Shaving time: Barbering in Cincinnati in the early 1900s

As I have mentioned in a few other posts, I've been researching the history of 205 W. McMicken in Over-the-Rhine. Beginning in 1908, a number of chairs, stools, basins, mirrors and, of course, scissors, were carted into its first floor. Under the ownership of Frank Clusin, the space was to become a barbershop. This post examines what barbering was like in Cincinnati in the early 1900s for men like Frank.

 The typical interior of a barbershop in Cincinnati in the early 1900s. Note the Union card hanging on the wall. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

The typical interior of a barbershop in Cincinnati in the early 1900s. Note the Union card hanging on the wall. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

Born on March 20th, 1883, Frank was a native-born Ohioan. His father, Thomas Clusin, and his mother, originally Anna Hockman, had raised him in Midland City, a tiny town east of Cincinnati. The Clusins had been in America for a while. Frank’s grandparents, Benjamin and Alice, migrated over to Ohio from Virginia in the early 1800s. They settled in Union County, and by mid-century, boasted a large farming family from which Frank descended. When Frank opened his business at 205 W. McMicken, he was in his late twenties, boasting jet black hair and brown eyes. He was a medium-sized man, only five feet six inches tall and weighing around 150 pounds. He was also newly married, having wed Catherine Kolb in April of 1907 in Covington. Only seven months later, their son Edward was born on October 3rd, suggesting that perhaps the two wed to avoid a scandal (they would later divorce, too). In the early years of his barbershop, Frank and his family lived on Freeman Avenue in the West End with Catherine’s parents and brothers. Unlike her husband, Catherine’s grandparents were German-speaking immigrants. Hers was a working-class family; both of her parents, renters, continued to work into old age.[i] 

Frank's barbershop at 205 W. McMicken lasted until the early 1920s; thereafter, barber Fred Wolf ran his shop out of the storefront during Prohibition; and during the Depression into World War II, Raymond Dayton and James Ball used the first floor for "Dayton and Ball Barbers."

It may go without saying but barbering then and now is a job based exclusively on customer service, and barbers—either owners of a shop or employed in a shop—understood, perhaps more than other professions and laborers, that their business relied on a waiting public. Literally, men queued to have their faces shaved and hair trimmed; other men, non-customers, sat in the shops too, for a social hour and gossip. Journalists congregated, eager to engage an idle group of people. All of these people just watched the barber at work—that's a lot of pressure. 

 Cincinnati barbers during a Labor Day parade sometime in the early 1900s. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati barbers during a Labor Day parade sometime in the early 1900s. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

Furthermore, in the early 1900s, there was a surplus of barbers, so men understood the importance of getting and keeping clients—of having excellent customer service. This surfeit was the result of an unprecedented number of immigrant and native-born white men like Frank Clusin joining the barbering trade around the turn of the 20th century. 

 Barbers listed in the 1915 city directory—and this isn't even all of them! Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Barbers listed in the 1915 city directory—and this isn't even all of them! Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

In joining the trade, many of them purchased the latest furnishings for their shops. These improvements, plus the advent of barbers’ unions and growing state regulation of shops, all contributed to the displacement of Black barbers from primary locations downtown and in nearby neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine to Black business districts and neighborhoods like the West End.

 Many Black barbers could only serve white clients due to the color-line in barbering. Courtesy of  Collectors Weekly.

Many Black barbers could only serve white clients due to the color-line in barbering. Courtesy of Collectors Weekly.

Throughout the 19th century, barbering was considered a feminized, unskilled profession—feminine because personal appearance as being attended to and unskilled because so many Black barbers existed and cut the hair of white men. White men considered the work unfit for their race and refused to attend barbershops in which the barber also shaved a man of color. This led to a strong color-line in barbering, to the point that Black barbers had to refuse to service men of their own race at the same shops where they had white customers. For sure, Black men could receive “shaving time” at Black-run shops in their neighborhoods and business district. These were important spaces for men to congregate and talk, often of discontentment. Indeed, after the Civil War, many African American men became more vocal about Black barbers who only waited on white customers. It was one among too many signs of Jim Crow segregation.

