shop.
As a young child in the 1920s, Parks went with her grandfather to a barber shop in Alabama to watch him get a haircut. After initially sitting on a stool to observe, she was scolded and kicked out for violating the shop's no women policy.
This formative degrading incident stuck with Parks into adulthood.
Decades later in 1955, when a bus driver demanded she give up her seat for a white passenger, her resistance was strengthened by recalling the barber shop discrimination from years before.
During the Prohibition era of the 1920s and 1930s, barber shops became creative joints for underground speakeasies selling alcohol covertly.
With liquor outlawed under the 18th Amendment, barbers concealed secret cabinets and levers to traffic illicit booze on the sly.
Trust was key for operating these clandestine barrooms.
Patrons knew to casually request a “special tonic” or ask for a “close shave” to signal their desire for contraband whiskey or other spirits. The barber would then casually lead willing customers to a trick wall or hidden floor compartment, revealing a stash of illegal alcohol.
Some elaborate ruses involved pressing buttons or pulling levers to unlock liquor cabinets concealed behind false walls or under trapdoor floors.
One barber shop in New York City even utilized a sliding bookshelf that customers could swivel open after reciting a password. A password-activated rotating barber’s chair was another clever gimmick documented in long-ago police reports.
Of course, raids sometimes uncovered the covert liquor caches in these barber
shops aiding and abetting scofflaw drinkers.
But the ingenuity and discretion of shop owners provided an invaluable outlet for thirsty Americans during Prohibition’s failed “noble experiment.”
All in search of a good drink and trim.