Dear Vance: This photo shows my grandfather’s barbershop in Memphis as it looked in the early 1920s. My grandfather, Charlie M. Morton, was born in 1899 and died in 1986. He is the man standing by the barber chair on the far right, and he told me his shop was located on either Main or Front Streets. Can you tell me where it was? — V.C., Ripley, MS
Dear V.C.: Years ago I wrote about the Troutt Brothers Barber Shop in Cooper-Young, but I was unable to locate an old photo of the establishment. So I was delighted that you sent along such a wonderful image.
The picture shows four barbers standing alongside a row of ornate barber chairs, the shoe-shine operator with his kit, old-timey light fixtures and barber tools, various bottles and basins, an elaborate cash register, rather dangerous looking electrical wiring strung everywhere, a long mirror bracketed by nice columns, and a sink located oddly (if you ask me) in the middle of the room. Painted on the window is the name of the establishment — C.M. Morton Barber Shop. Right below that, in smaller letters, is “Pool Hall,” indicating that Morton owned or operated two businesses here.
I thought this request would be easy: Find the address of the old shop, and then return to my eight-hour nap. And I knew the best way to approach this would be to pore over old city directories. As I’ve explained before, these are heavy tomes, published annually, that list every person, place, and company in our city, arranged by name, address, or type of business. In this case, I decided to begin in the 1920s, as V.C. suggested, and look through the “B” listings of the business section, year by year, until I found “Morton Barber Shop.”
How hard could that be?
But first, I needed to settle something with V.C. I’m no math whiz, but simple arithmetic tells me that if a fellow was born in 1899, in the early 1920s, he would also be in his early twenties. But look at the man at the right, which V.C. says is her grandfather. No disrespect to Mr. Morton, but that doesn’t appear to be a man in his twenties. If anything, he looks at least 30, maybe a bit older.
And here’s something else. During the half-century or so that I have penned this column, I have scribbled about many establishments on Main or Front Street downtown, along with their neighboring businesses. During that entire time, I had never before encountered a combination barbershop and pool hall. When I mentioned this to V.C., she replied that her grandfather “never mentioned running a pool hall, but I don’t think he would have told his grandchildren about that. Pool halls had bad reputations. When we were kids, we were cautioned about even looking in the door if we had to walk past one.”
Maybe so. But that wasn’t the only thing wrong with this picture, so to speak. In the 1920s, downtown Memphis was surprisingly sophisticated, with grand hotels and movie theatres and department stores. Despite the ornate columns flanking the mirror, the rest of the barbershop looks rather plain to me. The floor, especially, seems to be bare concrete, splotched with stains. In the 1920s in downtown Memphis, I would have expected something fancier, like tiles or even marble.
And though the view through the window doesn’t show much, the other building visible isn’t very far away. The street seems far too narrow to be 1920s Main Street or Front Street. Nevertheless, I decided to begin my search. And I came up empty-handed. Looking carefully through the business listings from 1920 to 1930, I found no mention of a Morton Barber Shop. I did the same for listings for “billiard parlors,” which is how the city directories would have handled pool halls. Again, no billiard parlor run by anyone named Morton. And when I looked under “names” in the old city directories, even though “Morton” is not uncommon, I was a bit surprised to find no C.M., Charles, or Charlie Morton, either.
I had a brief “Eureka!” moment when I came across “Mack Morton, Barber” in the 1924 city directory. But V.C. assures me her grandfather was never called Mack, and besides, this fellow’s barbershop was located on South Cooper, which is pretty far from Main or Front.
My endeavors weren’t entirely wasted. For one thing, even though Loeb Properties is known today for their high-profile developments, in the early 1920s company founder Henry Loeb was involved in all sorts of enterprises. The city directories described the company as “men’s furnishings and shirt-makers, laundry, barber shops, and Turkish baths.” It also amused me, as I perused the “B” business listings from this period, to discover so many long-gone ventures. In the early 1900s, Memphis retailers offered bake ovens, balustrades, barrel covers, bath seats (huh?), brushes, burial caskets, birds (Memphis Bird Store, 211 Main), and — this was a surprise — burglar alarms.
And not a single listing for barbecue!
But back to the original query. When I contacted V.C. and told her something was amiss, she admitted, “I could be mistaken about the time frame.” Her grandfather, it seems, “never went into detail about his time in Memphis,” other than to say that at one point he also drove a streetcar, which was interesting but not relevant to our present search. “He and my grandmother eloped and got married in 1924, and family stories get changed over time. So it’s possible he ran the barbershop in the 1930s, instead of the 1920s.”
Yes, it’s possible, except this picture doesn’t show a barbershop in the 1930s. As my esteemed colleague Richard J. Alley pointed out, a Google search of old barbershops turns up images of shops almost identical to this one, complete with the oddly positioned sink. And every one of these photos was taken in the very early 1920s. Barbershops in the 1930s just don’t look like this. I mention this to acknowledge that Mr. Alley helps me out from time to time, and also because he likes to be called “esteemed.”
So, even though I was doubtful of the results, I expanded my “journey” through the city directories. Heck, I even started in 1900 (when her grandfather would presumably have been just a baby) and looked through the old books until the 1940s. Again, not a single mention of C.M. Morton’s Barber Shop.
Once again, though, I made some interesting discoveries. In the early 1900s, Memphis had only one billiard parlor — an establishment in the old Peabody Hotel with the curious name of Hyronemus & Company. By 1930, our city had more than 30 places to shoot pool, with such intriguing names as The Antlers (26 S. Main) and The Pastime (9 S. Main). Even more impressive was the growth of the barber industry. In 1920, 168 barbershops were listed in the phone books. By 1940, Memphis had 318 places to get a shave and a haircut. Every big hotel had its own barbershop, along with train stations, the Cotton Exchange, First National Bank, and the Catholic Club.
All this was interesting, but where was C.M. Morton’s? I began to suspect something wasn’t right. On a hunch, using the excellent resources online at Tom Leatherwood’s Shelby County Register of Deeds website, I searched birth certificates, marriage certificates, and even death certificates for C.M. Morton: “No Results Found.”
The Lauderdales are known throughout the land for their “never-say-die” spirit, but I contacted V.C. with this news. As far as I could tell, despite what her grandfather had once told her, I found no evidence that he ever lived or worked in Memphis. She admitted that many members of her family came from Mississippi, and the more I studied this photo, the more it seemed to me like a small-town barbershop. Though she didn’t need to do so, V.C. actually apologized, saying, “I’m sorry I sent you on a wild goose chase. This has taught me a lesson to take old family stories with a grain of salt.”
So I thought that was the end of it, and I headed off to the La-Z-Boy for my much-needed nap. But something about the photo kept nagging at me: Would a small-town barbershop have four chairs? So, if anybody remembers this place, don’t “Ask Vance.” Tell me.
Got a question for Vance? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103 Blog: memphismagazine.com/Blogs/Ask-Vance