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The history of the profession of cosmetology begins with barbering (the Latin barba means beard), one of the oldest trades, described by writers in ancient Greece. Relics of rudimentary razors date to the Bronze Age, and drawings of people in early Chinese and Egyptian cultures show men with shaved heads, indicating the existence of a barbering profession.

Barbers often did more than hair care. The treatment of illnesses by bloodletting, a task originally performed by monks, was passed along to barbers in 1163 by the papacy. Although trained physicians were already established at this time, they supported and encouraged the use of barbers for routine medical tasks, such as the treatment of wounds and abscesses. From the 12th century to the 18th century, barbers were known as barber-surgeons. They performed medical and surgical services, such as extracting teeth, treating disease, and cauterizing wounds.

Barbers began to organize and form guilds in the 14th century. A barbers' guild was formed in France in 1361. In 1383, the barber of the king of France was decreed to be the head of that guild. The Barbers of London was established as a trade guild in 1462. Barbers distinguished themselves from surgeons and physicians by their titles. Barbers, who were trained through apprenticeships, were referred to as doctors of the short robe; university-trained doctors were doctors of the long robe. In England, during the first part of the 16th century, laws were established to limit the medical activities of barbers. They were allowed to let blood and perform tooth extractions only, while surgeons were banned from performing activities relegated to barbers, such as shaving.

Surgeons separated from the barbers' guild in England and in 1800 established their own guild, the Royal College of Surgeons. Laws were passed to restrict the activities of barbers to nonmedical practices. Barbers continued to be trained through apprenticeships until the establishment of barber training schools at the beginning of the 20th century.

Women did not begin to patronize barbershops until the 1920s. The bob, a hairstyle in which women cut their hair just below the ears, became popular at that time. Until then, women usually wore their hair long. Shorter styles for women became acceptable and women began to go to barbers for cutting and styling. This opened the door for women to join the profession, and many began training to work with women's hairstyles.

Today, women and a growing number of men patronize hair salons or beauty shops to have their hair cut, styled, and colored. The barber shop, on the other hand, remains largely the domain of men, operated by and for men.

Until the 1920s, beauticians (as they were commonly known) performed their services in their clients' homes. The beauty salons and shops now so prevalent have emerged as public establishments in more recent years. In the United States—as in many other countries—the cosmetology business is among the largest of the personal service industries.

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