Radical Barbers on the Cutting Edge of History

| October 26, 2011 4:00 AM

Radical barbers gave haircuts to protesters in Zuccotti Park on Oct. 24. But this isn't the first time hair cuts and activism have walked hand in hand. AP/Kathy Willens

As it turns out, the barbers that gave free haircuts this week to Occupy Wall Street protesters are part of a streak of progressive politics running throughout American haircut history.

Barbers Take to the Street This Week

On Oct. 25, a band of barbers showed up in Zuccotti Park to give long-haired protesters a trim. Those on the receiving end of the cuts sported barber capes emblazoned with big bank logos, demanding that banks take a “haircut” — a reference to the loss a lender takes when a loan cannot be paid back in full — rather than writing off the huge debts of wealthy corporations, reported the New York Post.

And earlier this month, on Oct. 15, the group “Suits for Wall Street” sent a team of “radical barbers” to the park to help protesters look more presentable, in order to draw political centrists toward their cause.

So what’s with everyone trimming their hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle? From barbers and beauty shops that doubled as safe spaces for subversive discussion to striking stylists, MetroFocus looks at a few of the shear-wielding leaders at the cutting edge of U.S. history.

Journeymen with Shears: The 1800s

The activist history of barbers in New York City dates back at least as far as 1886, when the Journeymen Barber’s Protective Union was part of the inaugural American Federation of Labor convention, making barbers some of the first advocates for organized labor.

Barbers rally in Union Square on May 24, 1913. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Brooklyn Barber’s Strike of 1913

On May 5, 1913, a group of barbers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn went on strike. Within a few days, nearly 3,000 barbers from across the city had joined the strike, leaving frantic barbershop shop owners (known as “boss barbers”) to man the shears. On May 24, when 10,000 barbers marched to Union Square, the barbershop owners met the strikers’ demands: recognition of their union, the Industrial Workers of the World, known as a radical anarcho-syndicalist organization; a shorter work day; and Sundays off. This development was one of the major early victories in the fight for the eight-hour day, which would eventually be won for most private-industry workers in 1816.

Max Bedacht, the German barber who helped found the Communist Party of America after arriving in New York. Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org.

Max Bedacht: The Communist Barber

In 1910, a barber named  Max Bedacht arrived in Manhattan from Germany.  He cut hair by day and operated as a stormy socialist agitator by night. After he left New York, Bedacht found work in various other U.S. cities as a socialist newspaper editor. He helped found the Communist Party of America, then ran for New York Senate on the Communist ticket. He eventually became the longtime head of the International Workers Order, a leftist fraternal organization, and was subsequently subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Martha Matilda Harper, an early women's suffragist, became one of the wealthiest women in the world after opening a chain of hair salons and beauty parlors. Photo courtesy of kipnotes.com.

Beauty Parlors and Women’s Suffrage

As women fought to vote and own property, the beauty parlor played an active role both as a gathering space for political discussion and one of the earliest paths to female entrepreneurship. After attending the Seneca Falls Convention with her friend Susan B. Anthony, activist Martha Matilda Harper eventually opened a popular chain of hair salons and cosmetic parlors, making her one of the most independently wealthy women in the world.

In her book “Beauty Shop Politics,” Tiffany Gill detailed the vital role beauty parlors played in empowering African-American business women, particularly during the Jim Crow-era, and allowing them to create spaces where the political discussion wasn’t dominated by men.

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