#972: The Barber Battle Book

August 27th, 2018

My barbershop plays rock ‘n’ roll.

They have biker and shave-culture memorabilia on the walls and stacks of Hells Angels zines next to vintage ’70s Playboys. They have a “pint club” where you can pay $20 for a year of free beer, plus smiling, tattooed men who take as much time as it takes to make sure you’re perfectly happy.

No appointments, cash only. When you walk in, you sign your name on a chalkboard and they call you in turn.

This is how we get haircuts in 21st century America. And I wonder if the smiling man with the thick blonde ponytail, the man calling my name and brushing off my chair, knows we live in the city that shaped how the nation cuts hair.

In 1893, A.B. Moler opened the nation’s first barber college along Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago. The first of what would be a franchised chain of barber schools across the nation, the Moler system was how we think of barber training today, and how the ponytailed man spreading an apron over me made the shift from operations management for supply-chain companies to barbering. Short-term, for-profit trade schools with students practicing on volunteer heads seeking free or cheap cuts.

Prior to Moler and his fast-growing chain of barber colleges, becoming a barber meant working an apprenticeship. Now instead of a five-year term sweeping hair, shining shoes and hauling garbage, potential hair-shorteners were trained up in two months on everything from scissor anatomy to human anatomy, with (eventually) tips on basic chemistry and contracting pores with galvanic current.

When that first school opened, two things were happening: the economy was tanking and barbers were trying to improve their lot.

When they weren’t surgeons, barbering was considered a servant trade — think “Barber of Seville” or “Marriage of Figaro.” Haircut? You had a guy for that. And in the U.S., that often meant a slave. Freed slaves would often carry these skills and their willingness to do work wealthy white people deemed low-class into their own shops. Soon immigration played, and between 1850 and 1860, immigrant-owned shops (mostly owned by Germans) surpassed the number of black-owned shops. But they failed to win over wealthy whites, instead scraping by working long hours churning out shaves and haircuts for far less than two bits.

In 1861 (and yes, this is relevant), The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies unified, making what we call Italy. And oh man, things got bad. Italians — many of whom already knew barbering — flooded to America starting in the 1880s, willing to work for cheaper rates, for longer hours, in worse conditions than the Germans.

In the 1870s, Barbers’ Protective Unions started popping up in cities across the nation. In 1887, a group of these small unions, which had been affiliated under the Knights of Labor, formed a nationwide barbers’ union, the Journeymen Barbers’ International Union of America. A year later the JBIUA affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. It boomed from 50 members in 1888 to 1,300 in 1891 to 11,600 in 1901. They sought better standards and better wages, and some later members would speak longingly of a national standard price for haircuts.

1893 brought both a national depression called the Panic of 1893 and the nation’s first barber’s college. At 435 Wabash (312 S. Wabash, roughly that big ugly red CNA building, under the modern street plan), A.B. Moler promised to teach a trade in months at a time when people couldn’t afford to take long apprenticeships.

In short, Moler offered a cheap crash course in haircuts, flooding the market with semi-qualified snippers at a time when the industry was looking to professionalize and unionize.

“Cincinnati is flooded with cheap shops, cheap prices and long hours,” wrote a 1915 letter to Journeyman Barber magazine. “This evil will never be eliminated until there is some definite action taken against the Moler Barber College and all its branches.”

“As soon as matters are settled in our new office at Cleveland, Ohio, we will lay before the Postmaster General all matters connected with the Moler system of Barber schools and will seek to have them denied the use of the mails for what we consider is nothing more nor less than a ‘bunco game,’” read an 1899 letter to The Barbers’ Journal magazine.

“Brother Anton made a few remarks about the Moler barber graduates and the way they hustle for Connecticut as soon as they get their diploma. These graduates do not have to pay any license fee in Connecticut until they have been in the State three years, and as a good barber from outside does not care to put up $5.00 when he can get just as good a job for nothing, the Moler graduate jumps in and gets a job — pretty soft for him,” Journeyman Barber, 1912.

“The profit of this excursion will be devoted to fight the Montreal barber school, a branch of the Moler barber school…” from 1905.

A barber battle brewed. On one end, the barber unions who saw theirs as a skilled trade and heritage to protect. On the other, a growing chain of chop shops churning out barbers who needed to get out there and make a living through the scissors as soon as possible. It’s the same argument over for-profit colleges today, from the shadiest Trump U. to Phoenix, DeVry or The Art Institutes (absolutely not the School of the Art Institute of Chicago but they really love when people confuse them). Are they providing low-income people access to a trade when the traditional route is too expensive, or are they scams taking poor people’s money and shoving them a diploma saying, “Yeah, kid, sure. You’re a barber (or designer or IT professional) now”?

The solution for barbering became licensing. Here too, Chicago was at the fore, with a JBIUA union rep so incensed by the “schemed system” that made students “believe that a six or eight week course would sufficiently fit him for a first-class position, or make him a practical and competent boss barber” that he decided to do something about it.

“In 1896 I visited the big school in Chicago to investigate their system — or lack of system — and I found it even worse than I had anticipated,” the rep wrote. “I then wrote an article for our Journal, describing the school and advocating laws to provide for examination and licensing of barbers. That was the beginning of the agitation for license laws.”

The unions fought hard to get states to make barbering a licensed, regulated profession, and A.B. Moler fought back, lobbying against licensing bills across the nation.

“The details of the fight would make too long a story to attempt to give in these columns, so I will simply say that the opposition came from Mr. Moler of barber school fame and A.W. Stark of Milwaukee, and though I despise these human parasites as I do a reptile, still I must credit them with conducting a shrewd campaign and striking at the right time and place,” ran one account of the behind-the-scenes battle at the Wisconsin state Senate.

Minnesota became the first state to regulate barbers in 1897. Other states followed suit and Moler lost other battles, although he managed to get on board with licensing and, by the 1920s, make it sound like he had been on board the entire time. (My guess is the chance to chart national standards that kept students paying for two years instead of two months helped change his mind, but I’m a romantic.)

The ponytailed barber and I talked about regulation, about how the shop with the rock ‘n’ roll overhead and Hells Angels on the walls is a place you can get a proper, official, Illinois-licensed shave (although no one would notice if a shop did unlicensed shaves, as he said there are only two swamped regulators watchdogging every barbershop and salon in the state). We chatted about the barber school that let him shift careers to find the one he truly loved. We chatted about license applications and fees and about how much it would cost to join the “pint club,” which I’m totally going to do, incidentally. Going to a real barbershop rather than a Hair Cuttery, Great Clips or other cheap churn chain is one of my affectations, one I don’t plan to lose.

But I didn’t know then I lived in the city that made it happen how it did, and wherever I go to get my ears lowered, Chicago shaped how it’s done.

Read about a Canaryville shop where Joe’s been cutting hair since the ’40s

Or the barbershop conversation about Chicago Man

Why I write about haircuts

Another affectation of mine

And Chicago’s equally weird creation of the ray gun

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You are currently reading #972: The Barber Battle Book by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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