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.


10 thoughts on “Seven Thousand Shaves

  • Sheila J Chanaud

    Enjoyed this article so much! This is my great great grandfather!! His son (John (bunny) Mears had a barber shop in Centreville, Md. which was torn down several years ago to make room for the new courthouse. I would love to have a copy of this article!

    • Phil Martin

      Thank you so much for your interest. I am always pleased to hear from descendants of the Milton people I write about! You can print the article from any browser on any device, but I’ll get a pdf version to you as soon as I can. If you have any photographs of your great-great-granddaddy please let me know if you’re willing to share them; I would love to add them to the blog post.

  • Norma Mears Lord

    Great information! These were my great grandparents.

    • Phil Martin

      Thank you so much for your interest. I am always pleased to hear from descendants of the Milton people I write about!
      If you have any photographs of your great-granddaddy please let me know if you’re willing to share them; I would love to add them to the blog post.

  • Shirley Mears Whitehurst

    I, Shirley Mears Whitehurst am the great-granddaughter of Anna and William and my father was named after his grandfather. I was born in 1933 in Milton, and my father, Bill, was working in the shop with his grandfather. We were living in the apartment over the shop. I remember my great -grandfather. I particularly remember taking a walk with him, holding his hand and standing on the bridge, staring into the great river there in Milton. As an adult I viewed this great river to find it was a large culvert there on the main thoroughfare. My mother has told of the many stories Grandfather liked to tell. My favorite is that he said he was a great skater and when the Delaware froze ,he skated up to Wilmington for a loaf of bread, and returned with the loaf still warm! My memories of Great-grandmother are of a rather stern woman, but know she suffered from severe pain. There are a number of snapshots of Great-grandfather and the great-grandchildren. In Sheila’s remarks she has skipped a generation. Bunny was a grandson and he and Raymond, ( Bill’s brothers) had the shop in Centerville after their father, John, passed away. The Mears family is very large, very close and has a long history of love and laughter.

    • Phil Martin

      What a pleasure to read your memories and impressions of William Mears! Your description of standing with him on the bridge over the Broadkill, holding his hand, is touching, a sepia-colored memory. In particular, I really liked the “tall tale” of his skating to Wilmington (and back) with a loaf of still-warm bread (perhaps it was actually Milford?)! This is the stuff family legends are made of. Do you think you could scan (or photograph with your phone) one of the snapshots you have of great-granddad and his family, and email it to me at I would love to add it to the post.

      • Shirley Mears Whitehurst

        You are probably right about it being Milford. I, though living in Milton, was actually born in the “hospital” in Milford- When my cousin asked where I was born I also told her “and I only cost $25”. She quickly replied, “Well, you get what you pay for!” ouch! I will search and endeavor to send pictures- it will take a bit of time.

  • William J Milliken, Jr

    Very nice story, my grandmother was Verna Elizabeth Mears Crowl grandaughter to William E Mears and Annie E Mears. Oldest child of John E Mears and Winnie M Dutton Mears. I would like to meet with you and discuss family further. I have family photographs of Jim Smith (annie’s Dad) in uniform before he was killed at battle of wilderness. Also have various pictures of mears family in Milton as well as at Broadkill Beach.

    • Phil Martin

      Thanks so much for the comment; I would love to meet with you and learn more about the family. Are you in Delaware?

      • Bill Milliken

        Yes I live in Milford. I also have family beach house at Briadkill Beach.

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