Barbers and Beards

On RN this is The Body Sphere, and I'm Amanda Smith.

Hey, would you go to a barber if you needed a tooth pulled or a limb amputated? Would you go to a surgeon for a haircut or a shave? Well, once upon a time you'd go to the same person for all of that.

In The Body Sphere: the age of the barber-surgeon.

And you'll meet a barber who even in the 1950s was similarly versatile, not from Seville but Sicily.

Raimondo Gissara: Yes, I'm champion barber in Sicily. Barbiere, barbiere.

John Gissara: When I hear him talking to the older people and the stories, I can't believe, from pulling out people's teeth to…

Amanda Smith: Excuse me?

John Gissara: Yeah, you wouldn't go to a dentist, you'd go to the barber to have a tooth pulled out.

Raimondo Gissara: There used to be no injection, no nothing. With the little fine string, tie up there, to the teeth, put under the shoes, my shoes, pull it down like this…[laughs]…and the tooth's coming out!

Amanda Smith: And more from the tooth-pulling barber, and his son, later here in The Body Sphere.

Now, for 200 years, from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 18th century in London, barbers and surgeons were in the same guild together, the Company of Barber-Surgeons.

Margaret Pelling: Effectively the barber-surgeons I think were in fact the general practitioners of their day.

Amanda Smith: Margaret Pelling is a medical historian at Oxford University.

Margaret Pelling: They did virtually everything, from looking after fairly cosmetic aspects of the body to what we would now regard as major operations like amputations, reducing dislocations, dealing with ulcers on the surface of the body. And, in particular, they had the major role in dealing with venereal disease, which was principally syphilis. Which in the 16th century was rampant, and did really dreadful things to the whole of the body. And the physicians didn't want to touch it, really, literally as well as figuratively, and the barber-surgeons had charge of it.

Amanda Smith: Why the combination of barbers and surgeons?

Margaret Pelling: Well, there is an overlap in what they do. But there were always small, elite groups of surgeons, particularly in London, who didn't like the idea of being associated with the level of trade that barbers represented. Instead they wanted to be more like the physicians: again, a very small, elite group. So the surgeons were forever fighting to get away from the barbers. But in fact they were brought together in 1540 and they weren't separated until 1745.

Amanda Smith: So there were surgeons and there were barber-surgeons.

Margaret Pelling: Yes, although numerically there's no comparison. There were loads of barbers, barbers are ubiquitous, whereas the number of surgeons, like the number of academically qualified physicians, was extremely small and could in no way have met the actual demand.

Amanda Smith: The barber-surgeons were also, as I understand it, particularly known for bloodletting.

Margaret Pelling: Yes. Physicians, if they thought bloodletting was necessary, would never do it themselves. A surgeon or a barber-surgeon or a barber was always brought in to do that. And it was a regular thing: you know, it's springtime, you need to clear out the body, we all have ourselves bled to get us ready for the new season, as it were, if you were maintaining your health in the way that you should. But right up until the end of the 19th century, people did actually experience something like a sense of relief from bleeding. I mean, nothing that goes on that long, I think, lacks justification altogether, at least in terms of what the patient felt.

Amanda Smith: But it's the bloodletting that is where the barber's pole derives from; the blood and the bandages?

Margaret Pelling: Yes, the famous barber's pole. There are these sort of legends and stereotypes, if I can call them that. The first record I think we have of them in London is the 16th century. And there are sort of literary asides about them being priapic, male, masculine sort of symbols. You know, they are a pole with a knob on top as it were. Whether the stripes on the barber's pole were actually to do with blood and bandaging…it's a moot point. Barbers certainly advertised by putting bowls of blood in their shop window. But you don't get many mentions of barber poles.

Amanda Smith: Well, presumably the barber-surgeons, as well as the surgery they did, also did cut your hair and shave your beard.

Margaret Pelling: And it's clear, I think, that barbers and barber-surgeons did all kinds of things which we would now regard as cosmetic. Now, admittedly, some of the things that we would think of as cosmetic were actually regarded then as medicinal, like brushing your hair a lot. But nonetheless they did things like picking ears, scraping teeth, dying hair and beards. There's even some evidence that they starched people's beards to make them stiffer. I mean, Elizabethans spent a lot of time thinking about how they would shape their beards, and there's no doubt that barbers were the people who did that.

