A History of Barbering in Chicago


There was a time in America, before the Civil War, when most businesses were owned by members of the local community, and stores were not just places to shop, but were places in which personalized service was rendered between neighbors and friends. This was the time of the “Mom and Pop” grocery store and when hardware stores and barber shops doubled as a gathering place for the discussion of current events, crop conditions, and family. This was a time before the impersonal and character-lacking chain-stores dominated the service and retail sectors. Yet, while much has changed, barber shops are one business which has managed to maintain the tradition of sole-proprietorship and personalized service. Barber shops often carry out business on a first- name basis, and customers often just ask for “the usual.” However, barber shops are not immune to the challenges that other businesses have faced, and in the last several decades, they have found themselves under pressure from a changing market and a changing world. Busy life-styles have led to the emergence of unisex chain-shops, while the desire for a larger array of services has resulted in some male customers preferring salons to barber shops. As a result, many barber shops have been forced to close their doors, but others have adapted, learning that, as customers’ demands change, so must the barber shop; otherwise, the profitability, and ultimately, the viability of the business itself, will be in jeopardy.

The first chapter of this report will discuss one the most fundamentally important aspects of the barber shop business model, which is haircut prices and haircut frequency. While this section will touch on other issues related to this topic, such as the barbering unions and changing hair styles, the chapter will try to restrict itself mainly to a discussion of prices and haircut frequency, saving other topics for later in the report. Several graphs of price history, with dates going back over 125 years, will be presented and explained, and the historical reasons for the rise and fall of prices will be enumerated and examined. Prices in various cities, and various locations within the city of Chicago will be discussed, and past prices will be converted into today’s dollar to see how past prices compare to today haircut rates. The chapter on prices will also comment on how customers have reacted to increases in price, what factors influenced the price increases, and what factors did not influence price. Also discussed will be which barbering services are believed to be the most profitable and why.

In the next chapter, Chicago’s outstanding tradition of providing high-quality, high-priced haircuts and related services will be discussed. Around the turn of the century, many of the best barber shops in Chicago, and, in fact, the world, were located in the city’s fanciest hotels, and from early on, these shops offered a large selection of services in luxurious and stately surrounding. At this time, Chicago led the nation, not only in barbering, but also in the professionalization of barbering, with the first barbering college in the nation being established in Chicago 1893. The college’s founder, A. B. Moler, contributed an immense amount to the practice of barbering and he can rightfully be considered the father of the modern barbering profession. The second chapter will also discuss the history of Chicago’s barbering unions and their extensive influence on price, barbers, and, more indirectly, the quality of Chicago’s barbering. The causes of the unions’ ultimate demise will also be reviewed.

Chapter three will discuss the current state of the hairstyling industry. The intent of this chapter is to closely examine recent industry trends, and specifically, how salons have adapted themselves to make inroads with the male population; a subject of enormous importance to anyone who owns a barber shop. How have male clients changed? How have salons changed to cater to them? And, when did this all start and why? This chapter will use both quantitative and qualitative analysis to provide as much information as possible about what cultural and business changes have contributed to the present state of the industry, and where experts think it might be going next.

The final chapter of this report will be the story of Chicago’s Truefitt & Hill, which combines both Chicago’s hotel-era barbering heritage with London’s rich tonsorial tradition. The shop offers a wide range of grooming services for men, all delivered in a masculine yet luxurious setting. Reviewing this noteworthy establishment’s professional services and products, as well as its history, helps provide an understanding of the current state of the tonsorial arts, as well as how the city’s rich barbering history can be successfully synthesized with today’s rigorous client demands.

Chapter 1 / Haircut Price History and Analysis

The price curve found in Figure 1 shows all prices in terms of 2008 dollars. With this in mind, the keen observer will immediately note that haircut prices have generally risen since 1877, the earliest price listed in this report. However, while Figure 1 shows rising prices, during certain periods of time, such the Great Depression, the price of haircuts were actually reduced. This is not obvious be looking at Figure 1 because the prices in this graph have been converted into 2008 dollars using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI rose during the Depression, so even though the price charged for a haircut was reduced; in real terms, the price was higher or remained constant. In order to provide more information on these trends, a second and third graph, Figures 2 and 3, have been added which show prices without converting them into current values.

It is interesting to note how the price history mirrors the history of the United States in general. There was a financial panic in 1873, and, as the economy went into a recession, haircut prices were reduced as well; from 35 cents to 25 cents, and shaves could be had for a dime. Baths went from between 25 to 35 cents all the way down to 10 to 15 cents. Prices also went down during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Haircuts were reduced by 25 cents, from 75 cents down to 50 cents; and prices which had been a dime more expensive on Saturdays and the day before holidays, were made consistent throughout the week. One newspaper article noted that, if a patron could not come up with the 50 cents for a haircut during the Depression, “a couple of chickens or rabbits would substitute for cash.”

In order to halt the falling price of goods and services at this time, the federal government under Franklin D. Roosevelt, set up the National Recovery Administration (NRA) in 1933. Before the NRA was unanimously found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1937, it created codes in conjunction with industry representatives, for nearly every imaginable industry from automobile manufacturing to burlesque, and barber shops were not excluded. In 1934, in an effort to insure a living wage, a $17 a week [$273.35 in 2008 terms] minimum wage was enacted for barbers, with the boss barber being allowed to work no more then 52 hours a week, and his employees no more then 48 hours. Haircut rates could be not be lower then 50 cents [$8.04] each.Yet in Chicago’s Loop, one of the main areas of interest for this report, the NRA price minimums affected only 62 out of 285 shops; an indication that within the downtown commercial district of Chicago, business was still strong enough to maintain decent prices, even during the Depression.

As the nation recovered from the Depression, so did haircut prices. During WWII, the high cost of living, due to the scarcity of labor and materials, brought haircut prices up from 75 cents 85 cents, and $1 [$12.45] on weekends. Shaves and children’s haircuts went up to 50 cents on weekdays and from 60 cents to 75 cents after 5 PM, on Saturdays, and on days before holidays.

After the war, prices continued to rise, and the rates, after being converted into 2008 terms, begin to look more like they would at the average barber shop today. In 1950, for example, a haircut cost the equivalent of $12. The fact that the prices are recognizable makes sense when one considers that this post-WWII period more accurately mirrors modern day America with its large middle class, drive-thrus, and shopping centers. In fact, barber shops from this period were generally in a form that would be recognizable today, and indeed, many still exists, virtually unchanged, from this time period.

It is important to understand, that with the exception of the NRA price codes which did not have much effect, prices in Chicago going all the way back to the 1870s were set by the barbering unions. Supply and demand and barbering quality did not influence haircut and shave prices as much as the unions did. From the 1870s onward, many, probably most, Chicago barbers were unionized into two main unions. There was one union for the “boss barbers,” called the Master Barbers Association, and one for the journeymen, called the Journeymen Barbers Association. There were also associated sub unions below these which represented specific areas of the city such as the Loop Master Barbers Association which represented downtown barbers.

Typically, haircut prices would be raised when journeymen barbers voted for a pay increase, which the boss barbers either had to provide, or face the prospect of a strike by the journeymen they employed. For example, in 1953, the Master Barbers Association decided to raise rates on customers after agreeing to the new wage demands from the Journeymen’s union. Previously, the journeymen had been making $40 a week, plus 60% over $59, but were now going to receive $50 [$402.43 in 2008 terms] a week and 60% over $70 a week.This kind of wage structure, with a fixed wage plus a percentage over another fixed amount, was a typical wage agreement between the boss barbers and the journeymen barbers.

The relationship between the two unions varied. The Journeymen would sometimes vote for a wage increase in response to inflation and because they had not received a raise in several years. In these cases the Masters union would usually accept the new wage demands and raise haircut prices on customers rather than incur the extra expense out of their own profits, or alternatively, refuse the wage demands and face a strike by their journeymen. Occasionally however, the Masters felt that the Journeymen were using their striking power to give themselves exorbitant wages, which, if passed on to the customer, would be damaging to the boss barbers’ business. One case like this occurred in April of 1958 when the Journeymen voted for a wage increase but the Master Barbers Association staunchly resisted. “This is no time to raise the price of haircuts,” warned Frank Aliotta, the secretary-treasurer of the Master Barbers Association from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s. “We are in a recession. People are buying cheaper cuts of meat in the butcher shops, and they don’t have extra money to spend on hair cuts.” “Let them strike if they want. We can’t afford to raise prices,” he declared. During this particular impasse, Aliotta, a mainstay of the Chicago barbering scene, threatened to resign if the wage increase was approved by his union, stating that the higher rates would “ruin our business. In the end, the Masters union won the round, and the journeymen had to wait till next year for a raise.

There were also occasions in which there was strife within the individual unions themselves. Tensions within the Masters union boiled over publicly during a price conflict in 1955. One barber, who had been a member of the Master Barbers Association since 1920, wrote to the Tribune stating that those opposed to raising haircut prices to meet the new set of journeymen wage demands were not given the floor during a meeting of the union in which 300 members had gathered to discuss the subject. Instead, he claimed, eight of Frank Aliotta’s hand-picked barbers were allowed to speak in favor of an increase, and when it was the oppositions turn to speak, Aliotta himself made a 45 minute speech which was also in favor of the increase. Aliotta wrote back saying that there was no under-handed maneuvering, and that he was only in favor of raising the price of haircuts because he did not want the money to have to come out of the Masters’ pockets, and also because he did not want to go to binding arbitration for the simple reason that it is binding.

