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Barbering boasts a long and rich history. The word barber is derived from the Latin word barba, meaning beard. Archaeologists tell us that the cave dwellers of 20,000 years ago scraped their whiskers with clam shells. There are several Biblical references that reflect the Egyptian preoccupation with facial hair and shaving. As early as 500 B.C., barbers began establishing themselves in Greece, and their sidewalk shops became gathering places for discussions of sports, philosophy, politics, and gossip. Of course, not everyone appreciated the talkative barber: When King Archelaus, who ruled Macedon from 413 to 399 B.C., was asked by his barber how he wanted his hair cut, he replied, "In silence." Greek barbers also served as dieticians, as well as setting broken bones, giving enemas, bloodletting, and performing minor surgeries.

During the Dark Ages, barbers began to be known as barber-surgeons. They performed medical procedures such as bloodletting, tooth-extraction, and minor surgeries. In England, during the reign of Henry VIII, from 1509 to 1547, the two professions were separated by an act forbidding barber-surgeons to perform any surgical procedures except tooth extractions and bloodletting. In 1745, the final split between barbers and surgeons occurred under an act of George II. Following this act, the barber profession gradually declined to the status of wig-makers, as wigs became the rage during the 18th century. By the end of the 1700s, nearly all barbers, except those in remote areas, had ceased practicing surgical or dental procedures. Bloodletting was not abandoned as a practice until the 19th century, long after George Washington's personal physician had literally bled him to death while attempting to cure a windpipe infection.

The period between the Civil War and World War II was truly the heyday of the American barbershop. The familiar red and white pole—symbolizing the bandages used on a bleeding patient—was a welcoming sight to a weary traveler. In a short time, the dirty, scruffy, smelly stranger would be transformed into a bathed, shaved, perfumed and shorn gentleman. His boots would be shined, his pants pressed, and he may even have been offered a cigar and a mug of beer. During his grooming session, he was sure to be informed of local employment opportunities and where he might find room and board. Many barbershops were open 12 hours a day and even early Sunday morning, when, for a few nickels, a man could get his face lathered and shaved before church. As in ancient Greece and Rome, barbershops were places of gossip, socializing, and often live music (the famous "barbershop quartet" style of singing in four-part harmony).

Today, barbershops—which once outnumbered saloons in many towns—are dwindling as beauty salons and spas flourish. With the gender line steadily eroding in matters of cosmetology, many men are turning to full-service shops for manicures and special hairstyles and procedures. However, most barbers have a loyal clientele, which steadily increases the longer a barber is in business.

Fashion and imitation have always played a significant role in the evolution of hairstyles. In earlier times, much like today, styles that met with disapproval among one generation became the accepted styles for the next. Barbers have observed various trends in business based upon the styles of the celebrities of the day. For example, many barbers saw business slow down gradually following the advent of Beatlemania. In the 1980s, the movie Top Gun spurred a renewed popularity of the short haircut. Today, the hair styles of pop stars and actors, as well as professional athletes, continue to have a strong influence on the styles of the American public.

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