By Christopher Burke,
There was an article I came across about 5 years ago that permanently redirected how I see the past, present and future of barbering. It was written by Douglass Bristol and published in Enterprise & Society (Volume 5, Issue 4, December 2004), a business journal that tracks certain trades and individual businesses in order to study them as they relate to the timelines of American history. This article gave me a much more true understanding of the role African Amercans played in who and what it was to be a barber in early America than anything I was taught or studied while in barber college. It was in this article that I learned our foundations of the American barbershop, and barbering as a trade in the US, differ drastically from the image of the traditional barbershop we are all exposed to with Floyd the Barber, Andy Griffith and the ‘made for television’ town of Mulberry, USA.
Bristol discovered that in the years between 1750 to1915, African Americans had been thriving in the local small business arena, carving a particular niche in the service industry, and that Black barbers and their barbershops were right at the heart of it all.
Though there were no Black business empires Rosenwalds (founder of Sears & Roebuck) or powerhouses like the Kennedys of the time, there were a good number of African Americans who had reached a level of prosperity. They owned property, ran businesses and held a strong measure of influence in their communities. Among these business owners, a careful study of census data proved that one group stood out for it’s consistant high level of success – the Black Barber.
Barbers were the highest wage earners among Amfrican Americans in the times before the US Civil War. In the Upper South, one out of eight affluent African Americans owned a barbershop and was worth about $2,000 (just under $50,000 in our modern day economy). This proserity was consistent and upheld over time. Each individual barbershop would continue in it’s success well after the original owner died, too. Most often times, the business would be passed down to sons, nephews or grandsons who were trained through apprenticeship and as new owners, they usually continued to do, as well, or better than their predecessor.
It wasn’t too much different for the Black barber outside of the South. Lasting success was found for the Black barber in cities like Boston, San Francisco and Baltimore, as each generation remained successful; maintaining, and building upon the trade.
In the 1800s, it was very popular to be served upon by African American men and women. Black barbers took what was a custom in the land and capitalized upon it. The ‘hold over’ mindsets that was spawned from the days of slavery and was prevalent across the country; North, South and in the newly established West. The Black barber began to compete with White barbers for their White male customer and was successful in securing them as clients, partly, due to the fact that it was the popular thing to do. But, economically, white men had much greater business opportunities afforded to them with a much greater overall earning potential and tended not to want to settle for earning a living at $.35 a shave.
For the next hundred years the Black barber made the most out of their opportunities and dominated what became their market. And, it wasn’t just a shave and out the door, either. The Black barber introduced and developed, what we call now, the upscale service market; cutting and shaving the most affluent White men in major cities across America, right in their downtown financial districts and charging top dollar for their services.
Black barbers were known to possess a certain grace for service with the special ability to bestow distinction upon their patrons. The daily ritual of shaving was being transformed into a luxurious social experience that could also establish or upgrade your status in society. The value of these services became very high in demand and these shop owners, as well as, the men and women working in the establishments became quite wealthy.
This posture of subjection seemed to be exactly what was needed to validate the mindset of racial superiority that was brewing at the time in White men. Black men created the ‘masks’ that white men found appealing; somewhat capitalizing on the racial stereotypes of the day. This innovation secured the Black barber’s economic niche for quite some time.
Black barbershops had found a niche in servicing the white men who had social impact, power in business and influence in politics. Through these relationships, Black barbers were becoming the ‘experts’ on the race relations. While they were able to figure out ways to, ever so deftly, navigate the fine line of humility that was necessary for servitude, they stood in strength and authority taking the leadership role in their communities.
Barbering gave the Black barber exposure to private conversations among their clients and guests that would increases their knowledge, wisdom and understanding in many areas. These men would utilize everything they picked up to become resources for the benefit of their own people. They became the became the caretakers of the community. They were the social and political hub that kept the black neighborhood safe, strong and self sufficient.
The census of 1850 shows how much the industry changes once immigrants begin flood into the country. African Americans, prior to, were the vast majority in the barbering trade, at that point to give way to the cultures from overseas. Productivity and income where now being shared with the immigrant barbers and the field of dominance was lost, as the clients wanted to be serviced by their own. Just as it was popular to have a Black barber to perform services on White clients, it was becoming very popular to deal and do business with your own nationality.
