The old-time barbershops of Sellwood and Westmoreland
Saturdays were often the most popular day of the week for men in the 1920's, and it wasn't just because for many it was a day off. There wasn't a week that you wouldn't find a gathering of gentlemen at the local barbershop, weekends included.
It's not that men a century ago were fastidious about their looks; it's just that the corner barbershop was where men gathered to banter with each other, follow their favorite sports teams, and hear the latest local gossip. And, like many other local communities in the City of Portland and across the nation, Sellwood and Westmoreland offered a host of hair cutting establishments to choose from.
Over twenty hair cutting shops could be found along the 13th Avenue strip, and north in the Westmoreland district, so men had quite a choice of where to get lathered and shaved, get a comb and brush treatment, or even have their moustache waxed and curled. They came for the camaraderie, they came because they liked the barber, or they came because everyone there had the same political ideas.
Yes sir, they gathered at Tony's Barbershop on S.E. 17th because that's where all the Republicans hung out – or they might want to be the first to grab a chair at Bob's on Milwaukie Avenue, before the rest of the Democrats had arrived and filled the joint up.
In the early 1900s, and well into the "roaring twenties", crowds of people attended "Chautauquas" at Oaks Park or at Canemah Park near Oregon City, for political debates between local candidates. Political rallies could be found in almost any part of the city. And if that wasn't enough, gentlemen with like-minded opinions could visit their local barbershop. It was here that you could complain about city officials, argue about the increase of taxes, or grumble about the Sellwood Sheriff who failed to stop roaming cows from trampling residents' gardens and knocking down fences.
The barbershop was a hotbed of political action, and if you sat in a barbers' chair and had a different point of view than Conservative Carl or Liberal Leon combing your tresses, you might be at risk of leaving with a lop-sided haircut. Or worse, you might get jabbed on the side of the head – by accident, of course.
Barbers have been around for a long time, found in almost any town and village. Cutting hair and shaving faces was a hard vocation in a little village like Sellwood in its earliest times. Farmers, tradesmen, and artisans could ill-afford such luxuries, and often let months go by between a shaves and haircuts. Barbers didn't begin showing up on muddy Umatilla Street until as late as the 1890s. Sellwood was still a smattering of single dwellings huddled near the Willamette River waterfront, still accessed by ferry with the Sellwood Bridge years away from becoming a reality, six miles up the river from Portland.
One of the first barbers to arrive in Sellwood was C. A. Williams, who worked from a small square shed-like structure built next to his house. A large pane window in the front offered Williams the opportunity to view the action out on the street, as potential customers lumbered slowly by in a horse drawn wagons, or came to town for supplies. It took a cunning barber, like Williams, to convince men who were just traveling through to stop for a much-needed groom, let alone a bath.
During slow times between customers, when the steamboat or ferry had not yet arrived at the Sellwood waterfront, merchants along the street would gather outdoors to engage in idle conversation. Williams might strike up a conversation with any passing teamster, inquiring what grain was selling for on the market. Or, while watching the local grocer fussing with an outdoor display case, he would ask if any apples were available today.
After the small talk, he might suggest that it looked like they were due for a haircut.
To the youngster passing by on a horse he might remind that the Saturday night dance in Sellwood was coming up; a haircut with some rose water or a special hair tonic from Williams' barbershop would certainly make him the dandy of the dance. Not only did Barbers have to be good with hair, they also had to be convincing salesmen!
As the population began to grow around the start of the 20th Century, barbershops became more prevalent in the commercial districts – especially along the streetcar line on 13th Avenue. Shops like "Roberts and Larson" or "Disbro and Pierce" offered barbers working in tandem, to handle any rush of customers.
Often a barber's day could last from sun up to sundown, seven days a week. With two barbers on hand, one could relieve the other for breaks, lunch, or even a long midday nap, as well as the times when they had to travel by ferry to the west side of the river for personal business.
As the times changed, so too did the barbershops. And, to attract high-end clientele, the exterior of these shops became flamboyant with colorful awnings, a candy-stripe barber's pole, or a large display window for potential customers as they passed by to see the cleanliness and luxury they demanded of a barbershop.
And it was soon after that that men no longer entered the front door of a barbershop only for a fast shave and haircut – as mentioned earlier, they came for the camaraderie – to swap stories, tell jokes, or catch up on the latest news from the chatty man with the clippers in his hand.
If you lived south of Tacoma Street a century ago, you could choose between the "Roberts and Larsen" barbershop, or "Bill the Barber" on the next block. Upon entering either shop, you were greeted with the welcoming fragrance of Witch Hazel Rum and shaving soaps.
