Seven Thousand Shaves

Annie and William H. Mears ca. 1876

William Henry Mears (1852 – 1938) was born in Philadelphia, died in Maryland, but lived the greater part of his life in Milton, where he operated a barber shop on lower Federal Street for 47 years. His father Robert Mears, a native of Virginia, was a sailor; William’s sedate profession was far removed from the dangers and adventures of life at sea, but it virtually guaranteed him security and a measure of prosperity. He married Sarah Annie Elizabeth Smith in 1876, and practiced his trade in Camden, NJ, according to the census of 1880. With a wife and young daughter to support, he sought a better opportunity and somehow found it in Milton. The family moved there around 1881, and he set up shop on Federal Street. When his wife of nearly sixty years died in 1935, William divided his time between the households of his son John Mears of Centreville, MD, and daughter Gertrude Atherholt of Chester, PA. Another daughter, Mamie Fowler, also lived in Chester. A third daughter, Clara, died in 1919 during the influenza pandemic. Despite his no longer residing in Milton, he was buried there in the Odd Fellows Cemetery.

There were other businesses in Milton that began in the 19th century and continued for decades into the 20th: William Starkey ran a pharmacy for over forty years, J. B. Welch and his descendants ran their pharmacy for over eighty, and the Wilson & Son Funeral business lasted until about 1953 (also over eighty years), just to name a few. The Mears barber shop, however, occupied a highly visible space in a prime downtown Milton location: the northwest corner of Federal Street and its intersection with Union. Even when that shop was destroyed in the August 12, 1909 fire, Mears rebuilt his shop, his residence, and another storefront in the same location, and continued to do business there until he retired in 1928. The residence and two storefronts (one of which was occupied by druggist William Starkey), are still standing and are leased to a restaurant and a dog groomer.

In one obituary for William H. Mears, the writer mentions that Samuel J. Wilson – one of Mears’ last surviving original customers – was shaved by him seven thousand times! This was an era when those who could afford it – and Wilson certainly could – would have their face shaved by a barber daily or several times a week, rather than doing it themselves at home.

The northwest corner of Federal Street where it intersects with Union Street has been photographed many times, and I have previously posted about the rebuilding of the Mears property after the fire of 1909.


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