Visiting the barber in the 1960s was a fascinating developmental experience. The distinctive red and white spiralled pole outside marked timeless ritual inside, as the barber, oozing wafts of brilliantine, engaged in small talk with each customer, as they assumed his chair in turn.
For those deemed of suitable age and inclination, the barber’s chat usually ended in the same question, just before money changed hands, “Something for the weekend, sir?”
As you passed through puberty you discovered the inner meaning of this outwardly banal question: would you like to buy some condoms? In one metonym-rich utterance, all sorts of associations sprang to mind, about lovemaking confined to certain days of the week, and further glimpses inside the tidy terraced town houses just up the road.
Meanwhile in central and northern Europe, households commonly possessed elaborate drying racks, on which reusable condoms would hang limp to dry after they had been washed, alongside the dishes, bearing testimony to the frequency of bedtime pleasures.
In Japan, door-to-door salesmen were ushered in by housewives, to purchase their stock of condoms, whilst ‘salaryman’ husbands were out at work.
Whole vocabularies had grown to name these tokens of adulthood: the French and English traded cross-channel jibes as usual with capotes anglaises and French letters, and there were plentiful alternatives such as Johnnys and rubbers.
With the scourge of AIDS, flashing vending machines condoms now survive the ubiquitous use of the oral contraceptive pill, with their completely different patterns of use and social trappings. The sub-culture of the barber seems gone, and that question means what it says once more.
(Apologies to Alistair Dabbs, who uses the phrase for his weekly articles at The Register. You can read more on Wikipedia too.)