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Barbering Back Then

Irwin M. Stelzer books the barber

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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On a recent trip to Washington I had the rare experience of some free time between meetings. Best used to get a much-needed haircut, I thought. A few blocks from my hotel I found myself in a barber shop of the sort that caters to people more modern than I, a gray-haired economist, and generally above my station in Washington society.

A New York barbershop, 1946

A New York barbershop, 1946

Eileen Darby / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

It was only after signing in that I noticed how different the place was from the old-fashioned shop I still patronize in New York. First, the owners, undoubtedly having consulted their dog-eared copies of The Wealth of Nations, had divided the chores of washing and cutting hair. No longer need the cutter—or stylist, as the term seemed to be—wet his hands. Second, this was not actually a barber shop but a salon, catering to both—oops, all—sexes. On my right was a woman whose hair was wrapped in aluminum foil. On my left, another woman was being attended to by a female stylist. My male cutter, assigned by the receptionist, was apparently the only person of our gender in the shop.

While being shorn, I pulled out a magazine and began reading a movie review by John Podhoretz. I forget the names of the actors and actresses (I am told the latter term is little used these days) and of the films he mentioned, but do remember Podhoretz maintaining that star power now rests more with women than with men, at least as reflected in box-office receipts. Same as in barber shops, I thought. Which set my mind wandering to my days on the Lower East Side of New York, when barber shops were male sanctuaries and more. Buoyed by a recent New York Times article proclaiming that there is nothing wrong with an occasional bit of nostalgia, I began to recall barbers, bookies, and my father’s lesson in the art of tipping.

Thomas Sowell is right: Ethnic groups often cluster in one or a few professions. Barbering was dominated by Italians back then, and the services on offer included not only a cut and daily shave complete with hot towel finish, but on Saturday evenings a hair-comb for teenagers off on a date, and at all times a shoe shine. And a manicure. The patrons of those barber shops did not believe a manicure challenged their manhood, which was on ample display. 

The shops also had a few pay phones, used by many of the patrons to place bets for their customers. The theory was that using the phone in your apartment might lead to discovery of your true profession, as opposed to the one shown on your tax return, while a pay phone was immune from outside scrutiny. The bookies took pride in their appearance, and would no sooner be seen unshaven with shoes unshined and nails unpolished than they would fail to pay up on winning bets. If they had done things right, their books were balanced, so that they were financially indifferent to the outcome of a Friday night fight at Madison Square Garden, a baseball game at Ebbets Field, and just about any horse race (except for the Yonkers trotting races, which were widely believed to be fixed).

These entrepreneurs made their living by undercutting the prices charged by the government monopolies. Their “numbers racket,” as the authorities chose to call their offering of hope to the poor, provided better odds of winning than the government-sponsored lottery. Their prosperity depended on their reputation. They used the barber shop much as today’s techies use Starbucks, as a place of business, although in their case this often meant receiving their customers in person, courtesy of the shop owners.

I remember as a kid watching their tipping practices for a guide to my own behavior. This my father reined in when we were having our hair cut in adjoining chairs. The regulars, he said, were tipping for services we did not use, a sort of rent that varied with their means, rather as variable mortgage rates today depend on the whim of the monetary policy gurus at the Fed.

None of this is to call for a return of the good old days, which, if recollection serves, did have their bad points. If the barbering of old were still in demand it would remain the dominant form of service provision. Instead, the market has produced a variety of offerings, from vertically integrated top-to-toe spas to specialist nails-only stores, the numbers artificially limited by government restrictions on entry.

In my current life, “taking a haircut” means unhappily surrendering part of the value of an asset. Back then, it meant entry into a wonderful world.

 

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