Historic City Memories: Barbershops

Barbershops and Chautauguas: Part I
By Geoff Dobson

The big blue tube’s
Just like Louise
You get a thrill
From every squeeze

Burma-Shave signs are an institution which has disappeared. Before 1963, they lined America’s highways, done in by a change in shaving habits and maybe by Ladybird Johnson and restrictions on highway advertising.

Other institutions have vanished, “See Rock City” signs on the sides of barns, Chautauguas, Palmer’s Gulf Station, Duval Federal on Anastasia Blvd., barber poles, shaving mugs, straight razors, and the big blue tube of Burma-Shave. The straight razor has been replaced by the “safety razor” which itself has been supplanted by the disposable razor.

Several weeks ago, the writer received an email indicating that the morning coffee group had met at Connor’s Shell Station. Connor’s is gone, but the writer immediately knew where the group met that day.

Judy Lucas, a writer for the Lusk Herald, once commented that we all tend to give directions by reference to landmarks that no longer exist. Thus, I tend to give directions in downtown Jacksonville by reference to the fire station. The difficulty is that the fire station is no longer there.

Visitors looking for the Elks Lodge are sometimes told that it is just south of the Cross and Sword. The Cross and Sword closed down some 13 years ago after the Legislature failed to provide funding. Nevertheless, The Legislature in its august wisdom still thinks it is still being presented every year. Section 15.035 of the 2009 Florida Statutes announces:

“The historical pageant by Paul Green known as the “Cross and Sword,” presented annually by the citizens of the City of St. Augustine, is hereby designated the official play of the state.”

What better proof of Judy’s comment is a conversation at the morning coffee group recently at Athena’s. Spectators sometimes think that the gathering of the “has beens” of St. Augustine is discussing momentous issues such as the size of someone’s beer belly.

One morning the talk had moved to the subject of barber shops. Someone commented about Price’s Barber Shop. Another asked, “The barber shop on Grenada?” “No,” was the answer, “The one in the Cordova Hotel where ‘Ask Mr. Foster’ used to be located” A third piped in that it was on Cathedral Place. “Where?” another asked. “In the same line of buildings as Rector’s Restaurant and the Neptune Grille,” was the reply.

That line of buildings was one to the east of the Jefferson Theatre. Rector’s, the Neptune Grille, and the Jefferson Theatre all disappeared some forty years ago, replaced by a bank and a parking lot. The Cordova Hotel closed down in the early thirties; much later it became the County Courthouse, and is now the Santa Monica Hotel.

In the late 1890’s in the northwest corner of the hotel, where there is now a coffee shop, originally was a small book and gift emporium operated by Ward G. Foster and Charles Bingham Reynolds. The duo published various commercial guide books known as the “Standard Guide.” Tourists in need of information were told to “Ask Mr. Foster.” Thus, the small bookstore developed into one of America’s first travel agencies and adopted the unusual name. It gradually grew with offices in Cuba and throughout the United States becoming the nation’s second or third largest travel agency. It is now a part of the Carlson Companies travel empire.

It was into that location that Price’s moved before having to move to the Grenada Street location. There were other barber shops. Most have disappeared, replaced by trendy hair stylists in shopping centers. Price’s continues.

The old fashioned barber shop was a distinctively male place. Along one wall would be a line of chairs occupied by men awaiting the call of “Next.” Since all of the men in town regularly visited the small-town barbershop, it became a source of camaraderie and humor and, occasionally one might become the source for laughter.

Years ago in DeFuniak Springs, one local owed the hardware store for supplies. The hardware store attempted to collect the debt and reduced it to a judgment in court. Still it wasn’t paid. One day, the lawyer for the hardware store noticed the debtor entering the barbershop, wrote out what lawyers call “instructions to levy” which the secretary carried over to the Sheriff’s Office. Soon, a deputy with a big smile on his face entered the barbershop. A few minutes later the debtor emerged accompanied by laughter from all within. The deputy had levied the debtor’s shoes. The debt was paid the next day.

Magazines on a rack in the center of the shop appealed to men. Field and Stream, Popular Mechanics, Outdoor Life, and Esquire provided the reading material. The magazines were normally in a clear plastic cover advertising a local insurance agency.

