Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Services Industry / General - Barbers 

THE BARBER (homo emollientissiumus - TRUEFIT)

    Physical Structure and peculiarities - The most singular peculiarity of the barber is, that although in his avocations, he always is what is termed a "strapper," yet his stature is usually short. His tongue, however, makes up for this deficiency, being remarkably long - a beautiful provision of nature; for while he is seldom called upon to use his legs with rapidity, his lingual organ is always obliged to be on the "run." His eyes are keen, and his wits sharp; his mouth is tinged with humour, and his hair - particularly when threatening to be gray - with poudre unique. Manner, prepossessing; crop, close; fingers, dirty; toes, turned out. He seldom indulges in whiskers, for his business is to shave.
    1. Habits, reproduction and food. A singular uniformity of habits is observable amongst barbers. They all live in shops curiously adorned with play-bills and pomatum pots, and use the same formulary of conversation to every new customer. All are politicians on both sides of every subject; and if there happen to be three sides to a question, they take a triangular view of it.
   2. Reproduction - Some men are born barbers, others have barberism thrust upon them. The first class are brought forth in but small numbers, for shavers seldom pair. The second take to the razor from disappointment in trade or in love. This is evident from the habits of the animal when alone, at which period, if observed, a deep, mysterious melo-dramatic gloom will be seen to overspread his countenance. He is essentially a social being; company is as necessary to his existence as beards.
    3. Food - Upon this subject the most minute researches of the most prying naturalists have not been able to procure a crumb of information. That the barber does eat can only be inferred; it cannot be proved, for no person was ever known to catch him in the act; if he does masticate, he munches in silence and in secret* (*Not so of drinking. Only last week, we saw, with our own eyes, a pot of ale in a barber's shop; and very good ale it was, too, for we tasted it).
    Geographical distribution of barbers - Although the majority of barbers live near the pole, they are pretty diffusely disseminated over the entire face of the globe. The advance of civilisation has, however, much lessened their numbers; for we find, wherever valets are kept, barbers are not; and as the magnet turns towards the north, they are attracted to the east. In St. James's, the shaver's "occupation's gone;" but throughout the whole of Wapping, the distance is very short.

