J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Shaving Heads and Faces for a Living

A report on price-fixing from the New-England Courant, the newspaper owned James Franklin, on 30 Nov 1724:

Boston, Dec. 7, on Tuesday the first of this Instant [i.e., this very month] in the Evening, Thirty-two Principal Barbers of this Place, assembled at the Golden Ball [tavern], with a Trumpeter attending them, to debate some important Articles relating to their occupations; where it was propos’d, that they should raise their shaving from 8 to 10 s[hillings] per Quarter, and that they should advance [i.e., go up] 5 s, on the Price of making common Wiggs and 10 s on their Tye ones.
(Printer James's ungrateful apprentice and younger brother Benjamin had skipped town for Philadelphia the previous year.)

Half a century later, teenager Ebenezer Fox became apprentice to a barber and wigmaker, an employment he recalled in his Revolutionary Adventures, published in 1838. (Author picture above.) After the British military left the province in 1776, he recalled:
my brother and myself were sent into Boston to choose our trades and seek our employers. James found a situation in the bakery of Mr. Edward Tuckerman in the south part of the town, as an apprentice upon probation; and I found employment in the shop of Mr. John Bosson, a barber and manufacturer of wigs, upon the same conditions.

After we had been in these situations long enough for all parties to be satisfied, we were bound by my father in regular form as apprentices.
It was for such moments that The Complete Letter-Writer included a model epistle "From a young Apprentice to his Father, to let him know how he likes his Place, and goes on." Fox remembered his workload like this:
My principal employment was in the preparation of hair for the purposes of wigs, crape-cushions, &c.; being occasionally allowed to scrape the face of some transient customer, who might be reasonably expected never to call again for a repetition of the operation.
Back in August I quoted Fox's description of how he came to leave Bosson's barber-shop two years later.


Anonymous said...

Two questions:
Was price-fixing an accepted approach to the market?
Was the Golden Ball Tavern the same facility which became a Tory hangout later in the century?
I am musing on the likelihood of the Golden Ball's having been an establishment hospitable to conservative practices over many years (if one can say that avoiding free-market pricing is a conservative practice) --

J. L. Bell said...

The Golden Ball Tavern in Boston in the 1720s wasn't the same as the Golden Ball Tavern in Weston that became notorious to Whigs in the 1770s. I think a golden ball was just a simple tavern sign to hang.

And yes, businessmen priced goods in the eighteenth century with a lot more collusion and guidance from the local government than we think is good today. Society then was still largely governed by the "moral economy," in which people demanded that prices match their idea of fairness rather than fluctuate according to supply and demand.