Museum of barber tools can still curl one's hair

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

July 02, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- So here we are looking at a few hairs from the imposing but mostly bald head of Prince Otto von Bismarck, the revered creator of modern Germany. They're displayed in a convex glass coffer like the bones of a saint.

Bismarck's bristles, which look pretty much like any hair swept up from a barbershop floor, are preserved among the jumbled artifacts in the Friseurmuseum, which is a kind of temple of hair on a lovely old street in east Berlin.

"Friseur" is a French word the Germans use to call barbers and hairdressers. The Friseurmuseum is devoted to the history and culture of hair, haircutting, hair products, hair gadgets, hair loss and hair replacement, not to mention such sidelines as surgery and dentistry.

Among the 131 museums said to exist in Berlin, the Friseurmuseum is one of the smallest, goofiest, most interesting, and also occasionally most unnerving.

It's hard to decide which are more awesome and terrifying: the implements of early dentistry and surgery, which you once dropped into the barbershop to have done, or the examples of the first hair-dryers and permanent wave machines.

Exhibited with devices that look more like burglary tools than surgical instruments is an anonymous skull with a neatly trepanned hole just above the right eye socket.

When barbers were surgeons they used to drill these holes to relieve pressure on the brain.

Early hair-dryers look like medieval torture devices from "The Man in the Iron Mask," the first electrical permanent wave machines like experiments in capital punishment.

They didn't kill anybody, says Alex Uber, the curator who's tending shop at the Friseurmuseum. But you could get severely burned. Temperatures were basically uncontrolled.

Herr Uber is a sculptor who specializes in portraits of writers and musicians. He's done Thomas Wolfe, Federico Garcia Lorca and Claude Debussy.

He used to work up the street at the Museum of Working Class Life in 1900, and he finds similarities to both occupations at the Friseurmuseum.

"This is handwork and culturally very interesting," he says. "It's one of the oldest professions."

The Friseurmuseum has some very nice archaeological pieces from Assyria, Persia and Egypt, but Herr Uber's spiel moves quickly to the late 19th century when Marcel Grateau invented the curling iron.

Herr Uber produces one of Marcel Grateau's curlers, a kind of iron pliers that look like something from a blacksmith's shop.

"The whole of the profession changed," he says. Women began "marcelling" their hair in the tight little artificial waves highly favored in the Roaring Twenties.

The safety razor "von Monsieur King C. Gillette" became popular in Germany after World War I. Holding one of the originals in his hand, Herr Uber says Gillette was certainly an American.

"Germans shaved their beards because they wanted to look like the new Americans, the generation of modern men.

"They parted their hair in the middle," he says. "Sporting men wore knickers and long stockings. They wanted to look like the new man. Harold Lloyd was the New Man."

Harold Lloyd? The great silent film comedian. The Freshman. The American go-getter who more often than not ended up dangling from a flagpole high over Los Angeles streets. The New Man of the 1920s for Germany?

The Friseurmuseum was started in 1962 by one Jorg Maiwald, a hair supply wholesaler who was neither barber nor hairdresser. But he had a very good eye for things hairy.

The museum has always been a matter of private initiative even during the collective days of the Communist regime. Although now it has official recognition from the city, you still have to ring a bell to get in. The sign on the green door suggests you wipe your feet before entering.

The centerpiece of the Friseurmuseum collection is a virtually complete turn-of-the-century barbershop in marble and walnut designed by the eminent art nouveau architect Henri Van de Velder.

The shop belonged to Francois Haby, a great barber who cut Kaiser Wilhelm II's hair and styled his famous mustachios.

Herr Haby, an ingenious Viennese, first put shaving cream in a tube, concocted a shampoo called "I Can Be So Very Nice," and invented a device to allow other barbers to reproduce the Kaiser's mustachios.

"He was very idolized for this invention," Herr Uber says.

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