Amanda Smith: Was the surgery done in the same place as the beard grooming and the hair cutting?

Margaret Pelling: Well, that is a good question. Again, there's very little evidence available but there are some pictures by Dutch genre painters which show a sort of curtain between two parts of a barber's shop. So that you might think, well, they wait in the front part and are treated in the back part. But there are other pictures which show those sort of operations not only going on in the same space, but people actually looking through the windows and watching them. So I think the idea of the private consultation was not something that was either developed or even expected at that time.

[Music: Muppets Barbershop Quartet]

Amanda Smith: Now, you'll recognise this as a barbershop quartet…well, the Muppets Barbershop Quartet doing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.

And this is The Body Sphere, with Amanda Smith and medical historian Margaret Pelling, talking about when barbers were surgeons: the London Company of Barber-Surgeons that operated from the 16th to the 18th century.

And Margaret, the barber-surgeons, as well as everything else they did they are associated with music, aren't they?

Margaret Pelling: They are indeed. Barber-surgeons not only taught their apprentices barber-surgery but they taught them music as well. It was regarded as part of what they needed to do. You also find numbers of barber-surgeons being singing men, and I'm very keen to explore this further because I'd like a link-up with the barbers shop quartet. Now, barbers shop quartet music, as it survives, does have a number of analogies with what I would regard as likely to have been happening in barbers' shops. What I haven't got for the earlier period is evidence of people standing around in barbers' shops singing. What there is evidence of, is people sitting in barber shops and playing musical instruments. You can see how it would also be functional. A barber has something to do while he's waiting for customers, and if you were waiting in a barber's shop for your turn, if there was an instrument lying around you could go plunk-plunk and keep yourself occupied.

Amanda Smith: But I'm wondering also if this musical association is why barbers often appear as characters later, in 18th and 19th century operas.

Margaret Pelling: I think the opera connection is separate. I would regard there as being two types of barber. There's the shop barber that we've been talking about up till now pretty well, and then there's what I would call the henchman barber, the kind of body servant and the closest associate of a master. So it's part of the tradition of reflections on that kind of intimate master-servant relationship in the household rather than anything to do with the shop. But the henchman barber does become a tradition, if you like, particularly with Beaumarchais, whose work feeds in to the operas that you're probably thinking of by Mozart and Rossini. But there's also the henchman barber who, like with Don Quixote, is cynical. Most henchman barbers are cynical about their masters because they know all about them.

[Music: Largo al factotum, The Barber of Seville]

Amanda Smith: And Margaret Pelling is a senior research associate at Oxford University.

[Audio: Ray and John Gissara's barber shop]

Amanda Smith: So what style have you given him, Ray?

Raimondo Gissara: I've given him really the style, today's style, everybody do like this now. Everybody.

When I arrive in Australia, Australian haircut, short back and sides like an army haircut.

No speak English but by movement of my hands I understand exactly what the people want.

Amanda Smith: I'm in Kensington in the inner west of Melbourne at Jissara Hair, a salon that's been in the Gissara family for more than 60 years.

Raimondo Gissara: There you are, see? Nobody do a job like this, nobody!

Amanda Smith: Raimondo Gissara, fresh off the boat from Sicily, took it on in 1954. His son John runs the place these days.

You're not going to get a shave?

John Gissara: No. I like a little bit of growth, see? It's the fashion.

Amanda Smith: Now, Ray, there are photographs of you on the wall here, and you're wearing a white coat and a bow tie.

Raimondo Gissara: Yeah, that's the style that used to be…

Amanda Smith: I was hoping you'd be wearing your jacket and bow tie today.

Raimondo Gissara: Well, I dunno, people they reckon we look funny.

The town where I was born is Buccheri, provincia Syracusa, 1934. My father have a mill and make flour. And my father always say come and I show you the way you make flour. No, Dad, I don't like it.

John Gissara: He didn't like being on the farm, so he went into the town and became a barber.

Amanda Smith: So you were the Barber of Sicily!

Raimondo Gissara: Yes, I'm champion barber in Sicily! Barbiere, barbiere!

John Gissara: And then one day his dad said, 'You've got to go to Australia with your sister because she's getting married so we can't send her on her own, you have to chaperone her.'