At William Moore's, just to the north, there were barber chairs with fancy steel foot-rests and leather seats; and next door, at Grover Davis's, a long and well-used leather strap hung from a nail in the wall. Before every shave, those seated in Grover's chair with faces covered by a hot towel, could hear the stroke of the straight razor being sharpened back and forth across the strap, and then feel its cold steel shaving their neck.
Streetcar conductors and workers, the businessmen at the Sellwood Bank on Umatilla Street, and local grocers and pharmacists might then have patronized these barbershops. It wouldn't be a surprise if Charles Ballard, Editor of THE BEE at the time, sat in one of those barber's chairs, gathering local tidbits for the next edition of the newspaper.
North of Tacoma Street, residents also had many barbershops to choose from within easy walking distance. Hair cutting shops up the avenue included Walt's Barbershop on Spokane Street, Wiebe's a few doors down, Barneys near Miller Street, and Harry Houghtling's shop on Nehalem Avenue. Clientele included mill hands from the Eastside Lumber Mill, drivers and workers from the Peerless Laundry Company, and the many merchants and residents nearby.
Men who lived in Inner Southeast and commuted to work on the west side of town, either chose a barber Downtown, or waited until the weekend for their weekly visit to the available barbers in Sellwood and Westmoreland.
Over the course of the following twenty years barbershops came and went, and some changed hands. W.F Stewart replaced Grover Davis, and Mick's Hair Cutting Shop took over Tony's Barber Stop. The most established hair stylist for men was the Sellwood Barbershop, situated at Tenino and 13th, serving customers for over fifty years. The Sellwood Barbershop became known among locals as Trite's Barbershop. When Edwin Trite and his wife settled in Sellwood in 1911, Ed was quick to reserve a barber's chair at the Sellwood Hairstyling Shop, partnering with Bert Wescott and Martin Larsen. Two years later, Edwin became the sole owner, and for the next five decades he continued cutting hair for three generations of families, until his retirement in 1960.
Almost every barbershop along 13th Avenue was a simple one- or two-man establishment in the 1920's, but few could compare to the Sellwood Barbershop, which was filled with luxurious features that rivaled most big-time operations in Portland's downtown business district. The four-chair establishment of Jim Roberts, Bert Wescott, Martin Larsen, and Ed Trite – all dressed in starched white jackets with black ties – presented a taste of downtown luxury for customers who lived in what was still a rather rural southeast neighborhood.
To continue with our portrait of the swanky Sellwood Barbershop, a large wooden-framed mirror ran lengthwise on the south wall, set atop a wainscoted counter filled with shaving lotions, hair tonics, and barbers' tools. Across the aisle, two sets of chairs were available for waiting customers, and a calendar with a smiling girl hung on the wall, along with a poster depicting different hairstyles patrons could choose from.
But that wasn't all, ladies and gentlemen! The Sellwood Berbershop also had a western-style spittoon near the foot of the front barber's chair, for customers to use. How classy is that!
An open wooden cupboard of shaving mugs lined the wall of the shop for weekly visitors who came for a weekly shave. Many barbers offered these for sale for 50 cents, while more elaborate shaving mugs were available up to $2.50. Shaving mugs were often decorated with flowers, sailing ships, butterflies, or birds, and most included the owner's name, hand-embossed in gold!
Fraternity groups, firemen, and several other service groups could order specialized mugs depicting their occupation. The wall of Trite's Barbershop would later be filled with scenes of firemen in action, brotherhood logos, or job-related scenes for the like of a trolley worker, a carpenter, or a mill worker.
During peak hours at the many barbershops in this part of town in that era, an assistant might be called upon to sweep up the tufts of hair that fell to the tile floor, as well as lather faces, clean the sink, wash out shaving mugs, and rinse out the combs and brushes. A barber's assistant had many chores to perform, all to ensure the barbershop was appealing to new clients, or the regular members of the hair-cutting club.
Encouraged by the fashions and trends in Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and Red Book Magazine, "discerning ladies" in the 1920s raced to the local barbershop to have their hair cut and styled like the models on the front cover of the latest magazine. Barbershops became briefly dependent on female as well as male customers – until beauty salons began showing up next door, or across the street. As early as 1928, ladies' hair salons – like Sara Jane Beauty Shoppe near the Moreland Theater, and Aleta's Beauty Parlor in the Unique Antique structure – provided women an option in hairstyling techniquesIn the 1920s, haircuts were 25 cents, and many men came in to barbershops four or five times a week for a shave. Preparations for a shave were time-consuming, and kept busy young boys serving as attendants providing three to four hot towels per customer from the heated towel-sterilizer machine.
In the 1920's, television was a long way off yet, and few people could yet afford a radio – a medium that was just beginning to gain in popularity. So, entertainment it was another reason to spend a Saturday afternoon at the corner barbershop! A smart owner would have a radio tuned to sports broadcasts – perhaps baseball. And a boxing match broadcast was certain to draw a large crowd of men to almost any local barbershop. In addition to the radio broadcasts that many barbershops offered, what better place to compare stats, boast about your favorite team, or share your knowledge of professional athletics?
