Examining the Public Health Rationale for Barber Licensure During the Progressive Era
64 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2022 Last revised: 8 Aug 2023
Date Written: October 19, 2022
Did public health or public choice factors drive the initial adoption of barber licensure in the United States during the Progressive Era? The public health rationale for licensure was to prevent the spread of a contagious disease known as “barber’s itch.” Qualitative evidence from historical newspapers suggests that barber unions sought licensure under this pretense to restrict competition from discount barbershops and barber college graduates. Using Newspapers.com, we craft a novel dataset of the reported individual cases and outbreaks of barber’s itch as well as printed or advertised cures for barber’s itch for 16 states that adopted and maintained licensure from 1897 to 1920 and 16 non-licensing states. Using a staggered treatment difference-in-difference model, we fail to find evidence that licensure was adopted in response to high caseloads. We also fail to find evidence that licensure was effective against barber’s itch, finding a weak, statistically significant increase in post-licensure cases. Using reported price increases for barbering services in licensed and non-licensed states to test the public choice rationale, we find a statistically significant increase in reported barbershop prices following licensure. Our results imply that barber licensure provides a rare example of regulatory adoption driven primarily by public choice rather than public interest rationales.
Keywords: Occupational licensing, Progressive Era, barbers, public choice
JEL Classification: H75; I18; J44; L51; N41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation