Area barber shops once doubled as gambling dens

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinal on June 21, 1994.

Five cents once paid for a shave.

The old-fashioned barber shop is one of the small town institutions that has virtually disappeared over the last generation. Most people remember them as stable, rather quiet businesses, but this was not always the case.

Barbers shops had a somewhat disreputable reputation through most of the 19th century. There was a feeling that excessive attention to personal appearance constituted the deadly sin of vanity, and that spending money on shaves and haircuts was a squandering of that money.As well, barbershops, along with bar rooms, were part of the men’s culture of the time. They attracted idlers and gossips, who sat around and smoked or chewed tobacco, read disreputable magazines such as the Police Gazette and Leslie’s Illustrated, and exchanged ribald stories with other customers as they came and went.

Frequently, barber shops were nests of wagering and gambling. During periods of prohibition, they were reliable sources of alcohol. In the 1860s and 1870s, teachers could be fired for merely walking into a barber shop.

Barbers themselves often had bad reputations. Many barbers were transients with no families. They drifted from town to town, staying a few months or a couple of years at most, often leaving a trail of unpaid bills in their wake. They could easily pack up the tools of their trade in a bag, and rent a small room in the next town to start all over again.

Elora, with less than 1,000 population, had two barbers in the late 1850s. Both left town early in 1860, complaining that there was not enough business to support even one. There were perhaps a dozen, and possibly more, barbers who passed through Elora in the 1850s and 1860s. We know virtually nothing about them, sometimes not even their names.

In the mid-19th century, a significant number of barbers were blacks. Undoubtedly, they had learned their skills before fleeing to Canada via the underground railway. For them, it was an ideal profession: they could relocate easily, and did not need a great deal of capital to get their own business started. There are hints that a couple of Elora’s early barbers were blacks.

Richard Bowers opened a barber shop late in 1860, but he left after four months, unable to eke out a living. The Elora Observer noted his departure with a comment that today would be considered racist: “The citizens of Elora will again have the opportunity of imitating the Jew, by allowing their beard, moustache and hair to grow as long as their arm.”

The editor, “Observer” John Smith, may have been one of the few regular customers. Other people pointed out that Elora’s barbers had all left due to lack of business, and that a few young constituted the majority of the regular customers.

The next long-term (if two years can be considered long-term) barber was George Smith, who opened a shop in Elora in 1866. He was succeeded by David Grant, James Craven, and Joseph Dopp, all long forgotten names. In 1873, H. Rebscher opened the Ontario Hair Dressing Parlour on the west side of Metcalfe Street. Rebscher attempted to raise the tone of the local barber shop. He advertised extensively, and catered to women and children, shunning the seamier side of the business of his predecessors. He charged 25 cents for cutting and setting women’s hair, 12 cents for a man’s haircut, and 7 cents for a shave.

Initially, Rebscher did well, but the novelty of the business soon wore off. In 1874, he sold the business to RL. Brown, who claimed that he had worked in the best shops in the U.S. and Canada. In addition to carrying on Rebscher’s more upscale business style, he concocted and sold Brown’s Dandruff Embrocation and Hair Restorer for 50 cents a bottle. For the comfort of his customers, he put a sofa and easy chairs in his shop.

Brown was one of the few Elora barbers to advertise extensively. Male vanity was in full flower in the 19th century. Barbers did a brisk business dying moustaches and hair, and selling various hair tonics and restorers.

Brown had some competition. In 1874 George Burton opened a shop nearby. He named it the OK Barber Shop, and also solicited women and children as customers. The competition produced a price war. Haircuts dropped to ten cents, and shaves to five cents. Burton moved away after a few months, but returned to Elora in 1876.

Brown and Burton were no more stable than their predecessors. Brown sold his shop in 1876 to a barber names James Hartley and moved to Galt. Brown returned the next year and purchased Burton’s shop, but his revival was short lived. By 1880, Elora was back to a single barber: Tom Young, followed by Bill Hoehn.

Barbering in Elora finally achieved stability with the opening of Henry Dalton’s shop in 1881. An American, Dalton came to Elora with his father, who worked at the Aboyne flour mill. He probably learned the trade from one of the other Elora barbers, who frequently had a teenage assistant or apprentice. Dalton acted as the agent for a laundry, and sold cigars as a sideline.

Dalton had no competition until the early 1890s, when Ward Alderson set up shop. Alderson soon sold out to Nathaniel Condy. Barber shops gained a measure of respectability during the 1890s, and business boomed. Condy added a second chair and a full time assistant in 1895, at his shop in the Commercial Hotel building on Mill Street. Dalton followed suit in 1901. This meant there were four barbers in Elora; only 20 years before there had hardly been enough business for one.

Nate Condy sold his barber shop just after the turn of the century to William J. Arthur. An Elora old boy, Arthur had learned the trade from Henry Dalton, and then worked in Palmerston for a few years. Arthur moved his shop from the Commercial Hotel to Metcalfe Street.

Henry Dalton, meanwhile, had moved to the peak portion of the Dalby Hotel. He operated here until 1907, when he sold the business to T. Moore and moved back to the family home in Troy, New York. He continued as a barber there for 12 years, and then became the manager of the Troy bus station. Moore was followed by barbers named T.N. Moon and Hooey. In order to attract working men, Hooey began opening at 6:30 am and often earlier so that workers could drop in on their way to work.

Moore did not remain long in Elora. Bill Arthur took over the premises, an ideal location for a barber shop. Arthur remained here until 1911, when he bought the Stephenson building on Geddes Street, across from the library. Arthur’s former premises at the Dalby House were occupied by Hooey in the 1920s, and in the 1930s by Hooey’s successor, J.M. Quinn.

Henry Dalton and Nate Condy were the first barbers with a real attachment to Elora. Both participated actively in community affairs. Bill Arthur followed their path, supporting various community groups and serving nine years on Elora council. When he died in 1936 the business was continued by his son William Jr.

Beginning in the 1920s the local barbers tried to establish uniform hours and rates, but the agreements rarely lasted very long. Several times they tried to have Elora council establish uniform hours, but the local politicos had no desire to get involved. The hours of work for barbers could be horrendous. In 1926, the agreement called for closings during the week at 8 pm, and 11 pm on Saturdays. The 1934 agreement allowed no opening before 5 am, and closings of 8 pm during the week, 9 pm on Fridays, and midnight on Saturday.

The old-fashioned barber shop in Elora died when the shops of Jim Quinn, Billy Arthur and Jim Scrimingeour (operator of Elora’s third barbershop in the 1950s) closed. The old shop with its elevating barber’s chair, bottles of brightly coloured hair tonics, half-dozen wooden chairs, and piles of dog-eared magazines is a memory of a past age.

Thorning Revisited