Raimondo Gissara: I get on the boat in Messina. On the next day I got called from the captain of the boat. 'Mr Gissara, I know you are a professional hairdresser, we need a hairdresser in the salon here.' I said, 'Okay, no problem.' I started working, haircut and shave, haircut and shave. The captain pay me the wages, but the tip was tremendous, the tips. In a short time when I arrive in Port Melbourne here, I came out with big money.

John Gissara: Yeah, he was only supposed to be here for a few months till his sister settled down, and then leave.

Raimondo Gissara: Yes, I'd got tickets already to go back. My father said, 'It's a new country, have a look, what do you think, and come back.' When I arrive in Australia, I arrive with the money, I like the country and everything…forget about Italy!

John Gissara: And so while he was here he went for a walk up and down the street and found this little barber's shop, and I think the owner was Vic Willoughby if I remember correctly.

Raimondo Gissara: Yes, Mr Willoughby his name. He was about 39 years in these premises. I said, 'You want to sell this business?' He said, 'Oh, yes. I want 2,000 pounds,' he said. 'I'll leave everything.' He used to sell cigarettes, he had three chairs…and I buy this premises.

I was 19 years old. Amazing.

1954, haircut three shilling and five pence was. Today, men's haircut $33. [Laughs]

John Gissara: Put the bowl on, that's the way…

Raimondo Gissara: Yeah, that's what I mean. When I came in Australia it used to be back and sides and a little bit of hair on the top.

John Gissara: It was very basic. He explains it like a bowl on top of your head. Whatever sticks out, shave it off.

Raimondo Gissara: Exactly. And slow, slowly I put in European haircut, and slow, slowly disappear this Australia short back and sides haircut. And today, everybody like a European haircut.

John Gissara: Really short, tapered, clean, perfect cut. Razors around the edge.

Raimondo Gissara: The number one product was Brylcreem.

John Gissara: And you asked Dad about Brylcreem. He says, 'How much Brylcreem I sold!'

Raimondo Gissara: Between eight or ten dozen a week. Brylcreem was the number one hair cream. Beautiful!

Amanda Smith: So, John, what are some of your earliest memories of this place?

John Gissara: Oh, I've got good memories, because I used to come here after school, and barbers were very different then. He sold Panadol and laxatives and medicines, combs…and everyone used to come in and have their order. It was like going to the chemist. There weren't really supermarkets and chemists, you went to the barber's shop.

Amanda Smith: And what were the range of services your father did here?

John Gissara: From what I remember it was more barber, but when I hear him talking to the older people and the stories, I can't believe, from pulling out people's teeth to…

Amanda Smith: Ah, excuse me?

John Gissara: Yeah, pulling out teeth. You wouldn't go to a dentist, you'd go to the barber to have a tooth pulled out.

Raimondo Gissara: Yeah, used to be no injection, no nothing. With the little fine string. Tied it up to the teeth, put under the shoes, my shoes, pull it down like this! Ha! And the tooth's coming out. Before they say 'Ow!' the tooth's already on the string.'

Amanda Smith: Now, I also hear that you do the best cut-throat razor shave in town. It's a pity I'm not a man, you could have given me one.

Raimondo Gissara: Oh, don't talk about this because I feel really number one for shave. Young people they love to come, regular people, they come here for shave. They love it. What I'm doing: shave, second shave…two times shave, after shave lotion, hot towel. Still I do it. With a cut-throat, yes.

John Gissara: There's a lot of younger generation but they haven't got the experience. As he says, when he learned barbering you had to go to the barber's shop to get a shave.

Raimondo Gissara: I used to shave my father two times a day, to learn with a cut-throat.

John Gissara: So he'd be doing shaves all day long, every day. So that's why he's very good at it and still is. He taught me. I'm good at it, but you can't compare his 60 years of experience to mine. He's just silky smooth. Unbelievable.

Amanda Smith: Well, you know, traditional barbers are making a big comeback. You see them all over town.

John Gissara: Yeah, definitely, and I'm glad. And when I look at my dad's pictures, the style that he did then is coming back now. And it's great that I know how to do that because it puts me right into the fashion, whereas the younger hairdressers are struggling with it, because that takes time to learn. You can't go and do a one-year course and expect to be able to cut hair like that. With a lady's haircut there's so much hair, you can hide the haircut a little bit. With a guy's short hair there's no hiding if you make a mistake, it's going to show. And right at the moment the beards are in and people are coming in and saying, 'Oh, do you do beard trims?' And we've got beard waxes now and all sorts of things. It's all the go, so yeah.

