Barber Shops, Primary Sources, and Our Need to Connect

This post is written by Lee Ann Potter, the director of the Learning and Innovation Office at the Library of Congress.

Since COVID-19 has required our team to telework, we’ve relied heavily on technology – e-mail, phone calls, and teleconferences – to accomplish our work. Keeping up with each other’s lives outside of work – the information that usually comes when we greet each other in the office each morning, by way of conversations at the water cooler, or just in the course of seeing each other – has also relied on technology.

It is interesting to me, though, that much of what we are sharing about our lives outside of work lately reflects an absence of modern technology. Perhaps because we are relying so heavily on technology during our work day, we seek to escape it in our off hours.

For example, a few of us are experimenting with making sourdough or taking on serious gardening projects. A couple have been sewing and knitting. And the other day, one colleague told us she encouraged her 6 year old daughter to memorize a favorite poem, “Bed in Summer,” from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.

A child’s garden of verses

A child’s garden of verses

Sharing these experiences (although in isolation and at a distance) has created a nice cohesiveness to our diffused team. But one recent morning’s exchange added an element of shared laughter that led to collaborative research and was a most welcome reminder of the power of primary sources.

It started when a colleague whose local barber shop is temporarily closed described how he’d cut his 9-year old son’s hair.

Because there is always a related primary source  in the Library’s online collections, I went looking. I search on both the terms “hair cut” and “haircut.” The former quickly led me to a Barbers Chart published in 1890. I initially shared it with my colleagues, thinking (a bit sarcastically) that it might provide all of their sons with some options the next time they need a trim. Then I started looking a bit more closely at the chart and the observing, reflecting, questioning, and additional research began.

How do you want your hair cut? (1890)

Benjamin Harrison  (189-)

I wondered whether the hair styles on the chart really were popular in 1890, so I went looking for photographs and found this one of President Benjamin Harrison. He seems to be sporting the eighth haircut, the second beard, and the fourth mustache featured on the chart.

But I was not the only member of our team whose curiosity was piqued. Mike wondered about the cost of haircuts around the turn of the twentieth century, searched in Chronicling America, and found an advertisement promoting 25 cent haircuts, along with other similarly priced services. In another ad, the same barber identified himself as a “Tonsorial Artist.” I had to look up that term!

Louis McDowell gives Michael Young a haircut, the cut is called a “high-top fade.”

The chart made Stacie think about how hair styles have changed and she recalled that the American Folklife Center’s Working in Paterson Project Collection features many more contemporary photographs taken in barber shops, like this one. It prompted Vivian to tell a story about her husband’s past attempts to give their son a Fade that turned out looking more like the style worn by a medieval monk.

Each of the sources we found and shared via e-mail that morning was evidence of the power of primary sources to make us wonder, to teach us, to remind us, to make us laugh – and most of all, to connect us.

Perhaps our exchange was also fueled by the power of the gathering places, like barber shops, and our need for them right now.

We challenge you and your students to think about something that is different or that you are doing differently as a result of COVID-19, find a primary source that is in some way related, share it with each other, and let us know what happens next.

4 Comments

  1. Forrest K Uppendahl
    May 6, 2020 at 5:00 pm

    A revealing article. My hair is now longer then it’s been in my 83+ years, and I like this new style that I plan to keep, with infrequent trims from now on! The bushier sideburns halfway down aligned with my ear lobes, hair covering half my ears and the 2 inch longer hair line on the back of the neck allow me to project a more distinguished appearance :>)

    I’ve never worn a beard or mustache and I have no plans to grow either at this time.

  2. Michael Berson
    May 6, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    Outstanding post! I like the focus on everyday activities and community helpers.

  3. cynthia szwajkowski
    May 18, 2020 at 11:42 am

    This wonderful blog serves as a fun reminder of the interconnection of so much in life. We cannot help but relate. It also serves as a reminder of how many funny, little things can provide the springboard to research and a lifelong desire to know more.

  4. Sherry L.
    May 18, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    A delightful post! And, there’s always the do-it-yourself bowl cut or the Prince Valiant . . .

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