By Richard Ledbetter
Webster’s Dictionary defines the term barber as, “a person whose occupation is to mainly cut, dress, groom, style and shave men and boy’s hair.” It’s an age-old career with a proud heritage and tradition.
A spinning barber pole and the old limerick “shave and a haircut, six bits” harken back to the day when a gentleman could visit the local barber chair and have his hair trimmed and beard shaved for a mere seventy-five cents. Although the cost has gone up some since earlier times, there are still a few of those old school barbers doing business in small shops across South Arkansas.
Tradition holds how barbers served a multi-purpose role during the Middle Ages, acting as grooms, dentists and surgeons. The practice of blood-letting was common during primitive times lending credence to the theory that the red stripe in the barber pole represents arterial blood, blue is for venous blood and white is the bandages used to dress wounds after procedures. Fortunately, such duties have since passed beyond the barber’s domain but perhaps initial childhood fears of the barber stem from some genetic memory leftover from Medieval times.
The long-standing custom of barbershops being closed on Sundays and Mondays stems back to a one-time law lobbied for by barber’s unions to ensure their members had a two-day weekend, same as other folks. Though no longer a legal statute, the tradition often remains.
Anyone with a few seasons behind them can likely remember regular visits to the barber chair from child to adulthood. And as grown men with sons of our own, a fondly held recollection is one of your progeny’s first haircut, propped up on a booster seat resting on the arms of the chair, squirming beneath the apron with pooched out bottom lip while the barber used every trick of the trade to keep the youngster still enough, long enough to get the job done without nipping an ear in the process.
My own youthful memories are of always being treated to a bottled coke and bag of peanuts by my dad if I did my part and held still. I’d be first in the chair and then enjoy my reward while sitting in the row of red-cushioned, chrome steel chairs across the shop watching him get his standard Marine style “high and tight” buzz cut with the scene reflected in the wall of large mirrors.
The neighborhood barbershop was and still is a social gathering place where old and young men alike converse about everything from the weather to politics to hunting and their favorite sports team. It’s a place where traditions abide and are passed on from generation to generation. Although a vanishing breed, barbers are a longtime fixture on small town America’s Main Street and an important trade worthy of recognition and lifting up.