Church also served as an important pillar in African American communities, but unlike a place of worship, Black barber and beauty shops were businesses, and many of them that served white clients were encountering a lot of pushback by the early 1900s by German, Italian and native-born barbers. Arguing their shops were unionized and more sanitary, men like Frank began to displace African American barbers to solely Black neighborhoods.[ii]

The invention of the at-home shaving equipment, in particular Gillete safety razors, also changed barbering by 1900. With this product greatly reducing the need for a professional shave, men began to go to the barber for more frequent and stylish haircuts. White barbers began to argue that they were more skilled than their Black counterparts in haircutting.[iii]

 An early 1900s Gillette at-home razor advertisement. Courtesy of RazorArchive.com.

An early 1900s Gillette at-home razor advertisement. Courtesy of RazorArchive.com.

Why did so many immigrants, especially Germans and Italians, decide to get into the barbering game around 1900?

For one, the number of immigrants continued to rise in the U.S. throughout the turn of the 20th century, especially in northern cities. Many of these newcomers were barbers back in Europe, so they merely brought their trade with them. Relations between different groups of immigrant barbers were frequently tense. Often native-born whites like Frank banded together with German hair-cutters to declare that Italian and Black barbers were under-skilled and undercutting the market. In New York, they even began to form associations and vigilante committees to police the rates of their competition. The founding of the Journeyman Barbers’ International Union of America (JBIUA) in 1887 in Buffalo, New York was a major development in this professionalization of barbering. Attracting a growing number of members after its establishment, it held conventions across the Midwest and East Coast, including in Cincinnati in 1893, to set up a dues-paying system, insurance benefits and even a publication, the Journeyman Barber, for its efforts. Among other things, it sought to regulate how some shops undercharged—known as “rat shops”—and kept workers there for long hours with low wages. Many shops at this time were open from 9am until 11 at night. By 1902, 16,000 barbers across the country had joined the union. Members, including Frank at 205 W. McMicken, would proudly display their union cards in storefront windows to demonstrate loyalty. Black barbers who serviced white clientele were encouraged to join the JBIUA, though in separate, segregated locals.[iv]

 Part of the list of registered Union barbershops in Cincinnati, as of July 1st, 1918. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

Part of the list of registered Union barbershops in Cincinnati, as of July 1st, 1918. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

Each local union of the JBIUA supported these goals of standardization and professionalization. Cincinnati’s Local #49 formed, in part, because, “The barbers’ prices in Cincinnati ae the lowest in the United States and Canada. This is also true of the barbers’ wages.”[v] Indeed, the Local asserted, “We, the barbers of Cincinnati, Ohio, desiring to improve our condition, Socially and Financially, desiring to protect our interests as working-men, and more particularly to protect out trade from the encroachment of cheap, unskilled and unclean competition, to assist each other in time of sickness or distress, aid Brother Members to secure employment, to assist the Employer of Union Labor to secure help, to maintain shorter hours with adequate pay for same. For these reasons we have organized ourselves into a Union affiliated with the Journeyman Barbers’ International Union of America.” Much of Local #49’s bylaws consisted of fees and penalties if a barber was found to dishonor the Union’s rules and standards. In Cincinnati, at the time of Frank’s shop, you were not supposed to accept customers after closing time (excluding holidays, hours in Cincinnati were Monday-Friday, 7am-8pm, and Saturday, 7am-11pm). You were not permitted to cut hair or shave a man on Sundays. You could only have one apprentice at a time—and that apprentice had to be registered with the Union.[vi]

 Barbering prices as of 1907. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

Barbering prices as of 1907. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