The unions power to collectively set haircut prices ended in Chicago in 1966 when the Illinois attorney general informed the Master Barbers Associations of Chicago that “any action on their part to raise prices is illegal under the state’s 1965 anti-trust laws.” This was monumental shift in Chicago barbering history and changed the basic pricing model that had been in operation for almost a century. Previously, the city’s barbers realized that, if they stuck together, they could more easily raise prices, which would benefit them all. In contrast, if they were divided, they would end up in mutually destructive competition which would drive down prices, and they would all lose. The union worked, because a very high percentage of Chicago barbers were in it, but when collective price setting was declared illegal, the unions’ usefulness was greatly diminished, and free market competition began.

One question that may be asked about the long union era is: did it help or hurt Chicago barbering? On the one hand, it provided a living wage for barbers by keeping a minimum floor on prices. Union members were allowed to charge more for haircuts and shaves, and barbers in the loop often did, but members could not charge less then the minimum, which prevented rock-bottom wages. One hears hints of the necessity of this price floor in letters written both before and after the 1966 court-ordered injunction. One barber in 1960 stated that he has “been a barber for 40 years, thru good times and bad,” and “I know the average income of barbers across the United States is less than $70 [$508.81] a week.” “Newly graduated barbers,” he said, “are working for a month or two,” and then they “move on to other kinds of work.”  The wife of another barber wrote in 1969 that, “My husband owns his own barber shop, for which he must pay rent, electricity, laundry, etc. He must put up with inefficient help. He is lucky if he brings home $120 to $130 [$763.27] a week for all his trouble and aggravation. If I had not worked for years, and if our house weren’t paid off, we would have to move into a cold-water flat to make ends meet, as we have a family

Yet while the union maintained a price minimum which allowed a living wage, there was less incentive to compete with other shops and the quality of service most likely suffered as a result of a guaranteed rate. One hears of elegantly furnished barber shops offering exceptional services shortly after the Civil War, but it was not until after price fixing was declared illegal, and barber shops were required to compete with hair salons for their male customers, that high-class professional barbering services re-appeared in Chicago.

One important conclusion from this price study is that prices today are not low compared to past prices, as was the expected conclusion when this research project was conceived. Actually, prices converted to 2008 dollars, have been slowly climbing, with only a few exceptions, since the 1870s. However, it must be kept in mind, that, for much of this history, prices were severed from the free-market and set by the unions. Higher prices were allowed, but not common, and competition was stifled by guaranteed prices no matter what the quality was. Today however, there are both very cheap and very expensive haircut options, with quality generally varying with cost.

In 1974, just eight years after collective price setting was declared illegal, the Illinois legislature delivered another major blow to Chicago barbers by overturning a law which had prohibited men from going to salons for a haircut. From that point on, some men began getting their haircuts, and other grooming services, at salons. Salons had previously been the exclusive domain of the fairer sex, but were now being patronized by men as well. With competition now existing between salons and barber shops, and the male market beginning to accept the higher salon prices, full-service barber shops were also given the opportunity to charge much higher rates than barber shops had previously, provided they could justify them to their customers.

The de-regulation of the market due to the 1966 and 1974 law changes has resulted in a considerable range of haircut prices; something which had not previously occurred in the barbering industry. Some discount unisex shops now offer $5 haircuts, while full-service shops offer cuts at ten times that, or more, and consumers are generally able find a shop offering any price in between. This diffusion of prices can be seen on the price curves for the year 2005. In that year, a traditional barber shop, like Jay’s Barber Shop in Evanston, charged $15 for a haircut, which was basically the only service offered. The shop ha not changed in decades and still features old linoleum floors, drab vinyl barber chairs, Sport’s Illustrated magazines, and a TV that is tuned to the Cubs or Sox when possible. A little further up the price range is the State Street Barber Shop at 1547 N. Wells St which charged $21 in 2005. Still more expensive is the 316 Club Barber Spa, which charges $50 for a haircut. This is a full-service shop offering everything from highlights and “gray reduction” to facials, manicures, pedicures, shoe shines, and even body waxing for the chest, back, neck, or eyebrows; services which cost between $15 and $55. Yet even these barber shops do not top the price list. The full-service unisex salon and day-spa Renovo, located on Dempster St. in Morton Grove, takes $55 for a haircut, and there is no doubt fancier places in the city which charge even more.

In addition to a shop’s environment and the variety of services offered, location is another important factor which strongly influences the price of haircuts. The city of Chicago has long been famous, or infamous, for its high-priced haircuts, and downtown Chicago is where the highest prices have always been found. Whenever the Chicago newspapers would report that the Chicago barbering unions had decided to raise prices, editorials and letters to the editor would immediately pour in decrying Chicago’s prices as compared to other US cities. In 1947, when the price was raised from 60 cents to 75 cents, one author wrote that prices were still 60 cents in Philadelphia, DC, and New York City, even including Wall St. However, the best shops in New York, Los Angles, and DC charged more then the union rate in Chicago, but so did Chicago’s best shops in the Loop. One writer noted that the “tonier shops” in DC charge 75 cents [$7.23], but the average cost is 50 cents. This was still only a price differential of 33%, which is much lower than the range of prices found today.

While Chicago led the nation in the average prices, Chicago’s downtown shops led the city. The prices of the Loop Master Barbers’ Association were often higher then the general unions rates. During the Depression, when the Master Barbers’ Association reduced their rates from 75 cents to 60 cents, the downtown shops elected not to lower their rates, stating that “no new customers had been gained by those who reduced their rate, and the reduced-rate shops had been having trouble with their rents.” However, as the Depression deepened, 310 out of 400 Loop shops finally capitulated to the lower prices, but only after a “stormy” three hour meeting of shop owners at the Atlantic Hotel. In 1952, the Loop barber shops, which were mostly located in hotels, raised their rates from the standard $1.35, up to $1.50.

Higher prices for barbering services in downtown Chicago are not unreasonable, as long as they are done with a higher level of skill and service. “This is the most expensive area of the city,” stated Kirk Merchant, the founder of Truefitt & Hill, a shop located at 900 N. Michigan Ave. “That is going to be passed along to the customer. But we feel we provide services they can’t get anywhere else.”

The combination of quality of service, shop environment, and shop location, are three of the most important factors which determine haircut prices, and should therefore be used by the shop owner when considering what rate to charge for haircuts. However, the shop owner must also ask one important question: Will an increased price result in a lower customer haircut frequency? Historically, the answer to this question has generally been yes, at least for a certain amount of time after the increase. Whenever the Chicago newspapers reported that the union had decided to raise prices, men wrote in to say that they were going to get their haircut every three weeks rather then every two. Some also stated they would tip less. Barber shop owners themselves worried about this. “Just think,” stated one barber, “if all my two-weekenders are now three-weekenders, I’ve lost a third of my business. Rather then get their haircut less frequently, some men simply decided to buy their own haircutting gear and let their wives cut their hair. Sales at supply houses were reported as being very brisk when prices increases were announced. Some patrons also complained that crew cuts should cost less, or that prices should be prorated to the amount of hair one has. Others stated that, if the prices went up any more, baldness would start becoming an asset. In 1959 when prices hit $2 a haircut, the Tribune reminded its readers that many famous Chicagoan’s preferred “shaggy hair and beards,” including Gurdon S. Hubbard, the Ogdens, McCormicks, Palmers, and Kinzies. They also added Einstein to the list, just because he is famous, and published photos of some of their more hairy hair-dos.

Barring prohibitively expensive prices, the preferred frequency of haircuts is generally once every two weeks. Newspaper articles on barbering are filled with evidence of this. Those who get manicures or other services also like this frequency for these services. One customer stated that he gets “a hair styling with a little tint and a manicure every other week.” Barbers, however, may get their haircut more often. “My partner cuts my hair, and I cut his,” reported the owner of Ideal Barber Shop in Evanston. “I get a haircut every week, unless I’m skipping church that week. Then I skip the haircut too. Barack Obama also seems to prefer the once a week interval. He has been going to the Hyde Park Hair Salon at 53 Street and Blackstone Ave. for almost 20 years. He also states in his book Dreams of My Father, that his first visit to a barber shop was like walking into a history lesson.

Price is not the only reason why people will get their hair cut less frequently or at cheaper locations; technology has also played a role. Barbers used to do a good percentage of their business in shaving, but few customers receive shaves anymore. This is not because of the price, but because of the advent of “safety razors” which came into universal use after WWI, and which directly led to the decline of the straight razor shave business.The customers who do come in for shaves appear to want them only once or twice a week. Gillette spent $750 million developing the Mach 3 in an attempt to capitalize on the safety razor market and mimic the close shave provided by a straight razor.

The barber shop owner should also be aware that some haircut prices contain numbers appear to be symbolic, and should therefore be avoided when setting prices. Haircut prices crossed the $1 threshold twice; first, in 1943 [$12.45] when it was the rate for cuts after 5 PM, on weekends, and on the day before holiday, and then again in 1946 [$11.02] when it became the everyday haircut price.Both times this symbolic price line created a storm of criticism in the newspapers. By the time prices in general passed the $10 mark, the unions were defunct so there was more price diversity and less coordinated outrage from customers. For fancier shops, this symbolic price line may be $100. Customers may be perfectly able to justify a $95 haircut, or even $99.95, but may be more psychologically reluctant to spend $100.

