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Friday, June 28th, 2013

If you were to ask the average citizen of Amherst what a barber’s job is in society today, you would most likely receive some bewildered looks and a few questions about the state of your mental health.  If you asked that same question in the 18th or 19th century, however, you would receive quite a few answers. Barbers did much more than cut hair.  They also unofficially served as dentists, physicians, surgeons, and tattoo artists.

Barbers began honing their skills at the request of Alexander the Great.  The leader called for his soldiers to keep their hair and beards trimmed short.  He feared that enemies would be able to use long hair as handles in battle.  Barbers had to adapt to this change in style, which required more precise handling of their instruments.  Their skill with these metal tools, combined with the high prices that physicians charged for their services, led people to go to barbers for surgical tasks.  Additionally, they were called upon to geld animals, assist midwives, perform circumcisions, and, in ancient Mayan civilization, create ritual tattoos. 

With the foundation of the College of Surgery in England in 1800, the distinction between barbers and surgeons became more pronounced.  Eventually, by the 1820s, barbers existed only to cut hair.  Before that, however, John Gay penned an ode to the great jack of all trades.

The Goat Without a Beard:
His pole, with pewter basins hung,
Black, rotten teeth in order strung,
Rang’d cups that in the window stood,
Lin’d with red rags, to look like blood,
Did well his threefold trade explain,
Who shav’d, drew teeth, and breath’d a vein.

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