Today’s guest post is authored by Sean Trainor, a historian of the early American republic with an interest in the intersection of labor, popular culture, and the body. He is a PhD candidate in History and Women’s Studies and Pennsylvania State University, where his dissertation examines the history of men’s grooming in the urban United States between the turn of the nineteenth century and the American Civil War.
A few weeks ago, I finished compiling a database, long in the works, containing the names and addresses of all of the barbers in the cities of Boston, Cincinnati, and New Orleans between 1800 and 1860. Thrilling, I know, but the project has broader implications for historians interested in the intersection of quantitative and cultural history which, if you’ll bear with a brief exposition, I’ll discuss below.
My goal for the database: to compare the number of barbers in each of these cities with their total populations over time. My hope: to find a declining trend line in each locale, suggesting a nationwide decline in demand for barbers’ services. Such a finding, I believed, would help substantiate some of the biggest claims of my study of men’s grooming in the nineteenth-century U.S.: that the barbershop was in decline between 1800 and 1860, victim to American men’s growing fondness for hirsute chins, a swelling anxiety among white customers regarding barbershops’ black proprietors, and the increasing availability of cheap razors and other grooming tools.
In typical fashion, however, history proved far messier. While the number of barbers relative to the populations they served declined fairly consistently between 1800 and 1840, the same figure increased dramatically over the next twenty years. Indeed, at the very moment when American men were ostensibly “fling[ing] away the razor,” as one disgruntled shaver put it, and abandoning the barbershop for good, demand for barbers’ services actually seems to have increased.
What was going on? Perhaps the apparent discrepancy had something to do with the rococo facial hair stylings of the 1840s, 50s, and 60s. While an average man might learn to shave himself with a modicum of safety and comfort—even using a dangerous nineteenth-century straight razor—he would have struggled to maintain a waxed, well-coifed ‘imperial’ or sculpt his hair after the fashion of Union General Ambrose E. Burnside. No doubt many of these men turned to tonsorial professionals for help.
Strangely enough, this resurgence failed to register in the realm of public discourse. An anonymous writer in an 1860 issue of The Albion, for instance, spoke for many when he declared “[h]ow are the barbers fallen! … [T]he red and white pole is as scarce as good Madiera”—a casualty of “the present generation,” who had “ruin[ed] the barber’s trade by selfishly shaving themselves.”
Why did the growing demand for barbers’ services fail to register culturally? Why the persistent myth of tonsorial decline? Most likely because the men who did the bulk of shaving, waxing, and curling in the 1840s and 1850s no longer fit the cultural image of a barber. Barbers, many antebellum Americans seemed to believe, were supposed to be men of color—proprietors of upscale shops located in the ground floors of hotels or along well-travelled city streets. But after 1840, the tonsorial ranks were increasingly dominated by German immigrants occupying dingy basements or alleyway shops. Indeed, while the total number of barbers, according to historian Douglas W. Bristol, Jr., increased sharply in Baltimore and Philadelphia between 1850 and 1860, the number of black barbers, as a percentage of the whole, declined dramatically. Barbers, in other words, were hiding in plain sight; elite commentators just didn’t know what (or rather whom) to look for.
Why should this story matter to a broader community of historians? Like Sara Damiano’s Junto post last fall, it speaks to the challenges and rewards of integrating quantitative methods and cultural history. If we are, in fact, in the midst of a quantitative revival, as Caitlin Rosenthal recently suggested, I think my struggles with data may prove useful to others.
Now, I make no claim to mastery of quantitative analysis. I am well aware of the shortcomings of my sources—including city directories and the U.S. Census (the problems of which are discussed in Seth Rockman’s Scraping By and a recent H-SHEAR thread, respectively)—as well as my limited grasp of statistical methods. My analyses are therefore simple, my claims modest. But I have gained one piece of portable insight from my forays in number crunching: that while quantification cannot transcend or replace other modes of analysis, it can often help highlight fruitful areas of inquiry. The story often gets most interesting, I find, when words, images, and numbers conflict.
Such is the case in my analysis of barbers. I would have been pleased to find that my quantitative study backed up contemporary assertions that barbering was in a state of decline. But instead, I got something far richer: a knotted mass of evidence that speaks to the complex ways in which perceptions of urban space are inflected with ideas of race, ethnicity, class, and gender.
 “Fling Away the Razor,” American Phrenological Journal 23 (February 1856): 32-3.
 “Barbers,” The Albion 38 (June 30, 1860): 303.