Barbers of yore offered more than grooming

By Union Democrat staff November 11, 2010 02:01 pm

One of the wonderful things about the Good Old Days was the old-fashioned barbershop.

These 19th century grooming parlors offered the public much more than a shave and haircut, and they were not necessarily woman-free zones, as one might suppose.

    As far back as ancient Egyptian times, barbers provided a variety of services including primitive tooth extractions and other crude surgical procedures.
    Practitioners of the trade were commonly referred to as “barber surgeons,” and their familiar red and white barber poles had special meaning. The white spiral stripes stood for bandages, and the red stood for bloodletting — the cure-all healing art of drawing blood from a person’s body in treatment of disease.
    Use of leeches made up a great part of the craftsmanship. Barbers typically kept these medicinal bloodsuckers handy in five-gallon jars, but usually they only made patients weaker.
    The barbershop of early times was also a community gathering place for entertainment, discussion and gossip. By the late 1800s, as you know, barbershop quartets were an American tradition.
    In the1890s and early 1900s, Sonora’s most prominent barbershop was in the City Hotel on Washington Street. “Hot and cold baths for ladies and gentlemen,” one of its advertisements read in The Union Democrat.
    “Steam laundry depot — City Hotel Barber Shop,” read another.
    This one-stop center also promoted cures for ringworm, corns, “barbers’ itch,” and all disorders of the hair and scalp. “Or drop in at the City Hotel Barber Shop for a cold steam beer — 10 cents,” read another ad in this paper.
 Today, by the way, fancy “barber bottles” and various other toiletry glassware once used in this profession are now highly sought after by collectors. Considered works of art, a single specimen in mint condition can fetch up to $800, according to memorabilia aficionado and expert Gerald Howard, of Sonora.
    Old-time barbershops can still be found in the foothills, some using original chairs from the early 1900s. There are four businesses in downtown Sonora.
    Until a year ago, one of California’s best examples of an early barbershop was located in Columbia State Historic Park on Main Street. Dating back to the 1850s, it had the original barber chair and two tin bathtubs nailed to a backroom wall.
    This rare slice of history has since become a photo and portrait studio. Sadly enough, park officials recently removed the old chair and tore out the bathtubs to make room for an office.
    During the Mother Lode’s “golden harvest,” miners who dug gold in remote gulches and ravines were known to go months without bathing. It is no wonder that when they eventually made it to town their first stop was a barbershop featuring hot and cold baths.
    An old story comes from Columbia of an enterprising barber who never changed the bath water. He would let it get so dirty that finally no one would get in it.
    Upon this, he would drop his price by half — from one pinch of gold dust to half a pinch (about 50 cents) at first, and so on throughout the day.
    When the water got so disgusting there were no more takers, he drained the tub into several buckets and carried them out to the curb. There, he poured the contents in a gold pan and carefully washed the residue, usually cleaning up several ounces.
    Once, after a miner bathed in his tub, the water assayed seven ounces of gold to the pound, according to local legend. The man’s whiskers alone panned out $1.50 net, or so it was often told in Tuolumne County’s old barbershops of a bygone era.