The year was 1921. Leo Wahl had just invented the electric hand-held hair clipper after experimenting with vibrating motors. Most hair clippers at the time were either manual or had a separate motor attached to a cord to help them vibrate. (Trainor) However, these new hair clippers had the motor inside
the handheld clippers, making them more mobile and easier to use than ever. They looked like a clump of metal with a comb on top, attached to a short cord, and they became the perfect tool for Henry Cecil “Buck” Simmons, who started his career as a barber years before this technology was available, in the deep south of Alabama. Although there were various tools used in barbershops to help style hair and beards, the electric hair clippers became more popular because of the haircuts that were popular. Additionally, they helped speed up the haircut process while also providing a more effective tool for barbers. However, there were multiple accessories that went into a full barbershop experience. Whether it was the chairs, the shoe shine, or the long talks about life at the shop, barbers like Buck in America during the 30’s took pride in their tools as an essential component to their career.
After World War I, clean cut hairstyles for men became more popular. The military required those being drafted into the war to shave their hair. Buck was one of these men. As a man that already enjoyed cutting hair for a living, he helped the men who returned from war keep up with this new look. Tools like combs and handheld knife-like razors used to be what they would use to groom themselves. They would use these tools to have smooth curls and shapes in their beard and hair. However, during the 30’s it became more popular to keep the shaved look. It is unclear if they kept up with their shaved looks because they thought it looked better or if it was just because they found it more convenient. Either way, the affordable home electric hair clippers made it so men could keep up with their shaved looks. The professional electric hair clippers allowed barbers to distribute these hairstyles in the best way possible. Buck could shave his sons’ and neighbors’ hair at home, and the veterans’ hair at the shop.
Before the Great Depression hit, barber shops were seen as a luxury. Customers could come and get their haircut, shoes shined, and chat with friends. The barbershops themselves exemplified this luxury by having classy looking furniture. Bright red leather seats were seen in Buck’s shop. He adored the space and kept it clean. However, after the Great Depression hit, the barbershops took a hit. Many men were no longer able to enjoy things like barbershops, and would resort to cutting their hair on their own. The barbers who owned these shops would start cutting hair for their neighbors and close family to save everyone money. The electric hair clippers were definitely still popular among barbers, but they used them in various different settings. Many were likely unable to continue owning or working at an actual barbershop, but would still cut hair on the side or at the very least, their own hair. Buck kept his shop, but charged significantly less for cuts to help him and his customers. The bright red seats were now only a small glimpse of comfort in the wrath of the Great Depression.
The Great Depression hit rural communities, like Vinegar Bend, Alabama, especially hard. For barbers in this area, they likely had to find a new job completely. Although most would still cut hair on the side, they did not get enough business to provide food or money for their family. However, finding a new job during the great depression was very unlikely, also. Many barbers probably still relied on neighbors and people within their small community to pay them a small bit to cut their hair. This was not ideal, but nothing during the Great Depression was ideal. Especially for poor, rural workers in Alabama. (Couch) Buck was a luckier man in the rural south, though it still hurt his family of six, deeply. He picked up labor work on the side when there was no hair to cut at his shop.
There have been some skeptics of the electric hair clippers about their usefulness and safety. Some people thought the electric movements right next to one’s head may be causing brain tumors in men. This was never proven to be the case. Vibrating motors in themselves were still a new and interesting invention at the time, especially when put with cutting hair. If they were not in the right hands, they could have easily resulted in an injury. Buck was a professional, and handled his clients and clippers with care. To a barber, these handheld electric hair clippers brought a sense of purpose to their lives. These clippers made their work more efficient. By doing so, literally helped provide more food, more frequently on the table during times of need.
Couch, J. F., and P. M. Williams. “New Deal or Same Old Shuffle? The Distribution of
New Deal Dollars Across Alabama.” Economics and Politics, vol. 11, no. 2, 1999, pp. 213–223.
Stone, Crystal. “Interview about Great-Grandpa Buck with Donna Stone (Grand Daughter).”
15 Mar. 2019.
Trainor, Sean. Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2016,