Chasing that elusive Barbershop Scent

I'll admit that for quite some time, I had no idea what Barbershop scents were supposed to smell like.  I've read several articles on the subject and I've sampled numerous Barbershop products.  Each one is unique and it got me thinking some more about this classic yet complicated scent.  It also made me think about barbershops today and the ones from yesterday.

The Barbershop is making a comeback. Perhaps it never left? I find that barbershops and wet shaving seems to align with each other.  Maybe wet shaving made the comeback and barbershops are riding along?  So naturally there is a Barbershop scent.  

So what is the Barbershop scent?  There’s this unmistakable yearning to step back to a simpler time. Often a hot shave was a key part of the overall barbershop experience and people are adapting this to their own shaving routines. Many of the scents we see in our shaving dens have deep roots or traditions in barbershops. Classic barbershop scents can often be found in shaving creams or soaps and aftershaves.  Notes of tobacco are quite common, yet often softer scents such as a talcum scent can add subtle notes to the scent.  For some reason Barbicide Disinfectant comes to mind, though I'm not sure that would be the popular scent.  I think what makes this scent so elusive is that it really is designed to evoke memories and doesn't necessarily mean one particular scent as each Barbershop and memory is unique.  Perhaps the scent is more philosophical- designed to trigger those memories.  

This barbershop phenomenon got me thinking about my own experience. Growing up in Winnipeg, I frequented one place. The same person cut my hair every 4-5 weeks for 20 years.  His name was Larry.

Larry wasn’t technically a barber. He cut men’s and women’s hair which I guess would make him a hair stylist, but to me he was a barber. He had a little place on the second floor of a building, the first floor being occupied by a flower shop. When you reached the top of the stairs there were two rooms. One room had his sink for washing hair the other- his main room, greeted his customers. He had one single black and chrome barber chair. I remember a coffee table with magazines and a book about the Kennedy’s. I remember a counter with his hair products and tools of the trade. He had a giant appointment book. Appointments, back then,  were made in pencil. No computers, no fancy reception. Pay cash after the appointment and make your next booking. Certificates adorned his walls showing his training and achievements from places as far away as London, England. He had a small collection of zebra sculptures (more on that shortly) and a large glass jar filled with blue Barbicide. Postcards adorned the large mirror. Presumably sent by customers from their travels, it was a unique glimpse into the relationship he had with his clients. As a 12 year old, I was particularly drawn to the postcard from Sweden featuring half naked women in a sauna.

Larry’s place was black and white. Black furnishings, black and white checkerboard floors, white walls- so it’s no wonder he called his shop Zebra- hence the zebra sculptures. I honestly don’t know if he liked Zebras, or it was the simplest thing to name given the decor. For twenty years I went to Larry as did my whole family. I remember how excited I was when I graduated from sitting on a stack of towels to being able to sit in the chair without assistance. I even remember Larry being invited to my Bar Mitzvah. Larry was in some ways like family. Larry cut my hair diligently for 20 years or so. Only once do I recall having to visit another barber because Larry was away on vacation. It was a traumatic experience for me.

Having a haircut by Larry was routine, was simple, was familiar. He always knew what I wanted, I didn’t have to explain anything to him. Conversation was not about what I wanted for a haircut but more about life, school and family.

In 1999, Larry announced he was retiring. He gave plenty of notice and helped me find someone else to cut my hair. I knew my days visiting him were numbered and I recall every visit counting down and figuring out when the last visit would be. I was sad to see him go and felt lost in the process. Who would cut my hair? How do I explain them what I want when I never had to before? These seemed like real issues at the time. Suffice it to say, I found another great barber or hairstylist not far from his shop. After a few visits, it became clear that I found someone to cut my hair. In recent years, my work schedule, and type of work has taken me away from home and so it makes it challenging to get a haircut when an appointment is needed. I have found myself often walking in to barbershops in other cities I frequent.

So what is the Barbershop scent?  I think it's all those happy memories rolled into one.  Barbershops all have character, much like the different barbershop scents out there.  

We're contemplating making a barbershop shave soap.  We'd love to hear about your own experience and what a barbershop smells like to you.  Drop us a line at

 Photo Credit Unsplash

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