The Tortures of the Barber’s Chair: 1883

An 1884 tonsorial parlour

An 1884 tonsorial parlour


Question: “What is a Hairdresser?

Answer:  A compendious proof of the imperfection of Nature and of the inadequacy of Art.

Q: Why, then, do you consider Hairdressers to be evidence of the imperfection of Nature?

A: Were Nature, in the human sphere, perfect, our hair would not require cutting any more than the coat of a dog. On the other hand, were Art equal to supplying the deficiencies of Nature, it would long since have devised some means of divesting us of our superfluous hirsute growth other than that ordeal of hideously unpleasant processes suggested by the very name of Hairdresser.

Q: Is there not some exaggeration here?

A: The tortures of tonsure are incapable of exaggeration.

Q: What are the characteristics of the Hairdresser?

A: Those naturally produced in a man who has your personal comfort and dignity at his mercy, and your ear, as a channel to your pocket, absolutely at his command.

Q: Absolutely, did you say?

A: Practically so. You may leave a theatre, or even, in emergency a church. You may tear yourself away from a button-holding bore, or a nagging woman. But you cannot escape from a barber’s chair. Once seated and swathed therein, once snipped by shears or scraped by blade, you are committed to endurance of all the personal indignities, and all the mental tortures that the most blandly impertinent, ignorantly loquacious, and intrusively “pushing” Hairdresser can inflict. And these are many and sore.

Q: Will you describe some of the tortures and indignities experienced?

A: First there is the Ordeal of the Shroud.

Q: What is that?

A: A. huge swathing of white linen or cotton print. It is “whipped” around you with a twirl which fills your eyes and nose with irritating snippets of hair. It is vigorously “tucked in,” at the back of your neck inside your shirt-collar. It compresses your throat till your face reddens and your nose itches. You cannot rub it with your hands, because they are confined. If you fumblingly attempt to chafe it through the shroud, you get more bits of hair into your mouth and nostrils. You sneeze violently, your helplessness is manifest, your degradation complete. You gaze at your reflection in the mirror in front of you. A shining sheepish face, hair spiked ludicrously on end like a burlesque scalp-lock, a head helplessly punched and turned, and kneaded hither and thither, as though it were potter’s clay, or an universal joint, now cranked to the right, now crooked to the left, now with chin hoisted in the air, now with nose buried in your shirt-front! You avert your glance; you feel that resolution, and judgment, and self-respect are yours no more for ever.

Q: Is not the worst now over?

A: By no means. Having reduced yon to the weakness of self-contempt, the Hairdresser seizes his desired opportunity.

Q: To do what?

A: To patter and tout.

Q: What are these processes?

A: To patter is to prate aimlessly, unintelligently, obtrusively about the topics of the time and the state of the weather. Patter has two chief forms:

  1. Emphatic assertion of the obvious.
  2. Vague questioning concerning the trivial.

For example, your tormentor, stooping with an oily smirk, will whisper, odorously, into your ear—which he looks, as reflected in the glass, as though he were about to bite—confident assertions that It is a ‘ot mornin’, Sir, that the days are a-gettin’ hout nicely, that there’s lots o’ people about to-day, ain’t there? that we shall be ‘avin’ some fallin’ weather before we ‘ve done with it (he doesn’t say done with what), that we must be lookin’ forward to the winter now, and that we shall ‘ave Crismus (he always calls it Crismus) upon us before we know where we har. Or he will ask you—as though you were a Meteorological Office, or a Political Oracle—wot sort of a day you think we shall ‘ave to-morrer; are we going to get a bit o’ summer this year? Wot you think of these ‘ere Salvation Army chaps. Whether they ‘re a-goin’ to “ketch” that there “No. 1” after all, and wot’s to be Mr. Gladsting’s next little game. The helpless auditor of this sort of thing is either reduced to abject imbecility, or roused to boiling wrath. Happy is he upon whom it only produces the former effect.

Q: What next?

A: Patter is only preliminary to puff; talking leads up—through personal rudeness—to touting.

Q: Explain this.

A: The Hairdresser pointedly calls your attention to your personal defects or disfigurements, with a view to puff and push off upon you the high-priced mucks and messes which he proudly refers to as “hour Speeshallitys, Sir!” Patter is exasperating, but Touting is little short of criminal. It begins in rudeness to end—if you permit it—in extortion.

Q: Is it not permissible for a Hairdresser, like any other person, to push the sale of his wares in a respectful and legitimate way?

A: Certainly. But the Hairdresser pushes them in a fashion that is not respectful and is not legitimate.

Q: How is that?

A: In the first place, from your helpless position as subject of his craft, he has you at an unfair advantage. You cannot get away from his oily fingers, his greasy whispers, his fatuous cackle, his personal criticisms, his unblushing puffs. If he tells you in a tone of confident candour, that your hair is “offly dry,” “going off colour,” or “getting’ terrible thin a-top,” the impertinence which in another case would earn kicks from your boots is regarded in his as a natural means of extorting halfpence from your pockets. If he assures you that his wretched unguents and stimulants and dyes will repair the ravages of time, the brazen and dishonest falsehood with which he insults your intelligence and assaults your purse is not recognised or resented as a fraudulent attempt at “obtaining money under false pretences,” but as being “all in the way of business.”

Q: Is the Hairdresser’s system more unfair and offensive than that of many other trades?

A: It is; for several reasons :

  1. His facilities for impertinence and importunity are, from the necessity of the case, exceptional.
  2. His mode of puffing his nasty nostrums is particularly unpleasant and unscrupulous.
  3. The nasty nostrums themselves are peculiarly worthless and deleterious.

Q: Can you suggest any amelioration of the unpleasant state of things which you describe?

A: Art may perhaps, someday, devise something which will make us independent of the manual manipulations of the degenerate modern Figaro. Pending that most desirable consummation, the annoyances actually attending the necessarily unpleasant operation of shearing and having might be indefinitely diminished. The Hairdresser should be strictly, if need be legally, limited to the deft exercise of his legitimate functions. You wish him to cut your hair or shave your beard. You do not wish him to discuss politics with you. More emphatically still, you do not wish him to puff and push his particular wares.* Were patter rigorously limited, and touting inexorably prohibited, hair-cutting need not be, what at present it is, the most agonising and exasperating of social ordeals.

* There are a few brilliantine exceptions to the rule, but where they are to be found must remain a secret known only to the initiated few.—Headitorial Note by the Author of the Hair and Many Friends.

PUNCH 9 June 1883

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil confesses that she has never been privy to the secrets of the tonsorial parlours and is shocked to her core by the horrors described.  Barbers were proverbially garrulous. As an 1878 screed on unpleasantness in the barber chair began, “He was one of those phonographic barbers….” However disliked by the customer, this talent did have the occasional utility:

*“Why do you insist upon telling me these horrible stories of ghosts and robbers while you are cutting my hair?” said a long suffering customer to a talkative barber.

“I’m very sorry, sir,” replied the barber. “but, you see, when I tell stories like that to my customers their hair stands on end, and it makes it ever so much easier to cut.” Idaho Statesman [Boise, ID] 17 March 1918: p. 9

One can see why a customer might take drastic measures to “stiff” the barber.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


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