While haircut frequency has been known to be affected by price, there is not an absolute relationship between supply and demand when it comes to barbering. As Adam Smith noted, people will do whatever they are able to do most profitable, and generally speaking, barbering is not a flooded market, at least not to the point where prices have had to be reduced to deal with over-supply. Instead of struggling as a low-priced barber, people have just chosen other ways to make money. The exception to this is the “Albany Park Price Wars” in which a number of shops in this particular area have been competing to provide the lowest priced haircuts, with $5 haircuts being the rock-bottom rate currently available. However, the quality, repeatability, and communication between customer and barber, have all been severely reduced. This author knows of at least one case in which a patron walked in with an Ivy League and walked out with a buzz; he had requested a “trim.”

This goes to show that, in barbering, as in much else, “you get what you pay for.” One salon owner in Lincolnshire noted that male customers “see the higher price as an indication of the qualifications of the stylist, and one of her male clients says he spends about $100 per visit, not just because he can, but because he likes getting what he pays for.[38] But whether customers believe it’s expensive because it’s good, or it’s good because it’s expensive, setting a high haircut rate may not be a bad decision for a shop owner.

One reason customers may also be willing to pay a higher price for a haircut is  because they recognize and trust a certain “brand” of barber shop. This would be similar to consumers of cloths, electronics, or cars, who are willing to pay more for brands they believe to be good. If word gets out that certain famous people buy a particular brand of barbering service, then it may become more popular for that reason also. Brands, however, must be managed well. Brands can be “stretched,” but only so far. Spin-off stores must be recognizable as belonging to the same brand-family or it may not be able to benefit from the brand’s tradition, or worse, it may ruin the tradition.

The shop owner should also be concerned with the profit margin of the services offered. Prices must be set with the customer and the competition in mind, and also with profitability in mind. Shaving was once the most common activity for barbers, but also the least profitable. One might therefore conclude that it was priced wrong, except for the strong possibility that the price was on par with other shops and therefore not easily raised.[39] For fancy, full-service shops dating from the turn of the century, shampooing was the most profitable task in terms of dollars per minute. Next was the massage, and then the haircut. At one shop, a shave would take 20 minutes and cost 15 cents [$3.79], a haircut between about 30 to 35 minutes and cost 35 cents [$8.83].[40] Thus, if the boss barber performed these services, in 2008 terms he would earn $16.31 an hour for haircuts and $11.36 an hour for shaves; a 40% disparity. In typical barber shops today however, the average time per haircut is 20 minutes, and that is only service provided.[41]

Chapter Two / Chicago and the Professionalization of Barbering

“A Barber’s Shop at Richmond, Virginia,” an 1861 oil painting reproduced in Eyre Crowe’s With Thackeray in America, published in 1863.
Source: Geocities.com

In the early 1830s, Chicago was little more than a muddy collection of houses surrounding Fort Dearborn, and had a total population of less then 200. But by 1887 Chicago had 800,000 people all bustling about working to bring the modern city with its trains, boats, barges, brothels, businessmen, beggars, tenements and skyscrapers into existence. Perhaps no other city in history has more fully experienced the enormous power and astonishing rapidity of the Industrial Revolution’s triumvirate of immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. As Chicago boomed, so did its professions, including barbering. Some evidence suggests that in the pre-Civil War era, barbering in Chicago was a predominantly black occupation. At this time the standard charge was 10 cents [$2.07] for a shave and 25 cents for a shave and shampoo. However, after the war, whites began to take over the barbering business, although it was still acceptable for a white person to receive a shave or haircut from a black barber.

Because Chicago was a major railroad terminal and business center, the city had a large number of wealthy business travelers and luxurious hotels to serve them. The Blackstone and Grand Pacific hotels were the most famous of these, and both these Gilded Age hotels contained barbershops which were as magnificently appointed as the hotels they resided in. There is reason to believe that Chicago’s hotel barber shops were the most beautiful and professionally run shops in all of America at the time. One newspaper article from 1874 states that the barber shop in the Grand Pacific Hotel, “is probably the most gorgeous tonsorial establishment in the country.” An advertisement for another shop from the same time period, also indicates Chicago preeminent position in the tonsorial arts at the time. It boasts that, “strangers say that no city in the world is so well provided with tonsorial establishments as Chicago.” It is also clear from the descriptions of these barber shops and “bathing-rooms” that there was substance behind these remarks. “The bath-room has large, elegant apartments,” reads one ad, “all of them, together with the sitting-room adjoining, being carpeted with Brussels, the woodwork done in solid black-walnut and ash and each apartment provided with every convenience that comfort requires or elegance can suggest.” The advertisement went on to state that this particular barber shop and bath house “form the handsomest, the largest, the most perfect and in every respect the most elegant tonsorial parlors in the world.” After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, some Chicago barbers went to the East Coast on buying trips to rebuild their shops. One barber, “whose tonsorial establishments previous to the fire were simply Oriental in their magnificence,” ran an ad stating that he was “determined to fit up a place in a short time which will outshine everything in the country.  To this end” the ad continued, “he last evening left the city for the purpose of visiting the principal Eastern cities, where he will examine all the first-class barber shops, and impress upon his memory such points of excellence in their adornment and construction as will contribute to the beauty of the establishment which he contemplates fitting up.”

All these decoration required a significant amount of money. A newspaper article from 1905 declares that, “to be attractive, the modern hotel bath-house will expend $200 [$5,048] on each room housing a bath tub. The walls and ceiling will be of white tiles, the floors will be of marble or tiles, the tub and basin of porcelain, and the trimmings of attractive nickel.” The article went on to state that, “a first class place of this kind sees to it that all the towels needed are supplied and the average is closer to four then three. Water must be heated, there must be attendants in proportion…”

Chicago’s luxury barber shops were also rather large compared to most barber shops today. One hotel shop had “twelve chairs, presided over by the best artists money can procure.” Another ad states that “in all the various departments of this model establishment upwards of twenty hands are employed.” Part of the reason for the large shops is simply that they had a large number of daily customers. Most customers who patronized the hotel shops would get a shoe-shine and shave every day, at least in the summer, as well as a head massage and shampoo once a week, and a haircut about every three weeks.

The services offered at Chicago’s early barber shops clearly prove that it is nothing new for a man to receive a full array of barbering services and that this is not a new phenomenon which started as a result of competition with salons, but rather, has been a male grooming tradition since before the turn of the century, and especially a Chicago tradition.

The reason many Chicago barber shops were located in hotels was that it was easier to draw customers from the wealthy business travelers, and others who stayed at the hotels, when the shops were located right in the hotels themselves. Another reason was that indoor plumbing was still a luxury and, while at home, one might know where to fetch a pail of water, it was more difficult to find access to water while on the road. Hotel rooms with running water were significantly more expensive then those without indoor plumbing. “In the smaller hotels it means the difference between $1 to $1.50 a day, and $2.50 to $4 a day,” noted one article from 1905. With the money a guest saved by getting a room without plumbing, he could go downstairs to the barber shop and treat himself to an hour’s worth of relaxation, and let expert barbers do what he would have had to do himself, had he purchased a room with indoor plumbing. It can be truthfully stated that one important factor in the decline of barbering in Chicago is the introduction of indoor plumbing. Besides receiving excellent tonsorial services, going to the hotel barber shop also had the added benefit that many of them were located near the special ladies entrance to the hotel, and some of the ladies entering the hotel were known to be visiting for the express purpose of meeting marriageable bachelors—and one’s with a properly groomed appearance, no doubt.

While most customers at the high-class barber shops were wealthy Chicagoans or businessmen staying at hotels, it is interesting to hear what other types of customers visited these shops. There are accounts of men coming into the shops in an absolutely filthy condition after having returned from the California gold rush of 1849. Sometimes large groups of these vagabonds would enter a shop, not having shaved, bathed, or changed their cloths in a very long time, but with money in their pocket and the desire to get cleaned up. The barber shop was a “revelation of luxury” to these men, and in addition to a haircut and shave, they would often purchase a bath, “underclothes,” new socks, new shirt, and “a full suit of new clothes bought from one of the ready-made shops nearby.” The men could also choose from an extensive selection of grooming products including “combs, pomade, bear’s grease, brushes, cuff-buttons, shirt studs, and fancy canes.” All of this indicates just how many services these barber shops really offered and gives new meaning to the term “full-service.”

During the heyday of Chicago barbering, some of the barbers at the luxury shops rose to near celebrity status. There was Antonil “Tony” Delight in the Sherman House, a German by the name of Becker on the southeast corner of Clark and Lake, “which was then considered about the centre of civilization,” and Ribola on the corner of Dearborn and Randolph. Tony Delight was rumored to have put up his shop in a game of poker one night and won, but was later saved at “Moody’s Tabernacle” and afterwards led an “exemplary life.” According to one reporter, there were not many Italians in barbering because “that erratic race” was “engaged in the peanut and roast-chestnut trade.” The exception to this was Ribola, who was rumored to have a considerable fortune when he retired.

