Barber Shops

by Charles McGrath


The barber shop always seemed to serve more of a function than just a cut or a shave. It goes without saying that it was a communication center. Anything that was going on was shared in the chair. To this day I have yet to find a barber who isn't an incessant talker.

As a kid in Vailsburg no one owned a wristwatch. We would always take advantage of the clock in the barber shops to tell the time. This had to be a public courtesy since appointments were unheard of at that time. It was on a first come, first served basis.

Vailsburg had an abundance of barber shops. In my area we had the following:

Phil's at 18th and Stuyvesant Avenues. Phil also booked numbers as a side line.

Paul's he worked for Phil but took over when Phil retired. Louie's at Sandford Avenue and Silver Street.

Anthony's on the corner of Commonwealth and Stuyvesant Avenues. I received my first haircut there 64 years ago. It was converted to a beauty parlor in latter years.

Ray's on Smith Street.

Matty's on South Orange Avenue across from Felix Fox Paint Store. The latter was famous for his $.25 haircut.

All the shops had a barber pole outside. It was a mechanical windup type analogous to a music box. I guess once wound it revolved all day. Today they are very small and they are electrified.. The red and white stripes were a vestige of the past. They were an indication that they could provide bloodletting.

The origin of the barber's pole appears to be associated with this service of bloodletting. The original pole has a brass basin at its top representing the vessel in which leeches were kept and also represented the basin which received the blood. The pole itself represented the staff which the patient held onto during the operation. The red and white stripes represented the bandages used during the procedure, red for the bandages stained with blood during the operation and white for the clean bandages. The bandages would be hung out to dry after washing on the pole and would blow and twist together forming the spiral pattern similar to the modern day barber pole. (Google)

I remember being in Komishane's Pharmacy on 18th and Stuyvesant Avenues in the 1940's. The man in front of me was buying a leech. It was given to him by Harry in a glass vial. I asked Harry Komishane after he left why did he buy a leech? He said the man had a black eye and was going to attach it to his cheek.

The leech would drain the blood from that area and would then be removed. Looking back it seems that the barber pole should have been in front of his pharmacy rather than at Phil's Barber Shop.

Did you ever wonder why most if not all barbers are Italian? The following is the compliment of the search engine Google. Barbering was introduced in Rome in 296 B.C. and barbers quickly became both popular and prosperous. Their shops were centers for daily news and gossip. All free men of Rome were clean-shaven , while slaves were forced to wear beards. It is from the Roman (Latin) word barba, meaning beard, that the word "barber" is derived.

I started working for Verizon in 1952 . In my early years with them most of my time was spent in the Downtown area. Not unlike Vailsburg, I started to know it like the back of my hand. Downtown also had more than its share of barber shops. There was an Italian barber shop on Springfield Avenue near Branford Place. This shop was unique in that it used a hot steamed towel. While the haircut left a lot to be desired, the hot steamed towel applied to one's face was very stimulating.

The barber shops Downtown also provided a showcase for famous people. It was very common to see signed photographs of famous people in the windows of these shops. It's funny, the second barber shop that comes to my mind was one on Arlington Street near Augusta Street. Just when I thought all barbers were Italian, Guess what? He wasn't Italian. He was Black. The barber was a famous former black boxing manager. He had pictures of famous black fighters, the names of which I have forgotten with the passing of time.

On William Street, near Halsey Street, there were a couple of barber shops. One had a signed picture of Red Skelton. It was from the 30's when he was playing the burlesque circuit. At that time he was appearing in the Empire Burlesque located on Washington Street between Branford Place and Market Street.

Another barber shop on William Street had a picture of Clayton, Jackson, and Durante. This picture was of a male trio from the 1920's vaudeville circuit in Newark. The Durante was none other than the famous Jimmy Durante. Clayton wrote on the photograph that we will make it as long as "The Schnozzola" has his nose.

I always enjoyed Jimmy Durante especially when I got older. He was a classy man who only went to the 2nd grade. I remember once reading about him visiting a good friend in the hospital. The man was in I. C. U. The hospital told him that he was comatose and visitors weren't allowed.

Jimmy said he just wanted to sit outside door of his room to show his respect. That's what I call a man. And he only went to the 2nd grade. But he was the son of an immigrant Italian who was a" barber" in Brooklyn.


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