Early man cave

While researching a history article I’ve had to delve into barbering stories. The initial question has to do with how barbers got to be undertakers and sometimes served as dentists and doctors, without benefit of being trained in any of these occupations. The particular case was the Deadwood, S.D., town barber who laid out Wild Bill Hickok for his funeral. The barber’s nickname was “Doc,” giving the distinct impression this wasn’t the first time he had ministered to another person, wounded or dead. His last name was Peirce (correct spelling) and he is buried in Hot Springs, S.D.

As I read up on the history I found centuries before the 1876 murder of Wild Bill, the term barber-surgeon was common. That was back when one of the treatments for some maladies was to “bleed,” or remove blood from the ill person. That action fell to the barber-surgeon. Several sources said that is the reason the traditional barber pole is red, white and blue.

Why a barber in 1876 would have the reputation of being known as “doc” and having the knowledge of preparing a body for burial still eludes me. Apparently tradition was at work.

As I read references I couldn’t help but remember taking our young sons to the local (trained and licensed) barber. It was definitely and absolutely a man’s establishment and when I entered all conversation ceased. I had always heard about the chatty/gossipy men who frequented such places and I had no qualms about being there. Yet I immediately knew the atmosphere changed when a woman stepped into what is now termed a “man cave.”

Once our boys were old enough, I would take them in and drop them off, returning after what I felt was adequate time to have cut the hair on two boys. I had time to do one or two quick errands then returned to pay the barber and pick up the kids. All in all it was the only time I’ve ever felt ostracized for being a girl. I still don’t understand it. I knew the barbers and conversed with them when not in the shop, at church or on the street. They were nice and kind. But somehow there was a barrier.

During our young boys’ years there were three barbers in Hot Springs. Two of them had something extraordinary in common: both had daughters who were crowned Miss South Dakota and then competed in the Miss America Pageant. That record held for several years until the third Miss South Dakota who hailed from Hot Springs was crowned — and her dad is an electrical contractor.

The lines between barbershop and beauty shops are now blurred. Men commonly go to beauty shops for haircuts; the biggest advantage I can see for that is you can make an appointment. Barbershops may be fewer in number but they do have loyal customers even if they do just have to wait in line for their haircuts. Rarely you will see the red, white, and blue barber pole in front of the beauty shop.

– Sanders writes from the family farm in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. She can be reached through

Peggy Sanders


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