Probably the most famous barbers from this era were the brothers Henry and William Petillon. Together they ran the fanciest and most expensive shop in Chicago, located at the Grand Pacific Hotel. However, the Petillon brothers spent so much money decorating their palatial shop that they ended up going bankrupt in 1878. They owed $2,850 [$63,454] to a lady for furnishings, which ended up being sold at auction by court order for $2,600; higher then what the goods were expected to bring. One reason for the Petillon brothers’ financial troubles may have been that they spread themselves too thin. They opened a second shop, which was also quite fancy just four years before their court ordered sale. An advertisement for the second shop stated that, “the Petillon Bros., the well-known tonsorial artists have purchased the barber shop and bathing-rooms at 122 East Washington Street, near the Chamber of Commerce, and will hereafter conduct this establishment on the same scale as their noted rooms in the Grand Pacific Hotel. The latter is probably the most gorgeous tonsorial establishment in the country.” Another one of their ads boated that “no city in the world is so well provided with tonsorial establishments as Chicago, and the new one is to be superior to all of them.”

The fact that the Petillon brothers’ had financial difficulties probably helps explain why they had a fight with the barbers’ union a year before they went bankrupt. At this time William Petillon was president of the union, and during a meeting at the Sherman House hotel, a resolution was offered that barber shops in the union should extend their hours on Sunday from 11 am to 12 noon. One barber noted that shops not in the association were springing up everywhere and were staying open later. When someone motioned that the resolution be tabled till next fall, some members stated that they would keep their shops open as long as they wanted, whether the union agreed or not, and William Petillon and seven others resigned. The argument almost destroyed the Barbers’ Association, as the union was called, but the tumultuous meeting was somehow adjourned before the organization was completely disbanded. It is interesting to note that in 1877, just three years before this argument, there was a similar debate about whether barber shops could be open at all on Sundays. Only essential services were allowed to be open on this day of rest, but barbering was considered essential in the mornings because men of God needed to look clean-cut before going to church.

In addition to having world-renown barber shops, Chicago is also the place in which the first barbering college in the nation was founded. A. B. Moler opened the school in 1893, the same year as Chicago’s World’s Fair. At this time Chicago barbering was the state of the art and Moler’s Barber School, located at 283 S. Clark St., aimed to raise the standard even higher. To acquire students he ran ads in the classified section of the paper under the main heading of “Situation Wanted—Male” and the sub-heading of “Employment Agencies.” One ad read, “Men and boys – to learn barber trade; only 8 weeks required: new system. Call and see class, or write for catalogue.” Perhaps as important as founding the first school for barbers was Moler’s ability to generate material to teach in his school. In 1906, not long after his school opened, he published a book entitled The Barbers’, Hairdressers’ and Manicurers’ Manual. The book covered an amazing collection of topics and contained pictures of various barbering techniques and instruments. It is clear from this book that Moler was not training barbers to simply cut hair, but was interested in developing learned professionals with a large breadth of scientific and business knowledge. One chapter of his book was entitled, “The Manual on Barbering, Hairdressing, Manicuring, Facial Massage, Electrolysis and Chiropody,” and another section discussed singeing the hair to promote hair growth. In his book, and at his school, Moler frequently discussed proper cleanliness and sanitation techniques, and it is known that he not only talked these things, but he practiced what he preached. Three years after he opened his school, the state Commissioner of Health began an “anti-sweat shop and general hygiene and cleanliness crusade,” which targeted the “tenement housing and tailoring districts and even ice cream parlors where free samples were being handed out with potentially tainted ingredients.” The commissioner instructed the Chief Sanitary Inspector to visit Moler’s college because he had heard that one towel was being used on several people in a row. However, upon visiting the school, the inspector found that “even while giving huge volumes of shaves and haircuts, fresh towels and razors were used.”

Moler’s clean and sanitary practices were necessarily the general practice at every barber shop at this point in history however. In 1871, Mark Twain wrote a humor piece in a newspaper about going into a three-chair barber shop but never managing to get either of the two barbers he liked. Instead he always got the third barber no matter what kind of stalling or excuses he made. After writing the article, and making fun of the third barber and his practices, he went to Syracuse, NY and went to a barber shop there in order to get a shave before giving a lecture at the university. He did not realize, however, that the “slandered knights of the brush and lather” would recognize him. In retaliation, the dullest blade was used after only a little sharpening, and then lather put in his eyes, ears and nose. After the shave was completed the barber used a towel that was “as spotted as Joseph’s coat.”

Moler’s barber college had both successes and set-backs. In 1923, he was robbed of $700 [$8,829] after burglars entered his building via the skylight. Nonetheless, Moler’s business thrived and his son took over when A. B. Moler was found dead of heart disease in his hotel room at 666 S. State St. in 1928. One of Moler’s many influences on barbering was his early advocation of women in the barbering profession. The same year Moler’s college opened, an article noted alarmingly that they had visited “the Chicago College of Barbering and Hair Dressing” and that “men are learning to dress women’s hair and women are learning to shave men’s faces.” It’s “no wonder the thoughtful gasp breathlessly, ‘What is coming next?’” the article complained. The policy of accepting women into his school was unconventional for the time but worked out for Moler’s son, who married a graduate of the school. J. V. Moler was managing the school when his future wife, who “always loved cutting dolls hair” enrolled. The couple married and eventually started a shop together, located on 24 Busse St. in Mt. Prospect. One of their frequent customers was County Commissioner William Busse who would come in for a haircut and shave. When the WWII came around, Mrs. Lorraine Moler kept the shop open while her husband was at war. It is interesting to note from the newspaper articles how many barbers had fathers who were also barbers. It seems that barbering may be one of the most commonly passed down professions from father to son.

Today, all barbering schools can trace their curriculums back to A. B. Moler, and many in the area are direct descendents of Moler’s Chicago school. According to the American College of Hairstyling, “where tradition never goes out of style,” Moler franchised his business to several other entrepreneurs after starting his original school in Chicago. In 1899 a Moler Barber College in St. Louis opened, and in 1912 another college opened in Des Moines, Iowa. There is also a school in Kansas City whose origins go back to Moler’s Chicago school.

The Iowa college was a father and son operation like Moler’s in Chicago, and, although it has changed its name several times, it eventually settled on the American College of Hairstyling. Although a barbering license is still the goal of the students, the term barbering was dropped from the name because, as the website explains, “barbering” is the traditional term for the profession of haircutting, and “emphasizes the use of hair clippers for cutting dry hair, but does not exclude the techniques of wet haircutting and hairstyling.” “Hairstyling,” however, “refers to the major services performed by a hairstylist: hair coloring, shampooing, conditioning, wet hairstyling, haircutting, permanent waving, and the trimming and styling of facial hair. It also includes clipper cutting, shaving, massaging, and facial treatments.” In addition to this there is cosmetologists, which are trained at beauty schools “in the areas of cosmetic application, artificial wraps, esthetics, shampooing, permanent waving, artificial hair (wigs), hair coloring, hair straightening, facial makeup and treatments, and massage techniques.”

As of 1998 there were three barbering colleges in the city of Chicago; Moler’s, Cain’s Barber College and Styling School, and McCoy’s Barber College. McCoy’s graduates between 20 and 25 students a year and has a student waiting list of 10 months to a year.

All of these colleges require a substantial investment in both time and money, and maintain curriculums that give credit to Moler’s initial push to raise barbering from a trade into a full-fledged profession. At the American College of Hairstyling, students receive personalized instruction with an approximately 4 to 1 instructor to student ratio, and almost 75% of the time is dedicated to hair cutting technique and styling.

The chart Above shows the enormous range of topics covered which include, not only hair cutting, but also massage, hygiene, skin and scalp disease, and business management.

The cost of a barbering education is not cheap. The Master’s level degree, which takes about one full year to complete is $13,000, not including books and supplies. When Moler first opened his school he charged $600 tuition [$14,814] payable upon graduation. Today, in order to obtain a barbering license, the state requires the graduate of barbering school to pass theory and practice exam, and then complete a nine month apprenticeship under a licensed barber; a requirement which is waived if the applicant has been a military barber for two years. The state also requires at least two years of high school education, the applicant to be at least 16.5 years old, and be of “good moral character and temperate habits.”

At the New Wave barbering school, the students start cutting hair the first week, which means they need to find willing subjects. “That’s why we stay in poorer areas of the city, where there’s a lot of foot traffic,” states one instructor from the school. “We help the poor by giving them an inexpensive haircut, and they help us by giving our students practice. Besides, if we moved to the suburbs, we’d only be a cut rate barber shop—and we’re not that.” 1972, New Wave was charging $1 [$5.14] for children’s haircuts and $1.50 for adults. Traditionally, their busiest time was right before school started for kids in the Chicago Public School system.

