By Dr. Paul Loatman Jr., City Historian Civil war era facial hair styles.
An institution which spanned the past century and a half is about to disappear locally. Many men can recount their first youthful experiences there, even if they cannot recall the details precisely, and they pass these stories on to their sons and grandsons as part of their folklore. Indeed, in bygone days, it was one of the duties of fathers to initiate their young sons by taking them there as a kind of rite de passage of manhood. Servicemen returning from war-torn distant shores never felt at home again until they had spent a couple of hours there. One of the greatest short stories in American literature Hemingway's "The Killers" - is set there, as is the denouement of the movie, "The Godfather." It is a place which has always been regarded as part of a man's world, and when young boys were first allowed to go there alone, they knew to keep their mouths shut, feeling privileged to be permitted to listen in on adult male conversation. A democratic institution where all classes mingled, doctors and lawyers along with dirt farmers and red-suspendered laborers each waited in his turn on a "first come, first served" basis. I speak, of course, of that great American institution, the barbershop.
Over a century ago, "Gardner, Kenny, and Eddy" promised to give their clientele a "physiognomical haircut" at their three-chaired emporium on Park Ave. They claimed that "each barber is an artist, each artist a star." The shaggy, bearded look was au courant at the time, and most men who were regular customers left their shaving mugs at the establishment, for no man who cared about his image would be satisfied with merely trimming his locks, getting shaved and having one's beard shaped were part of the package, too. The hirsute look had caught on to such a degree in the Civil War era that there was only one clean-shaven president elected between 1856 and 1912: William McKinley in 1896. However, a combination of army regulations and industrial efficiency experts (along with the invention of the Gillette Safety Razor) ended the era of barbershop shaves. But, while Mr. Gillette brought shaving into the privacy of the home, the short-haired style which became dominant in the 1920s led more men to get more hair cut more often. Where only three practitioners advertised their talents in the 1890s, thirty years later, the Mechanicville City Directory listed thirteen barbers offering their services. In coming years, millions of young recruits introduced into the military with the "GI buzz-cut" solidified the close-cropped look, and facial hair went the way of the dodo bird. By the early 1960s, things seemed to have reached a permanent state of affairs when it came to men's hair styles, and despite the fact that Mechanicville's population had declined sharply in the three previous decades, there were as many as fourteen men practicing the barbering arts locally as recently as 1965. In other words, two world wars and one Great Depression had done nothing to diminish the centrality of the local barbershop in our society. The institution had entered the realm of folklore and language. Who, after all, needed to be told what the sound of a barbershop quartet was like? And, what home owner would not be horrified to learn from his carpenter that his newly hung front door reflected barber-poling, the clashing, uneven coloring caused by contrasting wood grains? True, no one went to the barber shop anymore for a bloodletting, but everyone was well aware that the revolving red and white poles outside the shops once advertised establishments where opening a vein or two with a razor promised to restore the balance of the body's "four humors" and thus, good health. Even George Washington's doctors had called for the barber's razor when the father of our country was suffering a bout with the flu. Whether or not his subsequent death ended the medical profession's fascination with bloodletting is problematical, but the red and white poles remained while the razors removed only hair, not blood.
Civil war era facial hair styles
Fast-forward to a little more than a decade ago, when the local professional ranks had been reduced to four: Joe Marotta on Mabbett St., Roland Gaetano on North Main, and Joe Volpe and Busty Gagliardi at opposite ends of Saratoga Ave. Sure, there were also "hair stylists" hereabouts, but our aforementioned professionals were old-fashioned barbers, offering haircuts, nothing more, nothing less. Their shops each had a large window out of which the customer could survey the street scene before him while his locks were shorn. They all offered a variety of local newspapers which were sure to contain the latest baseball or basketball scores, and the price for their "services rendered" always hovered on either side of a five-dollar bill. Each shop had its own ambiance, whether it was Marotta's leafy green plants, Busty's matching infinite-reflecting facing mirrors, Joe Volpe's combination of family and local baseball team pictures, or Roland's odd-shaped shop which followed the winding contours of the Tenendehowa Creek upon whose shores it was built. Conversation on Mabbett St. often turned on the latest church affairs, reflecting the owner's years as an usher at the Church of the Assumption. Joe Volpe like to combine the sound of "big band" radio with local police calls, while Busty still might be suddenly interrupting hours of classical music by switching to something more modern when the mood strikes him. Of the four, Roland's shop had the least esthetic touch, but here, one could hear the best-told tales, whether it was the one about "the big one who got away," the long, winding putt which just lipped the cup, or most tragic of all, the long shot in the feature race who got nipped at the wire. But now, there is only one shop left, and if you want to experience one last vestige of small-town, face-to-face life, you will have to catch Busty before he closes up shop for the day. A man not easily given to cheap sentimentality, he did admit recently that he was somewhat taken aback by the realization that he was the last of a dying breed.
In the future, grandfathers may tell their young ones about the glory days of the barbershop and try to explain why, in days when they still had hair, getting a simple cut was good enough for them, "styling" not being part of their vocabulary. They may recall nostalgically what it was like to have a peaceful half hour to one's self sitting in a "man's world" reading the sports pages without interruption. And, they may attempt to explain what that strange rotating red and white barber pole once symbolized. Most of all, they may wonder how modern life snuck up on them so fast that they were surprised to learn, "And then there was one." Slow down a bit the next time you drive by Joe Volpe's shop on Saratoga Avenue and take a good long look - it may be the last barber pole you ever see.