Monmouth barber became successful entrepreneur
MONMOUTH, Ill. — If the internet had existed in 1890, Oscar Zimmerman likely would have started the first shave club for men.
Born in 1855 in Chicago to a Prussian-born liquor merchant, the talented tonsorial artist had come to Monmouth as a young man, where he apprenticed under Morris Scheibel, a German barber who operated a shop under Union Hall on South Main and later on Market Alley.
By the 1880s, Zimmerman had established his own shop under the Monmouth National Bank, on the site of Monmouth’s current city hall. He not only offered shaves and haircuts, but also hot baths in the days before indoor plumbing, when water had to be boiled on a wood stove on Saturday nights and poured into a metal tub in the kitchen.
Zimmerman was more than a popular barber — he was an inventor, salesman and entrepreneur. He imported fine steel blades from Germany, concocted his own shampoos and tonics, sold barber furniture and provided professional razor-sharpening services. Soon he was supplying products to barbers throughout western Illinois.
An ad in an 1894 Monmouth newspaper touted one of Zimmerman’s products: “If your hair smells sour; if your hair is stiff and matted; if your scalp itches and you have dandruff; if you have a sour-smelling sweat, we guarantee Zimmerman’s Hazel Bay will cure you.”
Zimmerman’s hair-cutting career was threatened in 1891 when he and an associate were passengers on the train that wrecked near the 3M pottery plant, killing four and injuring dozens. Although hands were cut and bruised, he fully recovered.
For a time, Zimmerman became a partner in the plumbing business, but demands for his barber supplies grew so great that he sold off his share of the plumbing enterprise in 1893.
In 1877, Zimmerman married Josie Johnson, the 19-year-old daughter of a Swedish stonemason. She would bear him one child — William — and would assist him as his business continued to grow. In 1890, the couple built a large, comfortable home at 420 South B St.
Zimmerman eventually became so busy that he sold his shop and established a wholesale barber supply business. He 1894, he moved from the bank basement to a room on South Main. The following year he purchased a building at 108 South 1st St., where he established his office, a chemical laboratory and wholesale sample rooms. A grinding department was located in the basement, where a skilled grinder operated steam-powered machinery.
The Zimmermans eventually moved from their home on B Street to an apartment over the business. He managed to fit in some community service, serving as a director for Monmouth Homestead & Loan, running successfully for alderman in 1900, and being active in the Liederkranz Society, helping to organize its annual masquerade ball. But much of his time was spent traveling throughout Illinois and Iowa, expanding his customer base.
A business trip in May 1900 would tragically become his last. The 45-year-old salesman had taken the №9 train north from Monmouth on a Thursday morning, visiting patrons at various towns, and arriving at Alpha that afternoon. He ate supper there with an old friend — a dry goods salesman from Davenport, and the two secured a rig and driver to go to Woodhull, with Zimmerman planning to return to Monmouth on a late train.
Before leaving Alpha, Zimmerman told his friend he wanted to speak to another old friend who was the proprietor of a drug store. While there, he suddenly threw up his hands and with a groan exclaimed, “Oh, my!,” falling dead instantly of a heart attack.
Josie Zimmerman immediately stepped into the role of business owner and kept the barber supply business profitable. She sold the sharpening equipment and rented new rooms on East Broadway. She also collected $2,000 in life insurance.
In 1903, Josie found a buyer for the business in the person of E. H. Harris, a restaurateur and grocer. Harris traded her a valuable farm six miles south of Monmouth, then purchased a grocery store at 609 North Main, where he moved the barber supply business.
Josie and her son, William, moved to Kansas City in 1920, where William worked as an auto mechanic. In 1922, they moved to Long Beach, California, where William worked as a farmer and carpenter before eventually becoming a rancher.
Josie died in 1930, but William continued to occupy their house until his own death in 1950. Late in life, William married a divorced woman named Stella Sifferman, who was originally from Springfield, Missouri. He is buried in Springfield.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.