In the latter half of the 19th century, barbershops became a part of every American town and city. Not only were they a place to get a shave and haircut, but they evolved into an important setting where men could socialize. In 1900, there were 20 barbershops in Vincennes, that number increasing to 27 ten years later. Most of the shops had more than one chair. They were sometimes called by the ostentatious name tonsorial parlors from the Latin verb “tondere” meaning “to shear, clip or crop.”
One of these Vincennes barbershops was owned by John Nestlehut, who, for more than a half century, was one of the best-known barbers in the city. Over that period, he worked in many different locations, sometimes operating his own shop and sometimes having a chair in another barber’s shop.
John J. Nestlehut was born in Vincennes on Sept. 19, 1870, to George and Sophia Arnold Nestlehut. His parents immigrated to the U. S. from Alsace, France. His father worked as a machinist at the Washington B & O Railroad Shops.
As was typical for many in those days, Nestlehut had only an eighth-grade education. He apprenticed in the barbershop of Frank Krack on North Second Street, working for Krack for a decade.
When Nestlehut started in the business, a shave cost roughly 3 cents and a haircut 5 to 10 cents.
In the late summer of 1894, Nestlehut embarked in business on his own, purchasing the barbershop of Thomas Posey at 11 North Second Street, on the block between Main and Busseron Streets to the rear of what was then Gimbel’s. The high-class shop had four chairs. Beginning in 1898, his brother, Peter, worked for a time as a barber there.
On May 8, 1901, Nestlehut married Miss Magdalena Osweiler at St. John’s German Catholic Church.
While Nestlehut briefly operated a second barbershop at 9 N. Third St., he ran his North Second Street shop for nearly a quarter century. In the summer of 1919, he closed the shop and, over the decade of the 1920s had chairs in several different shops. On March 9, 1929, he again, opened his own four-chair barbershop, this time at 518 Main St. Ownership of that business was short-lived, as he sold the shop to William Wilkes just a few months later, although Nestlehut continued to work there for a time.
Nestlehut was active in the community. He served as one-time president of the Harmony Society, was a past Grand Knight of the Vincennes Council Knights of Columbus and helped organize the Vincennes Chamber of Commerce. In 1930, he entered politics, making an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for Knox County Recorder.
Through the 1930s and up until his death in 1944, Nestlehut continued to work as a barber. Jobs during those years included stints at the Grand Hotel Barbershop and the Pantheon Barbershop.
Nestlehut died at his Buntin Street home at the age of 73 on Aug. 10, 1944, after over 50-years spent working as a barber. He was survived by his wife and children, Norbert and Loretta. A son, John Jr., had died in 1935. Burial was in Mount Calvary Cemetery.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.