Of all the instruction and practice that barbers have over the course of their education, perhaps the most important factor is the one Moler himself often stressed; a barbers demeanor. It is very important for barbers to remain affable towards their customers.  “You have to be a people person,” stated one barbering instructor who is also a salon owner in Billings, Montana. Another barber noted that his “customers are really, really nice people. Well, 99 percent of them anyway. And you have to be yourself all the time. Don’t put on a front; put a smile on your face and people will take to you. Our magazines may not always be up to date, but we make everyone feel welcome. And they keep coming back.” Part of the curriculum at all barber colleges is how to dress professionally and how to interact with customers in a friendly way.  They teach their students that “they should be a Republican and Democrat, Cubs and Sox fans, and generally affable.” One old-time barber recounts another secret of success which he learned from his father who was also a barber: be a good listener. “Lots of people talk about their personal lives,” states another barber. “Usually they say they heard this or that, or it happened to someone else, but I know they’re usually talking about themselves. They’ll ask for advice, and I’ll tell them what I think. Then they’ll come back and tell me how things turned out. They know I won’t talk about what they tell me to anyone. Most of the customers who come in here are sports-minded, so that’s what we usually talk about. If there was a Bears game on Sunday, someone will come in and analyze what the coach did. Or if there’s a presidential election going on, they’ll come in and talk about the candidates. I often disagree with what people say, but I try to remain impartial. Whether I like someone’s choice of a candidate or not, I want to keep him as a customer. I don’t want him to get mad at me and not come back. I used to try and win an argument, but once a customer brought me a little card that said, ‘The man who wins most of his arguments loses most of his friends.’ Since then I don’t argue. Why lose a customer just to say ‘I told you so?’” A salon-spa owner concurs, stating that what keeps customers coming back is “a thorough welcoming at the reception desk and a confident listener.” The Highland Park spa director says he “realizes the client is paying for his time and he therefore rarely discusses his life or his career unless the client asks him to.” “A stylist should be there for you, to talk about you. And frankly, the higher a price is, the higher the client’s expectations are.” Being friendly and a good listener results in a “curious point about barbers, they have so many friends.”

One of the longest chapters in the history of Chicago barbers, and perhaps one of its most dismal, is that of the union era, which lasted from about 1870 to 1971. As already seen in the discussion of prices and price setting, there were really two Chicago barbering unions, one for the “boss barbers,” and one for the journeymen. While the desire to avoid mutually destructive competition and raise wages was probably the logic and intent which led to the founding of the union, the union eventually began to be subverted from both within and without, as tends to be the case with all organizations managed by men. A few barbers realized that if they alone operated outside of the union, they could reduce their prices and do a lot of volume because of their near monopoly on low priced haircuts. At the same time, those in the union realized that their scheme only worked if they remained united and that the discount barbers were actually profiting off the union without paying dues. Even worse, the non-union barbers were encouraging the break-up of the union itself which would hurt everyone.

In order to prevent discount barbers from operating, the union resorted to underhanded practices and violence. One target of this violence was a discount barber named Jake Patz, who operated a large 17 chair shop at 26 E. 113th St., and simply rented out his chairs and equipment to nonunion barbers instead of granting them a typical union wage structure. He had had been operating outside the union since a court injunction gave him permission to do so in 1935. In that same year, some thugs almost certainly associated with the unions threw an acid bomb through the glass door of Patz’s shop severely burning one barber in the eye. Several years later, in 1962, some more goons showed up at the shop, this time at around 5:30 in the morning. They bore a hole in the concrete in front of the shop and inserted a bomb whose blast was so large that it blew out the windows of the shop across the street and in other buildings nearby. After the bomb was detonated, a high speed chase ensued between the cops and the car containing the bombers, but the cops lost sight of the vehicle and its occupants escaped.

Intimidation tactics such as those used on Patz were not an uncommon practice for Chicago’s barbering union. On the milder side, the police were called out to Joseph Rice’s barber shop in the Maxwell St. area, when several members of the union stood outside his shop and shouted at him after they had left a union meeting attended by about 1,000 people. In a much more terrorizing case, two men broke into a shop at 2003 Sedgwick and put a gun to the owner’s ribs and stated, “You know what this is for.” The men proceeded to break the mirrors, slash the chairs and empty the cash register. The owner of the barber shop was charging only $.35 for a haircut, when the 1940 union rate was $.75. The shop owner stated that, in the end, “we obeyed their orders [to uphold the union prices]. What else could we do?” He explained to a reporter that he charged a lower rate because, “most of my clients are on relief and can’t pay more,” and that, “I’m keeping my own family off the relief rolls.” Occasionally, one of the union’s hooligans would get caught, as was the case of Anthony Mastronardi. As it turned out, he was the business agent for Local 576 of the barbers union and was fined $500 for harassing a non-union shop. When delivering the sentence, the judge told him: “I’m letting you off easy. If I ever again hear of you threatening people you are going to be incarcerated.” In the summer of 1959, Frank Aliotta, the bow-tie wearing secretary-treasurer of the Master Barbers’ Association, told a Senate committee which was investigating racketeering and the underworld, that the union had spent “almost a quarter of a million dollars in nine years to hire ‘special investigators,’ most of whom have police records.” These, he said, promoted “peace and harmony” in the barber shop business.

The front page news these revelations made did not seem change the union’s tactics. The very next summer, in 1960, barbers in suburban Woodstock were receiving death threats against their family members if they did not agree to join the union. Again, Frank Aliotta spoke in terms more appropriate for Woodstock, NY, not Woodstock, IL.  “We are trying to promote peace and harmony in Woodstock barber shops,” he said. “Someone called us a month ago and complained about conditions in the shops out there. We haven’t threatened anybody. The Woodstock barbers don’t have to join our association if they don’t want to.” The statement can be read in a number of ways.

In the end, what ultimately led to the downfall of the union was not the barbers who refused to join, or congressional investigations, but internal corruption. The union had long collected dues from its members and in return, engaged in small amounts of advertising, acted as a spokesman for the union’s policies, provided life-insurance to its members, and possibly also a pension. The amount of money collected in dues from individual members was not large, but given the size of the union and the length of time it had been around, the money began to add up. One union member complained in 1969 that, “we pay $6 a month union dues, but the only benefits is a $500 [$2,935] death benefit.” The total number of members at this time is hard to come by, but in 1946 there were 3,500 members of the Master Barbers’ association, and 4,500 members of the Journeymen Barbers’ union. With few benefits being paid out to union members, the union had a surplus of cash and very little oversight; a bad combination. The easy access to money led some of the signatories of the union’s account to loan some of the money out to various friends and business partners. In exchange, those responsible for arranging the loans received kickbacks from the people receiving them. In total, over $14 million in loans were arranged by some of the managers of the union’s fund. Basically, the barbers pension fund was being operated like a poorly run bank, in which loans were approved, not because of their low level of risk, but because the person receiving the loans were willing to provide money under the table for favorable terms.

The scheme came crashing down in October of 1971 when Joseph D. DePaola, the president of the Journeymen Barbers Union and chairman of its pension fund, Max Block, Jr., a NY attorney and financial consultant to the union, and Thomas A. Shaheen Jr, a pension aide for the union, were all indicted on multiple counts of financial misconduct. De Paola alone faced 14 separate counts, including one for having received a $10,000 kickback for approving a loan from the fund. One of the loans was to a man who borrowed more then $90,000 in order to finance a resort in Vermont. His partners in the resort just happened to included DePaola, Block, and Shaheen. The truth however turned out to be even more sordid; the money wasn’t even used for a resort, but was used to build a home for DePaola.

After being arrested, DePaola, age 64, posted bail and then went to London but later surrendered to authorities in Miami. He ended up pleading innocent, then changed his plea to guilty, and was given one year in jail. The judge said that he was a “minor figure for a major con man,” that con man being Shaheen, who had also fled to London but did not return to the U.S. for trial like DePaola did. Instead, after posting bail, Shaheen went to London, and then to Rome, where he lived for a time in the Ambassador Hotel where he incurred a bill that ran more then $1,200 a week [$4,537]. When Shaheen, age 38, missed his court date, he sent a 14 page telegram to federal judge Richard B. Austin explaining why he had jumped bail and was living in Lebanon. He was there, “not to flee prosecution but to protect against persecution.” It was not because he was free from extradition there, or because the six days he had already spent in jail were “terrifying,” in his words. Shaheen also stated that he needed time to raise money for his defense, which might have been true since he hired the nationally known defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey; an attorney who later helped defend O.J. Simpson. What Shaheen did not say was that he had filed for bankruptcy five years before his arrest, at which time he claimed over $5 million in debts and only $769 in assets, but that his Swiss bank account was rumored to contain $7 million at the time of his flight from the US. The judge said that Shaheen was “thumbing his nose” at the country and issued a warrant for his arrest although he recognized that it was a “very futile gesture.”

Perhaps the worst part of the story is that Shaheen’s flight could have easily been prevented. When Shaheen was originally arrested, his bond was set at $125,000 [$664,342] which his lawyer succeeded in getting reduced down to $50,000. However, since he was already in jail, the IRS took the opportunity to add an additional $400,000 to his bond for several years of unpaid income taxes. Shaheen, however, appealed this, and a three person US Court of Appeals ruled that he did not have to pay the extra amount for back taxes. They then reduced his bond back to $50,000, and then proceeded to make it even easier for him to flee by reinstating his passport which the original bond judge had suspended. Ultimately only DePaola served time, Shaheen escaped and Max Block, Jr., was found innocent of arranging the loans.

Chapter Three / Salons and the State of Barbering Today

It used to be that men went to barber shops and women went to beauty parlors—it was that simple. Today however, the hairstyling industry has changed. First, there is now three main business models instead of two, like there used to be. The traditional barber shop serving only men still exists, but salons now serve men as well as women. In addition, there are also large chain haircutting establishments which serve both men and women.

