Barber Chair Salesman Sample
A Kansas businessman marketed his barber chairs using this small sales model.
Most men sat in barber chairs at least once a week for a cut and a shave in the 1920s. The fashion called for short, well-trimmed hair and clean-shaven cheeks flanking a sleek mustache. Stylish young women also visited barbershops, but to have their long hair cropped into bob cuts mimicking those worn by movie stars such as Louise Brooks.
Perfectly groomed heads were the cat's meow, and barbers were in high demand. The number of barbers in Topeka increased throughout the 1920s as good economic times meant many citizens could afford the best in personal care. Around 50 barbers were listed in the city directory at the beginning of the decade; by the end, there were nearly 90 individual barbers and ten barbershops in a town with a population of 62,800. The prevalence of straight razors contributed to the barbershop boom because the open blades were difficult for untrained people to handle and sharpen.
If business was good for barbers, then it also was good for barber supply houses. The Robison Barber Supply, also known as Robison Manufacturing Company, is one case in point. Founder Edward Robison had left Chillicothe, Missouri for Topeka, Kansas sometime during the late 1910s. Robison knew how to shill products on a circuit because he'd been a traveling salesman for a wholesale house. But Robison knew more than sales and marketing. He also was an inventor.
Robison opened a supply house close to downtown, where he manufactured hair clippers of his own design. The entrepreneur also developed salves, tonics, and a device called the "Ruth Razor." A 1920 newspaper article in the Topeka Journal mentions that Robison "has a number of useful inventions to his credit," including a "manless aircraft" equipped with a remote control bomb-dropping device. Robison's appetite for innovation and change apparently knew few bounds, although his focus remained the barber supply house.
The pictured barber chair model probably was at the heart of Robison's business, because such furniture was expensive but necessary. Robison marketed his line with the pictured salesman's sample (see side view of chair). Less than a foot high, it is fully functional and demonstrates all the full-sized barber chair's features, including adjustable headrest and hydraulic seat, yet is portable enough to be carried anywhere for sales visits. Robison's descendents believe this chair was his own design.
After reaching their zenith in the 1920s, barbershops suffered a decline. The increasing popularity of the safety razor (which anyone could use to shave themselves at home), hard economic times, and Edward Robison's death in 1931 all contributed to the end of the Robison Barber Supply house. It closed at the height of the Great Depression in 1934.
This barber chair salesman's sample was donated to the Kansas Historical Society in 1989 by Edward Robison's son, Paul, who continued operating the family business several years after his father's death. The sample is in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Barber Chair Salesman Sample
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: October 2011
Date Modified: December 2014
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