Amanda Smith: Well, you're now 80 years old?

Raimondo Gissara: Eighty-one on 13 June come.

Amanda Smith: Well, you still work here as a barber two days a week. How many haircuts do you think you've done over all these years?

Raimondo Gissara: Oh…I won't say a hundred but I'll say million.

Amanda Smith: Any thoughts of retiring from barbering?

Raimondo Gissara: No, don't talk about retiring because I love working here. I give this business to my son, my son is very happy bringing up the business exactly the way he wants to, a lady and men's hairdresser. But I still love to come and I come two days a week.

Amanda Smith: And cut hair.

Raimondo Gissara: And cut hair. And I shave.

Amanda Smith: Raimondo Gissara, along with his son John, at what's now known as Jissara Hair, formerly Ray's Hairdressing, in the Melbourne suburb of Kensington.

So, gents, are you bearded or clean-shaven? Yes, we're in a period right now of beardiness, amongst the hipster set at least. For a good 30 years or so, though, facial hair on men was very definitely un-fashionable, until you go back to the 1960s and '70s hirsute look. We're going to go way further back into the history of the beard, though, with Alun Withey. He's a British historian of medicine and the body, and joins us from Cardiff in Wales.

Alun, first of all, well, in the history of the beard, let's go back as far as the 16th century and Tudor England.

Alun Withey: Well the Tudor period is a very beardy period in history. You think of the archetypal images of that period, say Holbein's paintings, perhaps the most famous of all, of Henry VIII. Think of the big Tudor so-called spade beard, a big square outcrop of beard which is the sort of ultimate symbol of the Tudor man.

Amanda Smith: Well, you say that you can roughly identify a historical period by its facial hair, and, as you say, the Tudors favoured the spade beard. What about the Stuarts?

Alun Withey: In the 17th century everything becomes a little bit more elegant. The Stuart monarchy, for example Charles I, he's got what's called the Van Dyke beard, which is the little pointy number on the chin and a little fey moustache. So the facial hair sort of gets smaller but more pointy and refined.

Amanda Smith: Nevertheless, a beard is an obvious sign of maleness. In this period that we're talking about though, 16th, 17th centuries, how is male facial hair thought of medically?

Alun Withey: That's a really interesting point, because it's actually conceived of as a form of bodily waste. Now, 17th century medicine is all about getting the bad things out of you. That explains why they do these mad things like purging and bloodletting and leeches and all the rest of it. In fact beard hair is essentially another form of that. It belongs to that category.

Amanda Smith: Let's move on to the 18th century, because that's interestingly an era of clean-shavenness, isn't it. Now, why was this?

Alun Withey: It's actually a very interesting question, because we don't really know. For some reason, all across Europe in the early part of the 18th century, men just start to lose their beards. It's been argued that the availability of better razors is part of it. That doesn't really happen until after the 1750s and beards are long gone by then. There are all sorts of other things going on; the Enlightenment and Enlightenment thought.

Amanda Smith: A face without a beard is a sort of open face. Does an open face suggest an open mind?

Alun Withey: Absolutely. It opens the face up to the world, literally. And it symbolises a mind that's open to these new ideas. This is a strong possibility for why the beard disappears. It's this smooth, elegant, refined model of manliness.

Amanda Smith: Nevertheless, by the middle of the 19th century the beard is back, isn't it? Now, this was both the industrial age and the age of exploration. Are these factors in Victorian bewhiskerment?

Alun Withey: Absolutely. And, as you say, the beard comes back with an absolute vengeance, the massive beards that we all associate with the Victorian period, by around 1850. A few reasons for this. One of them is Victorian explorers disappearing off to far-flung corners of the world, living amongst wild nature and letting their bodies become natural, in a sense.

And there's a whole new argument coming through about how beards are a natural symbol of male authority. So men start to use their beards and say, well look, God has given us this beard, we must be the stronger sex and therefore women, because you can't grow beards, we are in command here. Because they're God-given, how can you argue with it?

Amanda Smith: I mentioned the industrial age too, what about that?

Alun Withey: Yes, industrialisation is changing the way that particularly men are forced to work together. Rather than being small producers and having their own small businesses, big, multinational in effect, companies are coming through, large groups of men in one building together. And they have to get used to new types of authority, you know, having an immediate manager, having a big boss. This is quite a shock to men, it's not happened before. So it's a time of nervousness, and one thing that they tend to do is assert their masculinity in a very visible way, such as growing a beard.

