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Iowa City museum hosts tribute to close shaves, neat haircuts

History of barbering exhibit on display at Johnson County Historical Society Museum

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CORALVILLE — The earliest barbers, or barber-surgeons as they were called in medieval Europe, practiced tooth extractions, minor surgeries and bloodletting.

In fact, the red-and-white striped barber pole represents the bloody bandages hung outside a barber’s office, said Doris Montag, curator of the History of the Barber Profession exhibit on display through Aug. 31 at the Johnson County Historical Society Museum in Coralville.

“I thought the history of men and their facial hair was fascinating,” said Montag, a retired administrator at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The compact exhibit shows the evolution of tools used to cut hair and shave men’s faces, as well as a few tools for women’s shaving. Intermixed are bits of history about facial hair and barbering in America.

The display contains about a dozen shaving mugs barbers used to mix soap into a lather that was applied to men’s faces for shaving.

“It became the custom to keep your mug at your barbershop,” Montag notes in the exhibit. “The ‘Occupational’ or ‘Trade Design’ mugs identified one as a doctor, policeman, fireman, merchant, blacksmith and others, thus promoting the barber’s successful clientele as these sat on the mug shelf behind the barber’s chair.”

Then, as now, shaving brushes were made from badger hair, regarded as the best for holding water and raising stubble.

To get a close shave, barbers needed a sharp straightedge and for that, a strop was used to hone the blade.

The Johnson County exhibit contains several strops, including a retractable one with a leather strip that winds up inside a pewter case. One side of the leather is rough for the first round of sharpening, while the smooth side was used for fine tuning, Montag said.

“It wasn’t a throwaway world because they kept sharpeners to keep reusing blades,” she said.

Hair-cutting shears are on display at the museum, as well as manual hair clippers, operated by squeezing handles to cut hair close and fast. These were replaced with electric clippers in the 1920s, Montag said.

WWI brought Gillette safety razors, which soldiers grew to like and use on their own, which led to a gradual decline in the barber shave, Montag notes in the exhibit.

Montag collected items for the exhibit from a variety of places, including Friday’s Barber Shop in Iowa City; Floyd County Historical Society Museum in Charles City; George Seiler, of New Castle, Pennsylvania; her brother-in-law, Brian Ivanovic, of Fort Wayne, Indiana; and son, Michael Haywood, of Chicago.

She worked with Alyssa McGhghy, exhibit designer for the Historical Society, to create the display.

The museum, at 860 Quarry Road in Coralville, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 per person, but free for children younger than age 12.

Read more: Iowa City barber keeps clipping after five decades

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