From the Americana Files: Mid 20th Century Barber Shops

Depiction of Eve from Seventh Day Adventist book of Bible Stories and Ellen Gould White, right

Depiction of Eve from Seventh Day Adventist book of Bible Stories and Ellen Gould White, right


For the Boomer generation and earlier, barber shops in heartland America used to be male-only refuges.

Unisex “hair stylists” were not yet a thing – men and boys went to barber shops, and women went to “the beauty salon”.

As a 10-year-old going to the barber shop for the first time (our hair was always cut at home), I remember my sense of complete shock.

Men who in public insisted on holding doors open for “ladies”, men who washed their sons’ mouths out with soap for swearing, sat waiting for their turn in the barber’s chair.

They killed the time telling off-color and often racist jokes, some complaining loudly about long-haired hippies and “women’s libbers”.

Like most 10-year-olds of that time and place, the closest I had ever come to seeing a female body in a state of undress was by sneaking a look at the lingerie pages of a Sears-Roebuck catalog, or a feature on the tribes of Central Africa in National Geographic magazine.

To find well-thumbed Penthouse magazines lying scattered on the tables in the barber shop was, well, surprising.

To find those magazines lying atop and alongside hardback books of illustrated Bible Stories was simply beyond the beyond.

Perhaps craziest of all, my stepfather acted as if this was completely normal, and laughed along with every joke.

This might sound silly and mild by today’s standards, with graphic porn and online hate speech available at the click of a button.

But back then, in the space of five minutes, my child’s world had been flipped upsidedown – not by a few soft lens photos of young ladies “in the altogether”, but by the realisation that the adults around me lacked any real integrity. They were blazing hypocrites.




There has always been a strange hypocrisy at the core of heartland American culture.

A huge chunk of the American population went apoplectic 20 years ago, when, during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl, Janet Jackson suffered the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” which was quickly dubbed “Nipplegate”.

Most of the people so horrified by the sight of a female breast were of course the selfsame people who regularly cheer displays of militarism at sporting events.

2004 was a strange year for saying “Thank you for your service”, or cheering military parades, as the USA was a year into its utterly unjustifiable war in Iraq.

Publications such as The Lancet and the Associated Press had estimated that US forces had already caused the deaths of around 100,000 Iraqis by 2004.  By the end of the US engagement there in 2011, it is estimated that well over HALF A MILLION CIVILIANS had died due to the actions of the US military.  This is why it is completely normal today for the US government to offer its unconditional support for the current horror show in Gaza, with 35,000+ dead civilians (mostly women and children) in the space of only a few months.

I ran away from home at 15, and joined the army on my 17th birthday.  I went to boot camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  The first time we were allowed off-base, our drill sergeant pointed us to the “better” strip joints in the nearby town of Lawton.  This was heady stuff for a 17-year-old raised in a hyper-evangelical household.  43 years on, I can still remember how later that Friday night, head swirling from the effects of multiple pitchers of beer, my excitement soon gave way to a sense of self-loathing.  The girls on stage were so clearly just lost runaways like myself, reduced to parading for the gratification of a shouting, leering roomful of swaggering, drunk, faux macho boy-men.  It was like a scene from an Hieronymous Bosch painting come to life.

Many of those boy-men would go on to supply the US with NCOs, killers and cannon fodder for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next 25 years.

But nipples at a Super Bowl…the horror, the horror.

As someone ready to celebrate their 60th birthday this year, I find myself thinking about the America of my childhood and teen years, and how the hypocrisy seen at Super Bowl 2004 was a continuation of the hypocrisy evident in barber shops during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Watching the Super Bowl in 2004 – thirty years after my wake-up call in a barber shop – I realised that the same kind of people who told n***er jokes in that barber shop in 1975 hadn’t gone away.

And now, another 20 years down the line, this hypocritic and toxic worldview is STILL with us, and getting stronger again.

Anyone who has seen the work of David LynchBlue Velvet, Twin Peaks, etc. – will have noticed Lynch’s obsession with this same subject.

The heart of darkness lurking in the shadows behind patriotism and white picket fences…

This blog and podcast has grown out of my determination to snoop among those shadows.

Any heartland American born before 1970 will recognise the illustration on the left.  This is a white evangelical rendering of Eve in the Garden of Eden from those books of Bible Stories found lying around doctor’s offices and barber shops back in the day.

These books were distributed by the Seventh Day Adventists, who clearly felt that their brand of Christianity would be better served by portraying the Middle Eastern characters in the Bible as whiter than white.

Which is curious, considering that one of the prime movers behind the formation of the Seventh Day Adventist church was Ellen Gould White (née Harmon), seen in the right-hand picture.

Her mixed-ethnic appearance hasn’t gone unnoticed by some observers, such that the church she co-founded felt it necessary to commission a genealogical report into Ms. White’s ancestry.

Suffice it to say that their conclusions do not match my own.

But that is a story for another day…

#americana #beforewewerewhite

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