One whose occupation is to shave the beard, and to cut and dress the hair, of others. — Webster, 1882
A.A. Brownell expects to move his barber shop into the basement of the Couse Block as soon as a room can be fitted up for him. His quarters there will be roomy and convenient. – The De Smet Leader, January 1, 1887.
Although a barber and his (or her) barbering shears are mentioned in the Little House books, the only actual barbering Wilder writes about is done by a barber mouse! In Little Town on the Prairie, the Ingallses’ homestead shanty is overrun with mice, and Ma laments the fact that they have no cat like their Big Woods cat, Susan, who would have kept them “thinned out.” Pa’s hair gets a bit of thinning one night, however, when his head is visited by an industrious mouse, who bites off strands of Pa’s brown hair with which to make a nest. Pa feels his noggin being nibbled, grabs the poor mouse, and tosses it away. The mouse is found the following morning just where Pa had thrown it, dead as a doornail. No mice were harmed or human hair taken unawares in the creation of the barber mouse Christmas ornament shown here.
The story of the barber mouse appears in Wilder’s handwritten Pioneer Girl memoir (and the Bye and Brandt versions typed by Rose Wilder Lane) as well as in Laura’s Prairie Girl manuscript, so it’s safe to assume that the story is true. It’s also safe to assume that Charles Ingalls had his hair cut by a barber at any time the family was living in easy traveling distance to a town; Wilder assumes her readers know what a barber is, and it’s clear that Ma and Laura both know what Pa is talking about when he tells the story.
Barber shears. A specialty cutting instrument / scissors with long sharp blades, used for cutting hair. One finger loop has a hook (properly called the tang) on which the pinky finger of the cutting hand rests, allowing for better control of the blades. The thumb of the cutting hand goes in one finger loop and the ring finger in the other. The sound of hair being “snipped” is easily heard by the customer, being close to the ears. Pa mistakes the sound of the mouse chewing off his hair to the sound the barber’s shears make; it is this “snip snip” sound that wakes him. The image here is from a 19th century catalog.
An early De Smet barber established business in the basement of Couse Hardware, where men could also find access to a shave and a bath if desired. In 1896, the building that Royal Wilder owned on Calumet – as mentioned in the Little House books – was used by barber Charles Wood as his barber shop. At other times, there was a barber shop in the basement of the First National Bank building, constructed by John Carroll on the lot where the Ingallses spent the Hard Winter.
The only barber shop mentioned in any Little House book is in Farmer Boy (see Chapter 28, “Mr. Thompson’s Pocketbook”, when Almanzo looks into the barber shop in Malone after leaving his father at Mr. Case’s store in search of Mr. Thompson; the story recounts that Almanzo also looked for Mr. Thompson in unnamed stores and the bank. In the Farmer Boy manuscript, a different story about the return of Mr. Thompson’s pocketbook is told, and there is no mention of a barber shop at all. James Wilder merely tells Almanzo that Mr. Thompson is sure to be in the restaurant next door having a snack, and this is exactly where Almanzo finds him, eating some beans and pie.
In the manuscript, Almanzo and his father visit Mr. Paddock’s hardware store (not wagon shop) during a different trip to town, when they go there to get an ax sharpened. Almanzo watches with interest the tinsmith who works in the back of the shop, and Mr. Paddock suggests to Mr. Wilder that Almanzo be apprenticed to the tinsmith (not a wagon maker). Going by the age of Almanzo in Farmer Boy, during the year 1866-1867, Henry Paddock had a hardware store on Main Street, and there were several barbers and barber shops in town, including one also located at on Main Street. The National Bank of Malone was located on Main Street, and Henry A. Paddock was its vice president.
On display at the Methodist Church Museum in Spring Valley, Minnesota, is this barber chair that Royal and Almanzo Wilder each sat in many times while getting their hair cut in Spring Valley.
barber (LTP 3, 18)
mouse (LTP 3; PG)
shears (LTP 3)
shop (FB 28)