Traverse City Record-Eagle

Northern Living

July 22, 2012

Reflections: Shave and a haircut

While pounding out my next article on the computer, I heard a knock on the door. It wasn't just a regular knock-knock; it was the "famous" knock. It was the often-used knocking pattern associated with the phrase, "shave and a haircut, two bits."

Musically, it is a seven-bar tune that sounds like, "Tum-ti-ti-tum-tum, tum-tum." I've been knocking on doors that way for years without giving it much thought. It's just something I do.

After some investigation, I discovered that the knock has been around for a very long time. The first known use of the seven bars occurred in an 1899 Charles Hale song, "At a Darktown Cakewalk." Since then the now famous seven notes have been popularized in ragtime and bluegrass music.

It is often associated with stringed instruments such as the five-string banjo of Earl Scruggs who frequently ended his songs with this ditty. Fans of the TV show "Beverly Hillbillies" will recall hearing the tune preceding the program's commercial breaks.

The phrase "shave and a haircut, two bits" refers to how much a barber, in days long gone, would charge a customer for a shave and a haircut.

The "two bits" refers to 25 cents, but why?

During the colonial period, the common unit of currency was the Spanish dollar, also known as a "piece of eight," which was worth 8 Spanish-Colonial reales. One-eighth of a dollar, or one Spanish real, was called a "bit."

With the adoption of U.S. currency in 1794, there was no longer a coin worth an eighth of a dollar but "two bits" lived on in the form of our U.S. quarter.

Origins of quirky words and phrases often have more than one interpretation. Some scholars of trivia believe that the popular knock originated with International Morse Code tapped out by wartime telegraphers.

Being a ham radio operator myself, I am well-versed in the use of this now almost extinct form of communication. When sending a message, each operator develops a rhythm that is recognizable to other operators. The "slash" mark in Morse code sounds like "dah-dit-dit-dah-dit" and the letter "A" is "dit-dah." Put them together and you have "/A" which signified "attention, message to follow." Together the two characters resemble, "shave and a haircut, two bits" or the popular door knock.

During the Vietnam War, some of our less fortunate pilots were shot down over enemy territory and were reluctant guests in a prisoner of war facility nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton." U.S. prisoners were kept isolated from each other so they could not communicate. Veterans of the facility never knew who occupied the cell next to them and verbal communication could lead to a beating or worse. Men in neighboring cells would use the famous knock to verify if their neighbor was an American. One would tap, "Tum-ti-ti-tum-tum" and wait for a reply from his neighbor. If the neighbor tapped, "tum-tum" then both knew they were American. After that they used a simple tap code to communicate with each other and trade information.

No doubt there are other theories on this bit of folklore. Who's right, or who's wrong is anybody's guess. I wouldn't be surprised to hear a few more interpretations of "shave and a haircut, two bits." I just wish I could get a haircut for two bits.

Ed Hungness and his wife became full-time residents of Fife Lake in 2005 after Ed's retirement. He can be reached at edhungness@yahoo.com or by mail at P.O. Box 57, Fife Lake, MI 49633.

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