The unisex chains are a sign of the times. Sole-proprietor businesses have rapidly diminished in many sectors of retailing, and barbering has not been immune to this trend. Just as Wal-Mart has put many “mom-and-pop” stores out of business, the Minnesota-based Regis Corp, which owns Supercuts, has put many individually-owned barber shops out of business. As of 1999, Regis Corp. had 510 salons within Wal-Mart stores alone. In the same year, Regis purchased The Barbers Corp. for $58.7 million, creating the largest hair cutting retailer in the country. The combined corporation had 3,600 stores in 1999 and was expected to produce $1.5 billion in revenue in 2000. Regis brands include City Looks, We Care Hair, Cost Cutters, and Supercuts. Second in size to Regis Corp. is Great Clips, another Minnesota based chain which had over 1,100 stores in 1998 and generated about $200 million in revenue. These chains are not only bad for the barbershop owners whom they put out of business, they are also bad for the barbers they hire to work at their chains. Wages are low within these establishments and the motivation to develop a loyal clientele is significantly reduced since additional business generates greater profits for the share holders but just more work for the barber; although it is true that the barber can expect an increase in tips.

One reason why customers go to these chain stores is obviously price. But there is also another important factor that has helped these chains grow, and that is convenience. These chains offer walk in service with short wait times, and will cut the whole family’s hair in one place. A mother can go shopping, and then get her haircut, and her children’s hair cut, all in a relatively quick and cheap manner, without having to go to multiple locations; the grocery store or department store is often within the same shopping plaza. This convenience eliminates the need to go to multiple stores in different locations and adds another incentive in addition to price, to go to chain shops.

Full-service salons, like chain stores, have adapted to the busy life-style of today’s Americans by finding ways to make purchasing styling services convenient. While salons are much pricier then the no-frills chains, many salons now offer a larger array of services so that their customers don’t have to go to different shops for different services. One can now receive, not just a haircut and perm, but also a manicure, body massage, facial, and hair coloring, all in the same place. One male salon owner in Deerfield says that his predominately female clients do not have time to run everywhere for different services. Carrie Lannon, the Midwest image coordinator for Glemby agrees. “It’s become more a business of catering to lifestyles than of simply servicing a customer for a haircut,” she says. “Now you basically take your pick between no-frills simple haircut stuff, or a full service salon with all the services. One salon in Crystal Lake even allows you to “try on” different hairstyles and colors using a computer visualization program so you do not have to wait till your hair grows out to try a different color or length.

Salon patrons also like to go to salons for the simple reason that when they look good, they feel good, and while there will be many changes within the hair-care industry in the future, this will not be one of them.

One of the most important trends effecting barber shops today is that more and more men are now going to full-service salons. Barber shops are therefore losing customers, not only to the no-frills chain stores, but also to the full-service salons. Part of the reason for this shift is a change to the legal code concerning salons. Until 1974, Illinois statue prohibited men from going to salons for a haircut, unless the salon had a separate entrance for men and a separate section for them to sit. Many other states and cities had similar laws. Just like girls used to sneak into barber shops in the 1920s to get “bobs,” men used to “come in the back door before the place opened, or late at night,” if they wanted to get their hair done in a salon. And after it became legally allowed, it started to become socially accepted.

So who are these new male salon clients? “Two thirds are 20 to 49,” states Modern Salon, an industry trade magazine which carried out a study on the subject. They found that 1 in 5 male clients are between 20 to 34. Generally speaking, male salon clients are young professionals. There has been a perception that male salon clients are gay, but this is disputed by the hairdressers and clients themselves. One male hairdresser stated during an interview with a reporter that; “Some people feel that all men who go to a beauty salon are…well…” “Gay?,” the reporter offered, “Yeah. But that’s just a form of ignorance,” the hairdresser replied. One male salon patron who is a lawyer stated that “everyone assumes you’re either gay or a singles-bar hopper. I’m neither. I’m the epitome of the Midwestern ethic of hard work. Hell, you got to pay for this stuff.”

One factor that leads men to get their haircut at a salon is that they are image conscious; something their salon stylists understand very well. “Just like women, men want to look good too,” states one male stylist. “It’s more hair care than haircut.” A male salon client agrees, saying that he gets his haircut at a salon because his job in sales is very competitive and also because he’s often in the public eye so he wants to look his best. Judy Lucus, a cosmetologist at The Hair Loft on 14 E. Pearson St., and owner of the consulting firm Beauty By Design, defines her job in terms of her customers desires: “Being a cosmetologist means being a salesperson. You’re selling people on a certain look or an image that they want to project.” Another industry expert, John Amico, a Chicagoan who founded the 250-store Hair Performers salon chain, stated that he does not “believe that people come in for a haircut; they come in for a statement.”

As men began going to salons to get their hair done, salons began adapting themselves to attract more male clientele. Between 1975 and 1985 salons made a large number of changes including removing pink chairs, flowered wallpaper, shag carpets, old cans of formaldehyde-smelling hair spray, rubber rollers, plastic window curtains, frills and lace, shadowed lighting, perfumed air, and they even changed their magazine subscriptions. Salons even changed their names to better attract male clients. According to a survey conducted in 1981 by Modern Salon, “1 in 5 salons have changed their name in the last two years. Additionally, 32% of salons that planned to remodel in 1981 planned to do so in response to their changing clientele. One of the key strengths of salons since the mid-1970s has been their keen awareness of industry trends and their ability to adapt to them. Barber shops, possibly due to the stupor they were under during the union era, have generally proved much less agile, at least until recently.

The strategic changes salons made in order to gain male customers paid off well for them. In 1985, sixty percent of salons served both men and women; a number which is probably nearer to 100% today. Additionally, the percentage of revenue which these male clients represented for these salons has also gone up. In 1981 men accounted for 36% of a typical salons business, a number that had quadrupled from just four years earlier. Men were also starting to not only get their hair styled but to also purchase “manicures, pedicures, perms, hair streaking and coloring, facials, and even cosmetic makeovers.”

While salons changed in order to make men comfortable, their existing female clientele has also had to make adjustments. “I was a little uncomfortable at first,” stated Nancy Elliot, a commodities broker, “I didn’t like [men] to see me getting a perm, but once I started seeing rods in their hair…The more you see them, they just become one of the girls.”

Another reason why men started going to salons, is that while the law changed to allow them to do this, it left open a legal loop-hole which allowed them to be charged less then women. In 1998 only California and New York City had laws preventing price discrimination based on gender. While shops have argued that women’s haircuts are “always more involved,” and that pricing is based on the experience of the stylist, the price disparity can be high. One women in a North Shore salon was charged $70 for her “maintenance haircut” while the man sitting next to her paid only $40 for a complete change in hairstyle, which included his long hair getting shortened considerably, then layered and finally blow-dried. Lorraine Korman, of American Salon magazine, says there are two main reasons for the price disparity. The first is “a historical holdover from men going to the barber shop and getting a trim while women got their hair done in a very labor-intensive way on a weekly basis. That’s changed, but prices haven’t in every case.” The other reason is “the subjective nature of pricing…with some stylists demanding higher prices than others due to expertise and experience.”

Michael H. Ross, publisher of “Modern Salon” cites yet another important reason for the changing nature of the hair styling industry. “The industry began changing in the mid-1970s as more women entered the work force,” he states. More women in the work force resulted in women having both the income and the need to get their hair done often. Salons saw a corresponding increase in business and began to flourish. Also, as result of more women working, the average American family became busier, which helped the convenient unisex chain shops as well.

Ironically, one of places women started to work in was barber shops. A. B. Moler himself promoted women becoming barbers, but there were not large numbers of female barbers until long after he passed away. In 1952 there were only fifteen women in the Master Barbers’ Association of Chicago, but in 1985, in a class of six graduating barbers, five were women and only one male. By 2004, about half of 220,000 barbers in the country were women.

Women often chose to become barbers because the hours are better in a barber shop then in a salon. One of the toughest parts about being a barber, or a stylist, is having to stand for hours without being able to take a break, even for lunch. But most barber don’t have to work late Friday and Saturday nights, or wear all black, as some salon do.

One problem a female barber can run into is that some men don’t want women cutting their hair, let alone giving them a straight-razor shave. “I don’t trust a woman,” declared one barber shop patron when asked if he would let a women cut his hair. Another joked that he had heard about Delilah. This attitude, however, is not universal among men. Some men like having their hair cut by a woman. The author of one article, written in 1879, admitted experiencing some secret pleasure at having a young woman, around 26 years of age, give him a shave. He notes with appreciation the “elegance of her figure” but then has visions of Judith, the Jewish hero from the Book of Judith who saves her people by ingeniously gaining access to the tent of the enemy’s champion fighter and then cutting off his head while he slept. Other men are much less conflicted about having female hair stylists. “Look at the advantages of coming here,” stated one man when interviewed at a salon. He then turns “to focus on a blond in white pants, white sweater, and high heels,” stating, “You don’t get scenery like that in a barber shop.” While a woman will typically make less in barber shops then in a salon, “a girl’s gonna get more customers than a guy barber, especially if she’s voluptuous, if you know what I mean,” one barber stated. As another barber summarized, in the end, it all boils down to personal preference; “Some men like to go to women because they’re women, and some prefer going to a man. And then there are those who don’t care as long as they get (the look) they want.”

