"The Battle of the Barbers and Surgeons," a hand-colored etching by Isaac Cruikshank, August 1797. Hand-to-hand encounters between surgeons, indicated by their instruments and their old-fashioned dress, and barbers, wearing aprons and also with the tools of their trade.
For centuries, surgery was viewed as a craft and not a profession and it was often practiced by barbers. Up until the time of Sweeney Todd, a London resident would visit a barber-surgeon for the treatment of simple or complex health issues. In addition to providing grooming services, barber-surgeons routinely performed dental extractions, bloodletting, cupping therapy, minor surgeries and occasional amputations. Barbers could also bathe, cut hair and shave or trim facial hair.
By the end of the 1700s, barber-surgeons and physicians were clashing often about who was responsible for which duties. The church was no longer declaring that doctors couldn’t perform surgeries, and the general population had begun to view doctors in a more professional light. In 1745, surgeons split from the barber guild and, in 1800, the Royal College of Surgeons was established. Barbers could now focus solely on the duties of grooming their clients. The first school for barbers was founded in Chicago the late 19th century and offered lessons on shaving and cutting hair.
Read more about the various duties of a barber-surgeon in this PBS article.
Learn more about Sweeney Todd and buy tickets.