Adam Smith and a Close Shave?

Your blogger has been reading Jesse Norman’s excellent new biography of Adam Smith, entitled Adam Smith: What He Thought and Why it Matters (London: Allen Lane, 2018). The author manages to convey Smith’s thought with admirable clarity and elegance. It is an important, well-written, and accessible contribution that deserves to be widely read. As the author reminds us, Smith was famously troubled by conspiracies of merchants and tradesmen against the public, through, for example, among other methods, the creation of monopolies of rights to work in various employments.

The eighteenth-century world was one in which fashionable gentlemen wore wigs. Smith himself is obviously bewigged in the well-known Tassie Medallion of 1787 that provides our only reliable image of him. To accommodate a tight fitting wig, a man might need to shave his head. Portraits of men in relaxed clothing, such as gowns or banyans, often show them wearing turbans to cover their shaven heads, as they have discarded their wig for comfort. In the University of Edinburgh there is a splendid Raeburn portrait of Professor John Robison in a wonderful striped gown and a turban. The University also possesses a portrait of David Hume in formal clothes but wearing a turban. Raeburn also painted the aged Thomas Reid wearing a wonderful red turban. All of these shaven heads and wigs, as well as the fashion for women to have elaborate high hair involving hair pieces and extensions,  produced a world in which there was a great need for wigmakers and hairdressers, and, by 1789, there were apparently 89 master hairdressers in Edinburgh. But there was an important question: could they shave their clients?

In a world of electric and safety razors, it is very difficult to remember that shaving was once a skilled task. Roman legal texts on the action for damage to property discuss the death of a slave because a barber had set up his apparatus near a place where men were paying ball. For a man to agree to be shaved with an old-fashioned straight razor was indeed to agree to be very vulnerable. He has to allow another open access to his throat with a very sharp blade. This is no doubt why British people think of the legend of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street; but there is a similar legend from medieval Paris about a barber and the production of human charcuterie.

The ancient profession of barber was once linked with the practice of surgery in the middle ages. Barber surgeons were important medical practitioners. Thus, James IV granted a charter to the Incorporation of Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1505. This protected their privileges. By the end of the seventeenth century, the professions of barber and surgeon were clearly separated, and, under an agreement 1722, a separate incorporation of barbers was established in Edinburgh, with certain distinct privileges, notably that those who wished to practice shaving had to be members of the incorporation, to which a fee had to be paid. The incorporation claimed to have authority over those practicing the art of barbering in Edinburgh and various outlying districts. It was jealous of its privileges and can be found suing those who practised the trade without its permission in, for example, the Canongate and elsewhere.

The barbers of Edinburgh became particularly worried about the practices of hairdressers and wigmakers. They had started litigation against them in the 1740s, with a decree in 1750; they had recommenced litigation against the wigmakers and hairdressers in 1756, gaining a decree in 1761. Finally there was a lawsuit that ended in 1789 with a decree in favour of the wigmakers. At issue was the barbers’ privilege of shaving.

Records of the litigious barbers’ suits can be found in Session Papers, the NRS, and the archives of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. On the database of Eighteenth-Century Collections Online can be found what purports to be the “Second Edition” of a Session Paper entitled “Information for the Hairdressers in Edinburgh; Against the Barbers of Edinburgh”, drawn up by Hew Dalrymple, and printed in 1758. This appeared during the actual litigation, and the date is roughly right for an actual advocation of the litigation on a point of law from the Court of the Bailies of Edinburgh to the Court of Session with the matter then being taken on Report by the Lord Ordinary to the Inner House. The Information seems absolutely correct in what it says. The language, however, seems exaggerated and the account given almost comical, at least to modern tastes, as if the paper contains a parody of the arguments for freedom of trade (in this case, shaving), which has led to a suggestion that it is indeed a parody and not a real Session Paper. Further research is needed to determine one way or the other. The Session Paper, real or not, does, however, very clearly present the argument of the hairdressers and wigmakers against the monopoly of the barbers. Whether the Paper is genuine, or indeed a parody prompted by the actual litigation intended to emphasise through comedy the case against the restriction on shaving, it dramatically presents the argument against pointless trade privileges and restrictions, ones indeed seen as constituting a conspiracy against the public interest.

Professor Daniel B. Klein of the Department of Economics of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, editor of Econ Journal Watch, has just published a reprint of this ostensible Session Paper with an introduction:

From a broader perspective, the litigation was just one small part of the end of the monopolies of the trade guilds and the birth of a more modern economic world, the world for which Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations. The Session Paper, genuine or not, contributed to the discussions that led to that end.