In the particular case of the Black barber, it wasn’t just nationality, seeing as both were American, the line had shifted beyond nationalism to ethnicity.
Even as the culture changed, Black barbers still had equal to, or greater wealth, when compared to White barbers. And Black barbers, having lost the most ground with immigration and and the shift in social mores, had to be innovative if they were going to compete heartily in this new business arena.
Black-owned barbershops, already, tended to be nicer establishments, and Black-owned barbershops were found to be in better locations. As an attempt to stay moving ahead, if any of these owners continued to transforming their shops in hope to maintain their stronghold on the industry. Some of these Black barbers began to leverage their business investments by leasing or purchasing buildings in downtown commercial districts giving their affluent white clientele the easiest access to their businesses.
This developed another dimension of the barber trade that we still see in our present day way of conducting business. This new concept was the ‘first class’ barbershop. These new-styled shaving saloons were found in and near prestigious hotels, business buildings in the financial district and other high-ended and fashionable shopping areas. Barbershops were near jewelry shops and art galleries and this brought in a constant flow of the most desirable customers.
A man named Joshua Eddy was known as the wealthiest Black barber in America. He ran a shop on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia and had a net worth of $100,000 ($2,380,000 adjusted into our modern day economy).
These owners built rooms within their shops and special areas that resembled the mansions of the aristocracy and remarketed these establishments as “shaving saloons”.
Your average shaving saloon would be appointed with upholstered reclining chairs, brocade carpet, high ceilings and eloborate fretwork. The feature red grand chandeliers and enormous mirrors with gold trim were all the trends of the day.
These shaving saloons would be fully staffed where the barbers used assistants to attend to every need of the most descerning client. Fragrant steam towels, shampoo, shower baths and corn removal… nothing in personal care was out of scope for these first-class barbershops.
Retail began to be available in these high-end establishments, as well. Selling hair-care products, clothing and accessories, cologne and cigars become the way in an attempt to satify the rise of economy and it’s mass consumption in the late nineteenth century. The is the era of barbering that the ‘cosmetologists’ later used to create the business model of ‘day spa’ and ‘spa’ they have found success using today
It is a shame that as modern day barbers, we can look back and see the history of barbering; see the way the industry acted, interacted and related to market changes, and see the role blacks have played in the growth and development of the trade into its own industry.
An 1899 study on Black owned business showed that more barbers had invested $500 or more into their businesses than any other group of African American business people, except grocery stores and general stores, whose money was always tied up in inventory.
Barbers mainly invested in improving their property, which alot of times would be in prominent commercial buildings. More than half of the barbers in the study had invested more than $1000 in their businesses. As African American businessmen,Black barbers towered over their counterparts, which also included publishers, undertakers and bar/saloon owners.
These accomplishments must be viewed in the context of being extremely limited opportunities for African Americans to work for a Black employer, let alone, become a proprietor. No, the amount of capital invested or profited can not compare to the industrialists, nor the retailers of the day, but Black barbers were the leading African American entrepreneurs and the most influencial leaders in their communities. This makes them a vital part of the landscape of American history as it pertains to business, race relations.
Sad to say, the success was quickly deteriorated as race relation began to turn violent on a national scale. Even, Blacks in the community began to challenge the Black barber on his business practices, since it was to cater to the affluent White male society. The cry out was for everyone to choose a side.
States considered creating state boards in order to legislate and issue licenses for barbers, mandating the purchase of tools and equipment that the average barber couldn’t afford. Black barbers had to reinvent the business model one more time, moving their shops back into the black community and find success, again. To this day, for the African American, barbering may be one of the most viable ways to achieve the dream of business ownership in America and be a contributor and influencial leader in the Black community.
This article was adapted from the article:
“From Outposts to Enclaves: A Social History of Black Barbers from 1750 to 1915”
by Douglas Bristol, Enterprise & Society, Vol. 5, Issue 4, December 2004
Check out this book from Douglas Bristol on Amazon.com:
The Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom
Enterprise & Society
Volume 5, Issue 4