Recollecting its own history in the late 1950s, Local #49 explained its origins: “This economic struggle for a better living started with the 5-cent shave and 10-cent haircut, about the year 1880. Realizing that not only by the skill of their hands maintaining their interests in community life, their home and family, they must find solid ground among their fellow barbers first, and already in 1880 a small group of barbers held forth meetings to measure by common exchange of viewpoints, their lot in life. A state law in 1880 forbidding Sunday work was vainly tried to make workable. However, tis desire for a few hours of sunshine, brought more in this group to seek their own betterment from hours as early as 7 A.M. to 10 P.M. every day and Saturday until midnight and don’t forget on Sunday, too.” In 1894, 18 Cincinnati barbers had joined the JBIUA, and by 1896, it had grown to 36 members. By 1921, they had successfully raised local prices from a 10-cent shave and 20-cent haircut to 25-cent shave and 50-cent haircut.[vii]

 Placard that hung in Union shops. 205 W. McMicken would have had one. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

Placard that hung in Union shops. 205 W. McMicken would have had one. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

Not all Black barbers wanted to join the JBIUA. In fact, many saw the JBIUA as just a tool for white men to claim some kind of professional monopoly over non-union, less regulated, often Black-run shops. JBIUA was on a mission to make barbering more rigorous and in particular, it hoped to capture the confidence of public health reformers who also sought to shut down “unsanitary” barbershops. Scientific articles began to purport the numerous contagious diseases found at the barber, including syphilis and tuberculosis—TB maybe, but especially things like lice, scabies and skin infections were passed around at some barbershops. The move to better sanitize them coincided with larger medical and public health efforts around the turn of the 20th century to improve urban quality of life in general (you can read more about these efforts among reformers and physicians in Cincinnati here).

 The JBIUA publication. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

The JBIUA publication. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

The JBIUA called for licensure regulation and more thorough training through college, often comparing barbering to medicine and itself to the American Medical Association (AMA). A. B. Moler, himself an apprentice-trained barber, started his Moler System of Barber Colleges in the late 1800s, first in Chicago, to more rigorously train young men in barbering so they could hope for quick employment thereafter. Designed to show the world that barbering was no longer a throat-scrapping, lip-slashing, mole-slicing business, the Moler schools taught both shaving and hair cutting in the early 1900s. By the ‘20s, the classes also included chemistry, bacteriology and anatomy.[viii]

In these interwar years between World War I and World War II, textbooks and guidebooks proliferated to accompany such schooling; their contents reflected the new scientific approach to barbering, with sections covering personal hygiene, bacteriology, sterilization, all parts of human anatomy and physiology, massage, chemistry pharmacology, skin disease, business management and even electricity and light therapy. The books concluded with quizzes and worksheets for the barber to practice his knowledge.[ix]

 One of the ways that Union shops encouraged customer loyalty. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

One of the ways that Union shops encouraged customer loyalty. Courtesy of Blegen Library, University of Cincinnati.

Racially-charged accusations alleged that Black shops were unkempt and ignorant of the above-mentioned professional standards. This underscored how mainstream white America often racialized sexually-transmitted and other diseases—that Black men and women were more likely to be contaminated—as a way to manage relations between races and as a way to hurt Black business.

In Ohio in 1902, a House Bill written by the JBIUA secretary-treasurer got introduced to create a state board to regulate barbers. Black barbers, led by the prominent barber George Myers, opposed it on the grounds that it would become a front for racial discrimination—that the board would systematically deny Blacks licenses. Myers was successful in garnering Republican support for his opposition. There were also some white Americans, especially in the South, who feared the bill would displace Blacks from barbering and thus upset the racial balance that kept Blacks in the (subordinate) service industry. The House Bill in Ohio failed but other states did pass regulatory acts. Minnesota was the first in 1897, requiring at least an 8th grade education and 25 weeks of barber school; Ohio would be one of the last states to pass a barber licensing law. State mandated training only grew more rigorous over the first half of the 20th century, with barbers being required to log so many training hours, often in the thousands.[x]

 George Myers. Courtesy of TeachingCleveland.org.