Punch, July-Dec 1841

see also The Little World of London by Charles Manby Smith (1) (2) - click here


WE are almost in danger of forgetting the origin and significance of that singular emblem of his profession, which the barber of to-day, following the example of his ancestor of a hundred years ago, projects from his door-way, and points at an angle of about sixty degrees towards the sky. The pole, immortalized by the savagest of satirists begirt from end to end with a spiral band, and terminating in a tuft was but a colossal representation of the once fashionable pigtail, which, in the days of powder and puff-balls, every gentleman of mature years hung out from the nape of his neck, like a rudder, or rather like a steering-oar, from the stern of a barge. The pigtails have passed away, they have become as obsolete as tinder-boxes; it is doubtful if there is even one remaining, unless it be on the head of some antiquated commodore laid up in ordinary, or some nonagenarian squire obstinately conservative of the glories of his youth. But the poles remain, and flourish as prominently and numerously as ever; the only reverse they have experienced being a marked decline in the social scale, which has shifted them from the ateliers of the artists in hair, the builders of forensic and judicial wigs, from the saloons of the fashionable friseurs to the humble porticoes of the popular barber, who shaves for a penny, or even for less, and cuts hair for such a thing, say, as three- pence.
    Without wandering "from pole to pole," we accept the invitation of the first that beckons us with its lifted finger, and enter the establishment of Mr. Gills, or "little Gills," as he is sometimes called in the neighbourhood which offers a fair sample of the caravanserais of this kind, which the shaveable populace of our day delight to honour with their patronage and presence. We say shaveable populace, for it is undeniable that, since the advent and portentous advance of the great beard movement, a large and ever-growing section of our population of all ranks, the lowest as well as the highest, are no longer shaveable or amenable to Mr. Gills or his congeners in anyway, so far as their chins, and whatever their chins produce, are concerned. The time for the due and decent cultivation of the beard, when it was daily trimmed and "posed," as it was in the days of Sir Thomas Moore, or peaked and pointed, as it was by the "gallant cavaliers," has not yet returned; and in the meanwhile the barbers suffer loss, their shaving occupation growing less as the ragged untrimmed beards gain ground.
    Gills's pole hangs out in a fourth-rate street lying at right angles with the omnibus route, and leading to nowhere particular, unless it he to some small labyrinthine turnings among dead walls flanking a brewery, a distillery, a coal-department, and saw- mills, among the operative denizens of which establishments lies the chief part of Gills's connection. Not to lose a chance, however, he has depressed his pole to as obtuse an angle as is consistent with a due regard to the heads of the passers-by, and once a year he gives it a new coat of white paint, with emerald-green bands, that it may attract from far the eye of any fugitive traversing the streets in search of a clean shave. The shop window is innocent of plate-glass, but has within the clouded greenish panes a rather multitudinous and unassorted collection of materials of a useful kind. In the centre stands a black Brutus on a brown block, and dependant from cross lines hangs a series of scalps, fronts, side-curls, whiskers and mustachios, half veiling a motley assemblage of oils, perfumes, pomatums, bear's-grease, strops, razors, shaving apparatus, brushes, combs, scented soaps, curling-tongs, etc. etc. The door, which. is in two pieces, the upper half sashed, stands generally open, and indeed is never closed by day, save when some over-sensitive shavee objects to exhibit himself in lather, for the delectation of the numerous small fry of the district, who are apt to congregate around, to witness the spectacle, and diversify the operation with their original comments. A row of seats round the walls, three or four chairs, and a small portable stove, constitute the furniture ; but there is life within the confined area, even when there are no customers, little Gills having a colony of feathered companions of the very choicest description, who not only serve to solace his lonely hours, but now and then add something considerable to his pecuniary gains.
    Gills, like most barbers, is noticeable under two aspects. Catch him alone, and you may study the man ; see him, weapon in hand, amidst a circle of bristly beards, and you may study the barber. In the former case, he will talk freely enough on any subject, whether he understand it or no, but will let you see that lie dabbles a little in science of various sorts, particularly of the showy and astonishing kind knows a little about the air-pump, a little of the electrical machine, more about dissolving views, and can photograph a little, though his real forte is ornithology ; and he can supply you with useful information as to many of the feathered tribes, if you want it. We happened once to praise the song of his nightingale.
    "Ha," said the little man, (the reader will excuse his peculiar patois), "I limed that there bird myself on the 20th of April - he's sure to sing all the days of his life, he is."
    "Why, what has the 20th of April to do with it?"
    "I'll tell'ee, sir. Don't you see all the cock nightingales come over here first, three weeks or a fortnight afore the hens? The hens rarely comes anigh London afore May. Now, mind me, if you catches a cock bird arter he've got a mate, he don't sing that year, you may depend - likely he don't sing the next, and maybe he don't sing nothing to speak of never at all. But if you catches him afore the hens come, don't you see, he can't have a mate, you know ; you catches him in full song, and you got him in song all the while you got him at all. Bin offered a guinea for that there bird, and shan't sell him for no such money."
    "He seems a very fine bird."
    "Look at him, sir " (and he reached down the cage and took the bird on his finger) "there's a hi! there's a figger ! there's a ploomidge ! kiss me, sarce-box 0 he's as quick as lightnin', he is; catches half the flies as comes into the shop: look here;" and Gills, throwing several meal-worms towards the ceiling, the bird catches them in his beak, one, two, three, more rapidly than the eye can follow his motions, without suffering one to fall to the ground.
