Times Past

Dan Krieger: A job on the cutting edge?

‘Fortune assigned me its favorite star by far. I am respectable, highly acceptable, in any circle I feel at home. I am the king of lather and foam.”

Figaro’s aria in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” truthfully describes the important role played by barbers and hair cutters.

Lice and sand fleas carried deadly disease in the Nile basin. The ancient Egyptians, men and women alike, depended on barbers to shave their heads. Given the option of either bronze or obsidian stone razors, you wanted an experienced barber to shave your head.

In ancient Greece, barbers specialized in the art of beard trimming. To have an untrimmed beard or scalp made you “un-Greek,” or a “barbarian.”

During the campaigns of Alexander the Great, soldiers were urged to shave their beards lest their adversaries grab the facial appendage and drag them to the ground.

Barber-surgeons were the chief dispensers of medical care from the 12th century until almost the time of the American Revolution. The practice of bloodletting made the master of razors indispensable. The red-and-white-striped barber pole became the ubiquitous symbol of their trade.

In 1743, the Royal College of Surgeons in England excluded barbers from medical practice. But barbers remained the first observers and consultants on all manner of skin ailments.

Barbershops became the male-dominated social centers of 19th-century America. When beards were in style, they required careful trimming.

When they weren’t, businessmen wanted a clean shave, at least every other day. Barbershops were delineated according to occupation, neighborhood or ethnic group. A man had his regular barber, and businessmen often had their own shaving cup and brush.

Tony Domingoes recalled how his father, who owned the City Livery Stable, had a mug with a stable painted on it at Manuel Lopes’ barbershop on Higuera Street. Lopes’ shop was like the nearby J. J. Andre store, a center for the Portuguese immigrant community.

Tony remembers Joe Silveira, the brother of mission bell ringer Gregorio Silveira, who cut hair at Lopes’. Joe was disabled. His feet were suspended on crutches 5 inches from the floor.

The most poignant story that I’ve found concerning the profession is set both here in San Luis Obispo and in the steep mountains of White Pass above Skagway, Alaska.

The full story can be read in the bound copies of Wilmar Tognazzini’s “One-Hundred Year’s Ago,” indexed excerpts from San Luis Obispo’s newspapers for the year 1898 that are available in your local library or at http://wntog.tripod.com/98.html.

Phil Abrahams of Skagway, Alaska, forwarded sad news to the Morning Tribune in January 1898.

Dan Lopez, the newspaper’s Alaska correspondent, had been found nearly frozen at the summit of the infamous White Pass. Lopez died shortly after and was buried “at the base of the snow-capped mountains, close by a stream of pure running water that never freezes ”

Lopez had learned barbering at the Pinho & Quick barbershop on Higuera Street. He had dreams of opening a barbershop at Bennett Lake, where argonauts built barges to float down the Yukon River to the gold fields at Dawson.

Lopez’s dream of a lucrative barbershop was never fulfilled.

You will not find such sadness in next weekend’s version of Rossini’s comic opera.

On Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 3, at 2 p.m. you can treat yourself and your family to Opera San Luis Obispo’s “The Barber of Seville,” sung as it should be in Italian with English subtitles over the grand stage at the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly.

The opera really knows how to do comedy. My wife, Liz, and I are taking six young people from Laguna Middle School.

Log onto www.pacslo.org or call 756-2787 for reservations.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.