George Myers. Courtesy of TeachingCleveland.org.

These heightened health regimes included city officials forcing barbers to prove their shops were “physically fit.” In response, some Black barbers fought to keep alive their businesses, for both white and Black clientele, by investing in improvements. This was what barber William Ross did downtown at 158 Walnut: he installed “the latest patent barber chairs, finish in deep cardinal silk velvet, with an elegant French mirror dressing case in front and a marble-top washing apparatus attached, furnishing both hot and cold water,” with floors of “black and white square marble slabs” and a “large two-hundred dollar anthracite stove of the latest patent, and whose heat makes December as pleasant as May.” Others hired additional employees like manicurists and purchased sterilization equipment. But unfortunately (due to years of economic discrimination), many could not afford these improvements. Some also just did not care to cater to these expensive requirements. All of these trends meant that Frank Clusin was most certainly only servicing white customers and probably not employing any men of color to help him cut hair at 205 W. McMicken.[xi]

These trends also meant that for the Black-owned shops that survived these years of greater regulation, they existed solely in Black neighborhoods. From there, they only grew in importance. As Jim Crow segregation disallowed African Americans from many public places, barbershops, churches and other businesses in their communities served as important safe havens and places of agency. By the time that the civil rights movement gained a lot of steam around World War II and into the 1950s and '60s, it should be no surprise to us that barbershops were a space for civil rights consciousness and organizing. One good example: Stokely Carmichael, civil rights and Black Power activist, explained in his memoir that when his family first moved to the Bronx, the Irish barbers there refused to cut his hair. He ended up going to Harlem instead, and there, he learned about the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the civil rights movement. He credited this barbershop experience as the catalyst for his activism.[xii]

***

[i] Ohio Marriages, 1800-1958, FamilySearch.org; 1850 Federal Census, FamilySearch.org; World War I Registration Card, Familysearch.org; 1910 Federal Census, Ancestry.com; Kentucky, County Marriages, 1783-1965, Ancestry.com; U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014, Ancestry.com.

[ii] Quincy T. Mills, Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Black Barber Shops in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 108-125.

[iii] Mills, Cutting Along the Color Line, 118-119.

[iv] Mills, Cutting Along the Color Line, 108-125; J. M. McCamant, Mack’s Barbers’ Guide: A Practical Hand-Book (Ogden, UT: Wasatch Publishing, 1908), 93.

[v] M. T. Smith and Joseph Meyung, Journeymen Barbers’ International Union, “Brothers in Union: Greeting!” August 24, 1914, Barbers’ Union Local #49 Papers, Vol. 1, Folder Minutes 1913 Feb. 4, Archives & Rare Books Library, Blegen Library (hereafter BL), University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio.

[vi] “By-Laws of Local Union No. 49 J.B.I.U. of A,” September 6, 1907, Barbers’ Union Local #49 Papers, Folder 5, BL.

[vii] “The Story of Local 49,” Barbers’ Union Local #49 Papers, Folder 7, BL.

[viii] Ronald S. Barlow, The Vanishing American Barbershop: An Illustrate History of Tonsorial Art, 1860-1960 (El Cajon, CA: Windmill Publishing Company, 1993), 12-13.

[ix] Sidney Coyne Thorpe, The Modern Guide for Barber Instructions (New York: Milady Publishing Group, 1945), Barbers’ Union Local #49 Papers, Folder 14, BL.

[x] Mills, Cutting Along the Color Line, 125-129; Barlow, The Vanishing American Barbershop, 15.

[xi] Quoted in Mills, Cutting Along the Color Line, 115, 129-141.

[xii] Hunter Oatman-Stanford, "Straight Razors and Social Justice: The Empowering Evolution of Black Barbershops," Collectors Weekly, May 30, 2014, https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/the-empowering-evolution-of-black-barbershops/.