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Quartz Obsession — Hairdressers — Card 1
Covid-19 has disrupted many things, such as, oh, only the entire global economy, but it hasn’t stopped hair from growing. And the longer it grew, the more people around the world realized just how essential they actually consider hairdressers to be.
The level of skill involved became even more evident as many of us tried to tame our own locks—with, and this is putting it kindly, mixed results. But the services of hairdressers go beyond cuts and colors. Many play the role of part-time therapist to their clients, while the salons and barbershops in which they operate have a rich history as important community spaces and vital entry points into entrepreneurship for working-class and minority communities. When these spaces close, we lose more than haircuts.
Let’s get those scissors ready.
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Quartz Obsession — Hairdressers — Card 2
90,000–150,000: Number of hairs on the human head
50–100: Number of hairs that fall out of a human head on a daily basis
5: Official human hair colors, all with varying shades, caused by differing types and amounts of melanin produced by the body
9–12: Months it typically takes for a hairstylist to graduate from cosmetology school
20,030: Number of barbers in the US as of May 2019
1,200: Number of customers on the waitlist for a New York salon that charged $1,000 per haircut upon its June 2020 reopening amid the Covid-19 pandemic
$1,500: Price hairstylist Rossano Ferretti used to charge for a cut
$115,000: Price paid for a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair at auction in 2002
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Quartz Obsession — Hairdressers — Card 3
The “hairdresser”—both term and profession—emerged in the 18th century. In the dark times prior, women took care of their hair at home (or their servants did if they were aristocratic sorts). But consumer culture was growing, and, along with it, the service industries. Hairdressers appeared as what Seán Williams, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield in England and author of a forthcoming cultural history of hairdressers, calls an “unprofessionalized profession” (✦ Quartz member exclusive). There were no guilds, no credentials. They used personal connections to ply their trade.
In popular culture of the time, they were somewhat shady characters, cutting and styling hair—still in their homes—and nosing into society circles. Those that served wealthy clients could grow wealthy themselves. In 1746, when eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart went with his family to London on a tour, they lodged in the home of a hairdresser.
Though their services were available to the new middle classes and those that served them, too, Williams says texts of the era present them as a primarily urban phenomenon. “A person from the country or the villages will come into the city and be astounded. There will be lines like, ‘The hairdressers worked seven days a week,’” he explains. “It was just this idea that everyone was using their services as part of this new urban service economy, which I think was a big cultural shift in the late 18th century, early 19th century.”
As time went on, the trade became more professional, and more common. By the end of the 19th century, as norms around modesty that had kept women out of public spaces relaxed, salons hopped onto the rise of the department store and began their spread. In Jim Crow-era US, the industry evolved along racial lines, becoming one of the few avenues for Black entrepreneurship and creating vital gathering places, while also offering customers the small luxury of being able to pause and get pampered.
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Quartz Obsession — Hairdressers — Card 4
“I like to work in America because that’s where the excitement is. But they have so many other things to think about – the war, the riots, the polarization across the cities. How can they put their minds to things as ethereal as fashion? … They haven’t got the time or the energy to give what we put into fashion here. That’s why we’re so advanced.”
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Quartz Obsession — Hairdressers — Card 6
1888: At a time when women commonly do their hair at home, Martha Matilda Harper opens a public salon in Rochester, New York, with her life savings of $360.
1891: Harper creates a franchise system, letting poor women trained in the “Harper Method” open salons to gain financial independence. The first of many open in Buffalo and Detroit.
1900: Annie Turnbo Malone, the daughter of formerly enslaved parents, moves to Lovejoy, Illinois. Around that time she develops her signature product, “Wonderful Hair Grower,” and establishes her Poro company.
1905: Sarah Breedlove, a Malone sales agent, renames herself Madam C.J. Walker, after her new husband, and launches her own line of hair products similar to Malone’s.
1910: Walker moves to Indianapolis, where she builds a factory, a school, and a salon. Her own business thriving, Malone moves her operations into larger facilities, too.
1913: Walker takes her business international and expands into the Caribbean and Central America.
1918: Malone founds Poro College, a training center focused on Black hair. Over the years it offers jobs to thousands of Black women and men selling Poro hair products.
1919: Walker dies. Today she is recognized as the first Black female millionaire in the US. Some say the title belongs to Malone, though both were hugely successful and noted philanthropists.
1926: With more than 500 Harper salons around the world, Harper says the greatest achievement of her Harper Method “is the women it has made.” Malone donates large sums to causes supporting Black Americans through the 1920s, and by the time of her death in 1957, leaves a legacy beyond haircare.
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Quartz Obsession — Hairdressers — Card 7
If the salon industry is facing a temporary dead end, cannabis is at a crossroads.
One avenue leads to the growth of Big Weed, a corporate culture that follows the example of Big Alcohol before it.
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Quartz Obsession — Hairdressers — Card 8
In the earliest representations of humans, women often have braided hair and men have no hair, suggesting they would cut it off. One theory behind the shearing is that prehistoric unwashed hair would have smelled so strongly it would have alerted prey.
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Quartz Obsession — Hairdressers — Card 9
One of the funniest scenes in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s award-winning Fleabag is a reminder that, sadly, we can’t fix our lives with a new haircut.
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Quartz Obsession — Hairdressers — Card 10
Barber shops are vital spaces for the Black community in the US, but they started out serving mostly wealthy white men. Quincy T. Mills, author of Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, spoke to Marketplace about their historical role as one of the few avenues open to Black entrepreneurs prior to the late 19th century and their continued importance today.