    In this strain little Gills will amplify to any one who likes to listen to him at a leisure season, by the hour together, when material enough might be got of him to form a bird-fancier's vade-mecum, to say nothing of an analogous kind of knowledge relating to other pet animals. But Mr. Gills is another man on other occasions, especially when he holds his Saturday night levee when the benches are filled by detachments from the saws mills, the brewery, the distillery, or the coal-yard, and two or three dozen stubbly chins are all wagging together in dispute upon the current politics of the hour, three or four of them being under operation at once. The complexion of his politics is not exactly moderate, as you would readily imagine ; that colour would hardly suit the taste of his patrons, with whom the ultra-democratic view of affairs of state is generally predominant. If you should chance to look in at election time, you might hear the claims of candidates discussed with a rather startling degree of candour ; and you might be astonished at the fidelity of the popular memory, and the accuracy with which the delinquencies of men in office are registered in the popular mind.
    The prospect of England's invasion being mentioned, and the likelihood of the French coming over -
    "Over here!" says a voice, indignantly; "let 'em try it on, that's all; we should soon scuttle their cock-boats for 'em : they'll never get here."
    "You don't know what you're talking about," says a top-sawyer ; "the French can get here fast enough any day, if they like to risk if ; they might land their troops afore we could sink their fleet."
    "Ay," says Gills, flourishing his razor, "but we shall shave 'em pretty close, depend upon it, if they show their noses here. When it comes to that, don't you see, I shall join the rifle corps myself;" and the little man puts on a martial swagger.
    "Well, if you mean that, Gills," says the big drayman, "my mind's made easy, and I shan't alarm myself no more about invasion."
    "Ha, ha, ha !" from a dozen throats, Gills himself laughing the loudest. It is not till midnight on the Saturday that Gills's labours are brought to a close, and he is enabled to unship his pole and go to bed. What is the amount of his earnings at one of these long levees we cannot venture to say, though we have an idea that the Saturday's shaving supplies the major portion of the gains of the week. We once put the question to the operative chieftain of a "halfpenny shaving-shop," how many beards he could mow of in the course of an hour, single- handed? The answer was by no means so straight- forward as the question and, owing to the conditions and circumlocutions with which it was encumbered, we missed the information which it was intended, or not intended, to convey. The respondent hinted that a good deal must depend on the nature of the beards and the occupations of their owners - dustmen and coalwhippers being especially liable to objection on the score of grit - the more so, as the majority of these worthy professionals were not in the habit of washing their faces before they came to be shaved.
    This, by the way, puts us in mind of a little shaving experience of our own. More than thirty years ago, we were residing temporarily in a small town in Normandy, and, finding ourselves in need of the services of the barber, went in search of one. There was no polar star to guide us, the French, though no strangers to the pigtail, having failed to adopt the pole as the emblem of the tonsor's trade. The suisse, alias the beadle, of the old church at length directed us to a small shop where fruit was sold. On making known our wants, we were ushered into a back room, where a young girl banded us a basin and towel ; and while we were laving our face she prepared the shaving apparatus. Being seated and equipped, we watched her preparing the lather in a China bowl with her fingers. With her fingers she spread the soft scented foam over our chin, throat, and upper lip, until the skin seemed saturated with the fragrant mixture. Then, rinsing and wiping her hands, she took the razor, and in less than a minute, without hardly feeling the touch of the steel, we were shaved cleaner and closer than we had ever been shaved before, or have been since, except by the same operator, who performed the ceremony some half dozen times, and always with the same, to us, agreeable experience and perfect result. We may remark that shaving, on the other side of the Channel, is not the trifle it is with us : all affairs of the toilet there receive much more consideration than we are in the habit of bestowing upon them. A French tonsor, whether male or female, would never think of shaving for, a penny, much less for a half-penny ; if we recollect rightly, the lass in question received a quarter of a franc for her pains, and that is about the usual tariff in cities as well. The idea of a public shaving-brush, for lathering all the world, is disgusting to a Frenchman; he prefers to feel on his face the clean fingers of the operator.
    The profession of the barber is one of the most ancient of which civilization has to boast. Once a term of honour, it has sunk in modern days down to one of ridicule, though for what reason it is difficult to say. It may be, though, that, as in former times the professions of the barber and the surgeon were united in the same person, when they became dissevered, the surgeon retained the honour, and the barber sank into social disrepute. In England the barber has long ago dropped his distinctive designation, and has taken up with that of hair-dresser; and if, in our day, he happens to be a skilful hair-dyer as well, the road to riches is plain before him. Professors thus fortunate, to our knowledge keep their carriages and country houses, and can afford to spend their thousand a year or so away from the fatigues of business. But these are the creme de la creme of barbers, who, if they shrive at all, take the aristocracy by the nose in their own mansions, and meddle not with the stubbly chins of the vulgar.

The Leisure Hour, 1859

see also Unsentimenal Journeys by James Greenwood - click here

see also Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes by Thomas Wright - click here

see also London and Londoners by Alfred Rosling-Bennett - click here