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Tom Dillard: Arkansas barber shops used to be more interesting

by Tom Dillard | September 25, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

One of my earliest childhood memories involves getting a haircut -- a real haircut, by someone other than a family member.

The little community where I grew up in rural Montgomery County during the 1950s did not have an actual barber shop, but one of the three local store owners would cut hair on request. So, with me sitting atop a wooden keg with a white apron draped around my neck, the elderly gentleman took some ancient hand-powered clippers from a drawer and began hacking.

The dull clippers seemed to be pulling rather than cutting, and soon I was wishing for my mother and her scissors. Thenceforth I insisted on being taken to a real barber shop in the county seat.

I have not been successful in locating the first actual barber shop in Arkansas. The first advertisement for barber services appeared in the Arkansas Gazette on Dec. 18, 1839, three years after Arkansas gained statehood. The small ad was for J.W. Taylor, the owner of a barber shop situated in a local Little Rock hotel. Priced at 37 ½ cents, a haircut was expensive, though a shave was only 12 ½ cents. Taylor also advertised his skill at repairing and sharpening straight razors. It would not be long before barber Taylor had some competition.

Six months after Taylor's advertisement, Edward Menser opened "an elegant bathing establishment on the corner of Cumberland and Elm streets." Menser also moved his barber shop to the bathhouse. Baths were 75 cents each, or a dozen for $6. Female customers had their own entrance.

The practice of barbers offering baths would persevere for another 100 years, but it was usually just a bathtub placed in a separate room. A towel was provided; bathers were expected to bring their own soap.

Apparently barber shops could be found in towns across the state by 1849. In the spring of that year, J.M. Alexander of Helena on the Mississippi River advertised that his shop offered not only shaving and hair cutting -- "at the shortest notice and in the best style" -- but had a stock of perfumes, fancy soaps, and "the best of Havana Segars."

Judging from newspaper advertising, the years following the Civil War saw a huge growth in the number of barber shops, their sizes and offerings. Even the names changed. W.A. Denio of Arkadelphia advertised in August 1870 the opening of a "Shaving, Shampooing, and Hair Dressing Saloon." Two years later, a competitor in Arkadelphia announced his new barber shop and "Tonsorial Saloon."

The post-bellum barbers were given to using tonsorial, a word derived from Latin which describes one who cuts hair and shaves faces. They could also use whimsical terminology, such as the barber who described himself as "a knight of the razor."

Among the throngs of people settling in Little Rock after the Civil War was a man named Bourgeois, who announced in opening his French Barber Shop in the city in 1870 that he, "having been professor of Ladies' Hair Dressing in Paris for 25 years, challenges any man in his profession for $100." It appears that M. Bourgeois might have been the first barber in Arkansas to advertise hair curling (50 cents to $1). He also specialized in dyeing beards.

Barbers often ran other businesses out of their shops. In 1900, W.J. Lane, "a first-class barber" in Yellville in Marion County, was also a "practical watchmaker and jeweler." The 400 Saloon, a barber shop in Forrest City, cut hair, sold whiskies, wines and beer, offered hot and cold baths, and rented "nicely furnished rooms upstairs."

Some barbers made house calls. One Little Rock barber advertised in 1872 that he would "shampoo ladies' heads at their residences."

While barber shops were for the most part the domain of men, women did use barbers. This might explain the surprising fact that barbers, as early as 1871, promoted themselves as "hair dressers." Mrs. Leona Hammer, who styled herself a beauty operator, worked one day weekly at the Richardson Barber Shop in Gentry in Benton County in 1937. Beauty shops did not arrive in numbers until well into the 20th century, especially in smaller communities.

Black Arkansans became barbers in large numbers at the end of the Civil War. The late Wayne Boyce of Newport recalled in 1980 that his father, who was born in 1889, "told us he was grown before he knew a white man could cut hair."

He added: "All the barber shops in Dardanelle, Yell County [before 1900] were operated by Negro barbers." By 1971 Dardanelle had only one Black barber, Luther Banks, who was venerable, having begun work in 1909 shining shoes.

Perhaps the most successful Black barber was Wiley Jones of Pine Bluff. Beginning in 1869 and for a decade afterward, he worked as a barber, and at night he waited tables. Saving his earnings as a barber, Jones invested in real estate. He came to be a wealthy man, which gave him resources to do what he loved most: breed and race horses. He even built a commercial racetrack in Pine Bluff.

Black barber shops, stretching back to slavery days, have always played a significant role in Black communities. They were central hubs, meeting places, sanctuaries from the white world.

I have heard old-timers complain about modern barber shops having no personality. It is true that modern barber shops, since the passage of a state regulatory law in 1937, no longer have the distinctive smells of pomades and Old Spice cologne. It is difficult to find a modern barber who can and will use a straight razor, and old men no longer linger to chew tobacco and listen to a prize fight on the radio.

Today's Arkansas barber shops could be mistaken for taxidermy studios. A few years ago, while sitting in a barber chair, I counted 21 dead animals starring at me.

Jackson County historian Robert D. Craig, in writing about baseball great George Kell, described how barber shops formerly played many roles. Kell's father Clyde owned a barber shop in Swifton:

"Clyde Kell's barber shop was more than just a place for a man to get a trim and a shave. It also served as an informal headquarters for the local men's ball team. After every game the team retired to the shop where some took a shower, the only such public facility in town. After that, they reviewed the recent games. Sitting there absorbing all that commentary was a young George Kell."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]

Print Headline: Beauty of Arkansas barber shops was in community role

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