Amanda Smith: That does make me think about the current age, but we'll get on to that. By the 1850s, health benefits were being attributed to beards, weren't they. What were the health benefits?

Alun Withey: Well, one line of argument runs that the beard is a filter against germs. It traps all the bad stuff before it can get into your nose and your throat and your windpipe. Because Victorians are newly obsessed with germs and sanitation, and so the beard is a natural protectant.

Amanda Smith: Conversely, not being able to grow a thick, luscious beard during this period was considered a sign of ill-health; a weak, weedy chap.

Alun Withey: And in fact if you couldn't grow a beard, then there are ways and means that you try and bypass this. For example, a false beard made of goat's hair. I've even seen a patent in the British Library for a mechanical beard.

Amanda Smith: What's that?

Alun Withey: Well, exactly, I'm not quite sure how it works, but it seems to be a system of springs and this false moustache that fits and clips itself to the face somehow. I don't think it ever got to production, but the patent is fantastic.

Amanda Smith: Are there periods, though, when the beard has been considered unhealthy?

Alun Withey: Yeah, and in fact when beards are at their height there are some who are saying, well, hang on a minute, it makes no more sense to say the beard is a filter than it does to say that it acts as a nest of germs stuck to your face, you know, attracts germs and holds them there so you can breathe them in.

Amanda Smith: A germ magnet.

Alun Withey: A germ magnet, exactly. So some people even argue that they catch the bad vapours out of your breath as you exhale, and cause you even more problems.

Amanda Smith: Well, what's clear from this conversation is that men's facial hair has not only changed in style but in meaning, regularly. Now, the most powerful recent example of this that I can think of is last year's Eurovision Song Contest winner. Would you care to comment?

Alun Withey: Yeah, I've got a sort of pet theory, as I look more back into history with when beards and facial hair become prominent, it quite often happens when masculinity is somehow an issue or a topic or under threat, being discussed in some way. We live in a world now where gender boundaries are increasingly being eroded. We have same-sex marriages, transgender identities, so the gender boundaries are much looser than they used to be. And I think sometimes men get uncomfortable about this, and one way…in fact I would argue the only symbol of masculinity that a man can show in public, and at least not get arrested for, is the beard.

Amanda Smith: Yes, but what I'm talking about, with the Eurovision Song Contest last year, the winner, Conchita Wurst, is a transgender person with very feminine features and this full beard. So, effectively a kind of bearded lady. I found that astonishingly arresting and destabilising.

Alun Withey: Well, I think that's because the beard throws into much starker contrast. If she didn't have the beard…

Amanda Smith: It's a much more traditional transition.

Alun Withey: It's a more traditional transition. But when you add the beard in, it really confuses the gender identity, doesn't it. Because it's such a strong marker of masculinity, that to see a bearded man, dressed as a lady, with long hair, it really…yes, affects the balance.

Amanda Smith: Well, in this current time we're in of beardy fashion but also of short attention spans, I do have to ask you, have we reached peak beard?

Alun Withey: Well, actually it was being reported that we'd reached peak beard two years ago, and it seems to have gone from strength to strength. This current beard trend has already lasted longer than most have over the past years, because as you say, attention span and fashions change so quickly now. So it'll be interesting to see how long this lasts, but also what comes next. Beards, after all, involve decisions: whether you grow one, or you shave one off. And it's the motivations behind those decisions that tell us a lot.

Amanda Smith: And Alun Withey is an associate research fellow in the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter and a pogonophile, is that right?

Alun Withey: Definitely.

Amanda Smith: As I understand it is one who loves or studies beards, yeah?

Alun Withey: Absolutely. As opposed to a pogonophobe, who's afraid of them.

Amanda Smith: So are you a pogonophile or a pogonophobe? It would of course be absolutely delightful if you'd care to share your stories of beards, and barbers, from a male, female or transgender point of view. On the website, you can post a comment.

And this is the last program in the current season of The Body Sphere. Next week at this time, All In The Mind returns, and I'll be back with The Body Sphere in July.

[Excerpt from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street]

Yes, another of the great musical barbers, Sweeney Todd, a demon with the cut-throat razor.


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