Cuspidors were strategically placed. Décor in some barbershops was what might be called “High Hunt Club.” On the walls were mounted the hides and heads of various dead animals. Indeed Price’s, even today, has various dead animals including the hide of a rattlesnake as its principle interior decoration.

The dead animals remind one of the Rod and Gun Club, but maybe not as extreme in number of specimens as the Buckhorn Saloon in downtown Laramie. The Buckhorn, however, has something that Price’s does not — a bullet hole in the mirror and bullet dents in the pay phone. How they got there is another story.

Behind the barber chairs was a back bar with sinks and a cabinet for each chair. Some barbershop regular customers had their own individual shaving mugs with their names on them. On the back bar were an assortment of various lotions, aftershaves, hair products such as mousses, gels, pomades, waxes and styling creams. All gave the shop a distinctive aroma, one likened by Bill Nye to “a faint odor of rancid pomatum.”

In a corner was typically a shoe shine stand. One could have one’s shoes shined while the barber was giving the haircut or on the stand. Next to the stand would be a line of shoes that customers brought in to have shined. Shoe shine stands in barber shops, of course, have gone the way of all flesh.

Even the Army has eliminated the need for the old fashioned spit shine. Black boots and oxford shoes requiring the arduous heating of the shoe wax were replaced by Corfam which in turn have been replaced by boots which complement one’s camouflage uniform. For a long time, about the only place to get the Corfam oxfords was the Junior Shop on St. George Street. They’re still available, but, after 80 years, the shop moved to North Ponce de Leon Boulevard.

The barber chair was a wonder, finished in upholstery resembling that used for seats in a second-class railway coach. It had adjustable foot rests and adjustable head rests. The back would recline converting the chair to a chaise lounge like affair to make administration of the hot towel, lather and the straight razor easier on the barber. The chair could be adjusted as to height.

The need for barbershops was fueled not as much as a need for a haircut, but in the days of the straight razor by a need for a decent shave. Shaving with a straight razor was an art which few mastered. First, the razor had to be stropped to hone its edge. Shaving soap had to be worked into a lather with the shaving brush before undertaking the very careful application of the razor. For travelers, carrying around the tools necessary for a shave was impractical. Thus, every hotel had a barber shop, usually near the men’s room. All three of the Flagler Hotels had their own barbers.

There were even barbers on cross-country or long distance trains. It is difficult, however, to imagine trusting one’s self to the application of a straight razor as the car lurched to and fro in a fashion reminiscent of the John O’Groat’s Ferry bucking the seas on the way to Orkney.

In 1903, the safety razor was invented. Bill Nye commented as to the razor:

“At first I used to shave my self, but I cut myself to pieces in such a sickening manner, without seeming to impede the growth of the rich and foxy beard, that until last summer I gave up being my own barber. At that time I was presented with a safety razor which the ‘manufacturer said would not cut my face, because it was impossible for it to cut anything except the beard. The safety razor resembles in appearance several other toilet articles, such as the spoke shave, the road scraper, the can opener, the lawn mower and the turbine water wheel, but it does not look like a razor. It also looks like a carpet sweeper some, and reminds me of a monkey wrench. It is said that you can shave yourself on a train if you will use this instrument. I tried it once last winter while going west. In fact, I took the trip largely to see if one could shave on board the train safely with this razor. I had no special trouble. At least I did not cut off any features that I cared anything about, but I was disappointed in the results, and also in the length of time consumed in cleaning the razor after I got through. I was shaving myself only from Forty-Second Street to Albany, but it took me from Albany to Omaha to pull the razor apart, and to dig out the coagulated lather and the dear, dear whiskers.”

Bill Nye was a popular speaker on the Chautauqua Circuit at the end of the 19th Century. Nye, a lawyer, got his start in humor as the editor of the Laramie Boomerang. The paper was named after Nye’s mule, Boomerang. The mule received his name as the result of his bad habit of following Nye into the saloon. The mule would be shooed out, but would return – like a boomerang. The paper was published above the livery stable, which unfortunately gave the persons working on the paper a distinctive aroma.

Next week: The Chautauqua and after-dinner speakers.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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