Then came the Great Depression, followed by World War II. By the start of the Great Depression, few patrons could afford the luxury of a weekly visit to the barbershop, and the introduction of the disposable-bladed safety razor by Gillette signaled the general demise of the custom shave. Clients could buy a hand razor and a pack of razors at the local drugstore, and shave themselves in the ease of their own bathroom.
And radio had gained in popularity and importance during those two decades, becoming part of every home, and was no longer useful to draw customers to barbershops – although an important sporting event, especially a broadcast of the World Series, would still be turned on inside as it took place.Tony's barbershop, at the corner of 17th Avenue and Spokane Street, was a pocket-sized two-man operation – and was handy for Kaiser shipyard workers who lived in this section of town during the war in the early to mid-1940s. Anton Rekart had partnered with Tony in a small space that many people remember in its later incarnation as the dining area of Bertie Lou's Breakfast House.
When Anton Rekart came to the United States from the Old World – specifically, Russia – he and his family settled in Sellwood in 1914. Anton used his apprenticeship of learning barbering skills to later work alongside Tony, in his two-chair barbershop, but eventually John Rekart followed in his own father's footsteps by going to barber's college, and he began building up his own customer retail business.
The Westmoreland commercial district didn't even get started until around 1910, but once a grocery, a meat market, a pharmacy, and a bakery had opened up around "Milwaukie Avenue and Bybee Street", barbershops soon followed.
The metal sign of Dewey's haircutting joint on Milwaukie Avenue welcomed customers, and George Lindemann's small two-man shop on Rural Street also became popular, where "By the Bunch" flower shop is now located. A visit to the barbershop was a part of growing up; and many who lived in Westmoreland in that era might remember getting their first shave or haircut at the Westmoreland Barbershop at Milwaukie and Bybee. Westmoreland resident Pat Ragnone later noticed, while waiting for his turn at the Westmoreland Shop in 1980, that the barber usually knew more of the kids in the neighborhood than did his own son.
In the 1970s and 80s, television had replaced the old radio in the barbershop, and now was often turned on, showing sporting events. It was at the proprietor's choice, of course, what would be shown during business hours. And it wasn't always sports! Locals Pat Ragnone and Marv Price today agree that the television set at the Westmoreland shop was always then set to an ongoing religious program – and once it was their time to sit in the barber's chair, a free sermon was included with the haircut.
On several occasions, Marv recalls trying to start a conversation with the head barber, asking his opinion on current events – but by the time the barber was finished with the haircut, talk had reverted back to the religious topic of the day.
This choice of program would not seem to be a business-building idea; but the barbershop did continue to have customers. When it was his turn to sit in the "baptismal chair" for his haircut, Pat Ragnone would ask if there were ever any thought of changing the channel to another program. Shaking his head, the barber's mournful reply was usually, "Why, there's nothing worth watching on any of the other channels." (Not that there were many other channels available locally at that time.) A visit to the Westmoreland Barbershop was certainly memorable for anyone.
As the times changed, so too did hair styles; and barbers of course had to keep up on the latest styles. From the "quarter shingle"," military cut", and "commodore" that your grandparents wore, to the "Mohawk Shear", the flip, and the pompadour of the 1940s and 50s, barbers were constantly having to keep up on their customers' tastes.
Between the 1920s and the 1960s, beauty salons began to outnumber men's barbershops, and eventually stylish unisex hair salons and national chain salons had largely replaced the local barber – and the corner barbershop is now mostly a fading memory.
The "Mop Top" haircut, popularized by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, gave conservative barbers fits, and the long haired, hippie look in the late 1960s pretty much doomed the hair cutting business for barbers. High school and college students liking the long hair look didn't need to spend cash in the barber's chair, forcing many of the old-time barbers to close shop for good.
Today, Barbershops catering to men are making a great comeback. "The Barbers" in Sellwood on S.E. 13th Avenue, and "Bishop's Barbershop", have revolutionized haircuts for the modern man, offering such luxuries as leather seats, chrome counters, personal televisions, and hand-held hair dryers. But for those wishing for a leisurely old-time barbershop feel, a visit to LoLos's Westmoreland Barber Shop next to the Moreland Theater on Milwaukie Avenue is indeed a must. Polished stainless steel barbers' chairs with rich red leather seats are reminiscent of the early barbershops that once punctuated the streets of Milwaukie and 13th Avenues, and like the old-time barber shops, it's still open seven days a week. An illuminated revolving red, white, and blue Barbers' Pole in the window helps you find your way there.
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