Rockwell’s Barbershop Quartet

This 1936 cover remains a perennial favorite, and Rockwell would be delighted to know that four-part harmony is still around.

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Norman Rockwell did such a remarkable job capturing the singers’ expressions as they hit the perfect note, we wish we could turn up the volume on this 1936 classic. Evoking the turn of the century era, perhaps the Gay ’90s, he is able to indulge his love of costumes and further authenticates the scene with meticulous attention to detail; the shaving brush and mug, straight razor, even a well-used comb that is missing a few teeth (click on images for larger view).

The cover models were all residents of New Rochelle, New York, where Rockwell lived and worked for the first 25 years of his career. The barber on the left was actually a barber by trade. The gentleman in the red vest, to his right, was a member of the town’s fire department. Rockwell’s assistant Carl Johnson made an appearance, too, wearing a bow tie and holding a comb. And on the far right we find customer Walter Beach Humphrey, a friend of Rockwell’s and an illustrator for the Post.

Norman Rockwell's Barbershop Quartet cover
Barbershop Quartet
Norman Rockwell
September 26, 1936
Rockwell slyly adds a touch of humor to the illustration with a rather naughty copy of The Police Gazette. From the mid-1800s through the 1920s in particular, the Gazette was a “gentleman’s” magazine focused on the lurid. It sensationalized murders and women outside the bounds of propriety, strippers and burlesque dancers, and like straight razors and lavender pomade, no old-time barbershop was without the latest issue.


The image lives happily on in a larger-than-life mural gracing the side of the landmark building for the Barbershop Harmony Society in Nashville, Tennessee. From the 1890s through the 1930s, the Society states that professional quartets were considered the rock stars of their days. But, barbershop quartets are still alive and very well today—not just for old fogies. Competitions in quartet and chorus categories draw the young in great numbers.

And barbershop singing is not just a world of boater hats and waxed moustaches. The Sweet Adelines is a women’s organization that began in 1945, and today is an international organization with nearly 23,000 members and a schedule of competitions of their own.

Photo courtesy Jim Spitler, Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau. Used by permission.
Courtesy Jim Spitler/Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau. Used by permission.

The Society, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this month (April 2013), has also licensed the image for their quartet membership cards. And, Brian Lynch of the organization tells us, “from time to time, you will see a quartet on stage striking this pose in tribute to Rockwell’s great work.”

Lynch continues, “The Society owns a signed, numbered lithograph that Rockwell made from the original sketches, with hand tinting of the tenor’s bow tie performed by the artist. As such, it’s something of a holy relic for barbershoppers.”

To delve into the history of barbershop singing or view videos of harmonizing that would make Norman Rockwell proud, visit the Barbershop Harmony Society website.

From 1918–1950, Rockwell illustrated three other barbershop covers:

First Haircut Norman Rockwell August 10, 1918
First Haircut
Norman Rockwell
August 10, 1918
Full Treatment Norman Rockwell May 18, 1940
Full Treatment
Norman Rockwell
May 18, 1940
Shuffleton’s Barbershop Norman Rockwell April 29, 1950
Shuffleton’s Barbershop
Norman Rockwell
April 29, 1950

Remember to tell us your favorite Post cover for our “Reader Favorites” series. The first “Reader’s Favorite Rockwells” begins next week! Email [email protected] and include your name, along with the title and date or just a good description of your favorite piece.

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