Whether or not men like getting their haircut by women, it is an indisputable reality that they get it cut for women, at least some of the time. One’s hairstyle is meant to express one’s personality, attractiveness, attitudes, and accomplishments. “In most every other culture,” states one pundit, “people have performed elaborate acts in search of the hairstyle that proclaims, ‘I am somebody.’ They have sculpted it, curled it, ignored it, adorned it, shaved it, replaced it, faked it and generally manipulated it with impunity. As a result, hair through the ages has had not only social significance but also occupational, military, political, sexual and even religious significance. In ancient Persian society the beard was a sign of wisdom, and more recently, letting one’s locks grow long symbolized identifying with the hippie movement.

Unfortunately, barbers can mostly just respond to haircut trends rather then create them, and the long hair-styles of the 60’s and 70’s was one of the major contributing factors to the decline of barbering. “We lost half the barbers in the state of Illinois when long hair became the style,” states one barber who has been in the business for decades. “Before the Beatles I had customers who’d come in every Saturday for a trim, every two weeks at the most. Then they went to six, eight and ten weeks. Barber shops rely on repeat business,” he stated, and “on building relationships with customers. The long hair hurt us, and most of the one- and two-chair shops went under.” Another barber states that he saw “first-hand how barbering has changed dramatically over the years…Seems like business went to pot when the long hair came in.” “Here in Richmond, there used to be three shops in town, and now I’m the only one left.” In Lake Forest, one barber in 1971 estimated that the long hair trend had cut into his business by 25% with college students only getting a trim once a semester.

In the musical Hair, one character rejects his “tribe,” by refusing to dodge the draft, and instead gets a short haircut and joins the military. However, he dies in the end, leading the audience to a Freudian conclusion that short hair equal death. Long hair, on the other hand, is apparently sexually attractive, and can therefore represent Freud’s “life instinct,” as opposed to his “death instinct.” Repunzel got a date by letting her hair grow long, and so did Samson, although it cannot be said that he lived happily ever after.

Sy Sperling, the founder of the Hair Club for Men, states that he thinks the reason men like to have hair is the “same reason that they like nude women…They think it’s sexually attractive.” Sperling had gone through a divorce and recalled that “When I re-entered the singles scene, I felt a lack of self-confidence…Hairpieces I ruled out because I didn’t like the idea that I’d have to remove my hair. I didn’t want to be with somebody intimately and have to say, ‘Excuse me, I have to get my hair. It’s in the bathroom.’ ” In searching for a better solution he discovered the inventor of the process used by the Hair Club for Men. For $2,000 to $3,300 [$6,006] his clients can get real hair, purchased from India, anchored to their head via their own side hair.

For some people, this may prove to better option then monoxidil, the only hair re-growth product approved by the FDA and sold as Rogaine by Upjohn. Upjohn claims that eight percent of men experience thick new hair growth and thirty-one percent experience some new hair growth, but Consumer Reports found that Upjohn did not test men over 49 year of age, or men with large areas of baldness, both of which would make the success rate much lower. In 1988, a one month supply of Rogaine went for $60 [$109]. Apparently, the Hair Club process worked for Sperling; as he likes to say, “I’m not only the president, but I’m also a client.”

While barbers have been hurt by balding and the long hair trend, the pendulum of style usually swings back toward short haircuts eventually. “Kids want cuts opposite of adults, just to be rebellious,” says one old-time barber, who has been billed as a “virtual hair historian.” Another barber notes how “guys…were getting flattop haircuts in 1957, and they’re still getting flattops. Now you got kids coming in and asking for a spike haircut . You know what a spike is? It’s a flattop with a different name”

Age is definitely a major factor when considering the impact of trends on hairstyle and the business of hairstyling. “It’s mostly the younger group that wants the crazy styles,” states one barber. “The older group goes with the more traditional haircuts, they still come in and say, ‘Take some off the sides and some off the top.’ I have to be flexible to keep up with the young ones. They know what they want, and they know when they don’t have it.”  Besides age, there is also regions of the city which are less influenced by trends. In 1972, a time not known for short hair, a Moler Barber College employee stated that “when you go to the financial areas and other places where businessmen are, you rarely see long hair. Maybe longer sideburns, but that’s about it.” Depending on the age of a barber’s clients and the location of his shop, he may be more or less effected by trends toward long hair.

There have also been short haircut trends. In 1987 there was a phenomenon known as “Olliemania” in the barbering world, after Lt. Col. Oliver North was indicted for illegally selling arms to the contras in South America in an attempt to release hostages in Iran. North had a large degree of public support and became an icon for the all-American male. One shop in St. Louis put up red, white, and blue bunting, and a poster which read, “Get your Ollie North cut today!” A picture of North showed what the customer would receive and the shop got 8 to 12 appointments a day for the short-haired look. One shop in Tinley Park could not report quite as many sales, but still said people would sit down and say, “gimme an Ollie North.” One barber stated that the “Ollie North” is really nothing new, “it has just been on vacation  since the ‘50s.”

Because of the changes in hair styles and the law, barber shops have experienced serious challenges to the very viability of their business model. The triple threat of chain shops, unisex hair salons, and the long-hair fad, required barbers to innovate or die, and, unfortunately, many were forced to close up shop. While salons were changing their shops to attract the men they could now legally serve after 1974, barber shops, in general, did nothing. According to the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation, the number of licensed barbers in the state steadily declined from 13,803 in 1973; to only 7,397 in 1991; 7,068 in 1994; and then to 6,283 in 1998. In 1985, Michael H. Ross, publisher of “Modern Salon,” stated that “more than 60,000 ‘mom and pop’ shops have folded in the last 10 years.” The reason, he says, is “largely because they didn’t cater to people’s changing needs.”

Many of the barber shops which do exist are run by older barbers. Fifty percent of today’s 180,600 licensed barbers are 60 or older, states Edwin Jeffers, the executive director of the National Association of Barber Boards, located in Columbus, Ohio. Nationally, the number of barbers has fallen by a full 50% in the 20 years since 1994, and many of the current barbers, operate one-chair shops, “so when they go, the store goes with them.”

Both men and women interested in a career in hair styling now usually get a cosmetology license rather then a barbering license. “These days both men and women are getting a beauticians license,” states one barber. “If you ask, ‘what’s the difference between a beautician and a barber?’ About 10 bucks a haircut. Moler’s Barber College has seen enrollment decline. “Everyone wants to be a stylist these days,” states the manager of the school.

Cosmetologists are trained in a broader range of skills and generally earn more money. In 1986, the starting salary for a cosmologist was between $12,000 to $15,000 [$29,500] a year, with top salaries ranging from $40,000 to $60,000 [$118,000]. Chicago topped the list with the highest paid stylists making 30,861 [$60,624], compared to their West Coast counter-parts in Los Angeles making $29,134, and $27,134 on the east coast in Atlantic City. Most graduating cosmologists prefer working at places that are larger then the typical barber shop because the larger salons can usually guarantee a set wage on top of commission, are better managed, and have more partners. There are also a much larger number of salons to work at then barber shops. In 1996 there were 210,000 hair salons but only 41,340 barber shops in the US. As one newspaper writer put it “Without splitting hairs, cosmetology is a profession to dye for.”

Despite all the sobering statistics, predictions that the barber shop as we know it will soon disappear are probably inaccurate. “I give it 20 years and probably less,” states Herdie Sykes, secretary treasurer of Barbers’ Union Local 939, which represents about 700 mostly African-American Chicago-area barbers. “I think most of these guys are not capable of staying around because they’re not informed enough. If a cosmetologist can do men’s and women’s hair, doesn’t it make sense that there wouldn’t be a need for the barbershop?” Another newspaper writer states that, “like it or not, your corner barber shop appears headed the way of the buggy-whip and black and white television.

The reason these predictions may prove to be inaccurate is that, some barber shops, having rested on their laurels long enough, have started to adapt to the current market place and have re-invigorated the traditional male barber shop. One such barber shop is American Male in the River North area, which advertises itself as a “new barbering experience.” The shop offers a full line of services, including hair coloring, massages, facials, manicures, and pedicures, but in order to make them seem less feminine the services have been given masculine names. Hair dyeing to conceal gray is called “camouflaging,” and manicures and pedicures go by the euphemism “detailing.”  In order to make an appointment over the phone, one must give the receptionist credit card number so they can charge the patron if the appointment is missed. When a customer does show up, he is immediately offered a cold Amstel Light or Heineken and seated in a large black leather chair amidst framed sports jerseys hanging on exposed brick walls. “Everything we do is to create that comfortable fit for a guy,” states the manager. “Nothing’s overly done, it’s not a sports bar,” he lies. American Male is not a sole-proprietorship however. It is owned by Raylon which owns brands such as L’Oreal, and the shop is one of over a dozen nationwide. In this sense, the store is trying to revive the male barber shop, but is really just a high-priced chain. It is not exactly working to elevate the art of barbering either; all of the stylists are women, although the manager states that he intends to hire a male to do shaves.

Another barber shop which has adapted to the times is Guise on 2217 N. Halsted St. Like American Male, Guise also serves free beer. Each of its three barber chairs face their own flat-screen TV. In 2006, they charged up to $45 ($48) a haircut. “What appealed to me about this place is it’s more masculine,” stated one customer, “It’s less pretentious. I can get all the services but I don’t feel like I’m in a frou-frou salon.” Another shop, 316 Club on 175 W. Jackson Blvd., has also tried to go beyond the classic, but dingy, barber shop. Instead, 316 Club caters to the metrosexual set. It has sports memorabilia on the wall and free drinks but Dean Martin and Sinatra on the radio, which tends to clash. However, if you need a chest, back, or neck waxing, you can get it here for between $15 and $55. Haircuts in 2006 were $50 ($53).

Although not strictly a barber shop, Renovo at 5641 W. Dempster Ave. in Morton Grove may be on the absolute cutting edge of the industry. Renovo is a full service spa which provides all the services of a typical salon but also offers laser hair removal, Botox, and teeth whitening. If you become a member of Club Renovo you also get access to their cigar lounge, which contains private liquor cabinets, flat-screen TVs, a conference room, and complimentary food. Members also receive 10% off all services.

Innovations in the industry have not been limited to Chicago. The Art of Shaving in New York City has gotten into the act by providing a cultured and luxurious atmosphere. The shop is decorated with “silky yellow walls, ruby and gold drapes, Persian carpet, leather bench and antique barber chair.” Opera music softly plays in the background and one’s sense of smell is enticed with the aroma of sandalwood, mahogany and cloves. Originally the shop exclusively offered straight-razor shaves, but within six months of opening their first location the owners opened a second store with room for a barber. They first realized the demand for high-quality barbering services was huge, when, as part of a week-long promotion, they flew in a barber from London–one who serves the British Royal family–to provide what they now call their “Royal Shave.” “The line was out the door. It was unbelievable,” recalls co-owner Myriam Zaoui, a Parisian aroma-therapist who also concocts the company’s all-natural product line. “Men need more than a cold, black-and-white tiled barbershop, but they’re not about to walk into a women’s spa,” he says. “We wanted to create an environment that was relaxing, warm and totally male.”

As many shops have learned, environment is one of the most important keys to providing a good barbering experience. The problem is that some people have different opinions of what a good environment means. To some, it is a lack of candor between the barber and his subject. One male salon patron states that, he likes the atmosphere in a salon because “it’s more relaxed and I don’t have to sit around all day listening to guys talking about (nothing).” But that’s precisely what women do, thinks Kirk Merchant, founder of Truefitt & Hill on the Magnificent Mile. “Women go to the salon to catch up on the gossip,” he says. “Men come here for relaxation. That’s what I sell here-relaxation.” Another long-time barbering professional stated that his shop offers “people a place to relax and forget their problems for a little while.” Customers appreciate the atmosphere, especially long-time customers. “I’ve been coming here for 13 years,” states one patron, and “…there’s a comfort zone. I don’t have to explain to Ken how I like my hair cut. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

Consistency is another important key. If the patron knows he will get a good haircut every time, he can relax and not worry about whether the barber is doing a good job. “I’ve been to a salon a few times, and you get someone different every time,” states one customer. “Dave is consistent, and I never have to tell him how I’d like my hair cut. I’ve been coming here since Dave opened his doors.” A relaxing atmosphere and a consistent haircut over a number of years are both products that the chain stores simply cannot offer. But barber shops must magnify these positive qualities of providing excellent service in a relaxing environment. If they do, they will be paid handsomely, if not, they will cease to exist.

Chapter Four / Truefitt & Hill and the Resurgence of Chicago Barbering

“Today, nobody opens a full-service barber shop, especially not on North Michigan Avenue,” stated Kirk Merchant in 1984—he had just opened the full-service barber shop Truefitt & Hill at 900 North Michigan Ave. “Hair-styling, yes, but not barber shops.” At the time, salons were sprouting up everywhere and barber shops were closing just as rapidly. The very existence of barber shops in the future looked questionable. Yet, the near-death of barbering offered the perfect opportunity to resurrect Chicago’s tradition of first-class barbering offered in luxurious surroundings. Truefitt & Hill’s antique leather barbering chairs, hardwood floors, and hunter-green silk wall-paper, are reminiscent of Chicago former high-class shops, and its offerings of tea, coffee, and crumpets, hearken back even further. The shop’s origins date all the way back to 1805, when William Francis Truefitt opened his shop in London and began making wigs for King George III. This makes Truefitt & Hill the oldest continually operating barber shop in the world; a record verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. The shops reputation eventually grew to become an integral part of London’s high-society. The wealthy and well-bred gentlemen of London’s West End received their haircuts at Truefitt and would also purchase grooming items at their retail counter. One of these purchases, a jar of pomade, was found by divers exploring the wreckage of the Titanic.

Over the years Truefitt & Hill has had many notable regular customers including members of The Royal Family for the past nine reigns, as well as literary, political, and artistic figures such as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, William Thackeray, Sir Winston Churchill, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Charles Dickens, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock. “Never…have our American visitors, of the male gender,” wrote Charles Dickens, in All the Year Round, “had a real…tonsorial parlour where they can get ‘a dandy haircut and other due fixings’—at their command. It has remained to Messrs. H.P. Truefitt, of Old Bond Street to supply this void in our civilization, and after the usual manner and custom of the celebrated firm, they have done it right well.” “All good Americans,” he continued, “when they die are said to go to Paris; but all good Americans come to London first, and I’m sure all good Americans who come to London will go to Messrs. H.P. Truefitt’s new saloon, there to luxuriate in tonsorial attentions…they are world-renowned—conditions”

Kirk Merchant’s shop in Chicago continues Truefitt’s tradition of barber excellence, combining both the distilled wisdom of English barbers and Chicago’s eminent tradition of luxury and service. Merchant went to barbering school after being discharged from the Navy in 1973. “I was discouraged by many who were in, and had gotten out, of barbering,” he said. “They questioned whether I should be getting into a field at which they found they couldn’t make a living.” Merchant’s first job was in a two chair shop in Danville, Indiana, near where he grew up in Fort Wayne. After honing his skills there, he moved to Chicago and was hired as the fifth barber in the nine chair barber shop located in the Drake Hotel. Nine years later he owned the shop. The Drake’s barber shop was the oldest operating hotel-shop in Chicago, going back to 1920. Having acquired ownership, Merchant went about renovating it. The hotel’s owner, Hilton International, originally wanted to close the shop in 1981 when they were renovating the rest of the hotel, but Merchant and his friends –and good barbers have many–succeeded in saving it. Hilton’s management rejected the first five proposals created by Merchant, and his customers-friends, which included a lawyer, an interior designer, an architect and a millworker, but in 1981, the company accepted his sixth plan and agreed to sell Merchant the shop and lease him a space for it inside the hotel.

Having saved one center of barbering tradition, Merchant went on to establish another. In 1984 he opened Truefitt & Hill on the Magnificent Mile, the heart of Chicago’s high-class shopping district. “This is a barber shop that specializes in service for men,” stated Merchant, discussing Truefitt & Hill. Another Truefitt employee agrees, “I hate the word unisex,” he states, “It’s not even a real word. What man wants to have his nose hairs clipped sitting side by side to a woman? Men need privacy and a place that caters to them. They don’t want to walk into a room that smells of perfumes or chemicals from dyes and perms.” Merchant says that if you “walk into a unisex salon and ask for a hot shave and they’ll say, ‘It’s $2.50,’ hand you a razor and tell you to go over to the sink.” Not at Truefitt, however. The shop specializes in providing men with the very best barbering services available. The shop also offers shoe-shines, and pedicures and manicures in a discreetly screened environment. All services are provided by professionals. “There’s none of this slam, bang and you’re out of the chair in 5 or 10 minutes, which is the treatment some shops give people these days,” states Frank Beard of London’s Truefitt. “We don’t need gimmicks, Truefitt & Hill is a one-of-a-kind salon. There’s no other like it.”

Truefitt & Hill also offers their own extensive line of all-natural soaps, shaving creams, and shaving instruments such as a $99 razor or $69 badger hair shave brush and their line of grooming products also reflects the company’s ability to remain traditional while at the same staying modern. And the knowledgeable sales staff can explain the best way to utilize the products. For example, if one wants the best shave possible “apply heat to open the pores and soften the beard, making it easier to shave.” Then “apply a presage oil — such as King of Shave’s Blue Shaving Oil, made with vitamin E, aloe-Vera and tea tree oil, which preps the skin and the hair.” Next, lather on a highly emollient shaving cream, soap or gel such as Truefitt’s Glycerin Lime Oil Shaving Soap. Once the shave is completed, a naturally scented after-shave can be applied. “Men want all-natural ingredients too,” states one Truefitt manager. “It’s a different grooming attitude.”

Kirk Merchant, and his family who continues to run the shop, have understood that today, barbering is different then it once was. Barbering in Chicago has come full circle; from an art form practiced in the most luxurious surrounding, to nearly dying out, and then back again. The greatness of Chicago barbering was almost lost, but has now been resurrected and even refined. Barbering in Chicago has now regained its rightful place as a refined and highly trained profession which draws on centuries of tradition. Today, Chicago’s barbering heritage continues to thrive as both customers and barbers come to understand that, in the words of one Truefitt & Hill manager, “clothes alone don’t dress the man anymore.”