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'Hair today, gone tomorrow!' Inventive Russian thrives in Jemulpo

A Korean gentleman and his son. Circa late 19th century.  Robert Neff Collection
A Korean gentleman and his son. Circa late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

In the 1880s, Lillias Underwood, an early American missionary in Korea, wrote:

"No matter how old one is, without a top-knot [a Korean] is never considered a man, addressed with high endings, or treated with respect. After assuming the top-knot, no matter how young, he is invested with the dignities and duties of a man of the family, takes his share in making the offerings and prayers at the ancestral shrines, and is recognized by his ancestors' spirits as one of the family who is to do them honor, and whom they are to protect and bless."

Facial hair was also valued by Korean males. An American gold miner in the northern part of Korea recalled one of his Korean subordinates asking him for a page from his hometown newspaper. The page had an image of a full-bearded man and the Korean miner cut it out and pinned it to the wall of his room. Allegedly, he prayed ― either to the picture or to his own god ― to one day be granted a similar beard.

With hair being so highly prized by the Korean male population it might surprise you to know that an 1885 patent request in the United States for "a new and improved Hair-Cutting Machine" had its origin in Jemulpo (modern Incheon). According to the inventor: "The object of my invention is to provide a new and improved machine for clipping and cutting the hair on persons' heads, which is so constructed that it need not be operated by hand nor connected with exterior mechanism."

It probably comes as no surprise that the inventor wasn't Korean. He did, however, work for the Korean government: he was Vladimir S. Bekofsky, an employee of the Corean Customs Service and possibly the first Russian to live in Jemulpo.

A Korean teacher and his male pupils. Circa late 19th century.  Robert Neff Collection
A Korean teacher and his male pupils. Circa late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection

Born in Archangel, Russia on July 15, 1845, at some point Bekofsky made his way to Vladivostok where he found employment as a marine engineer. Although the Russian port was relatively new, Bekofsky apparently thought he could make better money in Shanghai and eventually moved there at the beginning of 1883.

He appears to have had a rather adventurous spirit (along with a wife and two daughters to support) and when he learned the Korean government was establishing its own Customs Service, he immediately submitted his application ― carefully noting that he held "a government certificate as an engineer theoretical and practical," ― and was promptly hired.

In mid-June 1883, Bekofsky arrived in Jemulpo which, at this time, was mainly a collection of wooden shacks. He was placed in charge of construction and within two months had the Customs Service's foreign employees comfortably situated in new quarters. However, some of these employees were married and did not wish to be separated from their families ― including Bekofsky ― and soon began to move their families to the port.

In late September, Bekofsky's wife and two daughters arrived and took up residence in Hwato ― an area just outside of Jemulpo ― in, ironically considering his occupation, a dilapidated house that was later declared to be unhealthy. Unsurprisingly, his daughters found little to amuse them in Korea and apparently returned to Shanghai after spending only a short time in the primitive port.

The port of Jemulpo in the 1890s.  Robert Neff Collection
The port of Jemulpo in the 1890s. Robert Neff Collection

Mrs. Bekofsky, however, elected to remain with her husband until the Gapsin Coup in December 1884 disproved the description of Korea being the "Land of the Morning Calm." Unrest in the capital and fear that it would spread, compelled the handful of Western women in the port to be removed to Nagasaki ― they did not return until late the following month.

When his wife returned, they moved into the General Foreign Settlement of Jemulpo where it was thought they would be free from the infrequent-violence and rampant disease. It also was closer to his office and gave him more time to tinker with his inventions.

Not only did he invent the earlier-mentioned "Hair Cutting Machine" but also a car-coupler (for trains) in July 1886, a music recorder two months later and, in January 1887, a Balanced Cooking-Stove ― "a practically balanced stove designed particularly for use on shipboard" because it would "always maintain a horizontal position, no matter to what extent the ship may roll."

Shortly after inventing the Balanced Cooking-Stove, Bekofsky completed his contract with the Korean government and immigrated to New York with his family. Unfortunately, like many of these early sojourners, once he left Korea he disappeared from the pages of history.

Bekofsky's patent request for his hair-cutting machine in 1885
Bekofsky's patent request for his hair-cutting machine in 1885


Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.


A Korean gentleman and his son. Circa late 19th century.  Robert Neff Collection
A Korean gentleman and his son. Circa late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

In the 1880s, Lillias Underwood, an early American missionary in Korea, wrote:

"No matter how old one is, without a top-knot [a Korean] is never considered a man, addressed with high endings, or treated with respect. After assuming the top-knot, no matter how young, he is invested with the dignities and duties of a man of the family, takes his share in making the offerings and prayers at the ancestral shrines, and is recognized by his ancestors' spirits as one of the family who is to do them honor, and whom they are to protect and bless."

Facial hair was also valued by Korean males. An American gold miner in the northern part of Korea recalled one of his Korean subordinates asking him for a page from his hometown newspaper. The page had an image of a full-bearded man and the Korean miner cut it out and pinned it to the wall of his room. Allegedly, he prayed ― either to the picture or to his own god ― to one day be granted a similar beard.

With hair being so highly prized by the Korean male population it might surprise you to know that an 1885 patent request in the United States for "a new and improved Hair-Cutting Machine" had its origin in Jemulpo (modern Incheon). According to the inventor: "The object of my invention is to provide a new and improved machine for clipping and cutting the hair on persons' heads, which is so constructed that it need not be operated by hand nor connected with exterior mechanism."

It probably comes as no surprise that the inventor wasn't Korean. He did, however, work for the Korean government: he was Vladimir S. Bekofsky, an employee of the Corean Customs Service and possibly the first Russian to live in Jemulpo.

A Korean teacher and his male pupils. Circa late 19th century.  Robert Neff Collection
A Korean teacher and his male pupils. Circa late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection

Born in Archangel, Russia on July 15, 1845, at some point Bekofsky made his way to Vladivostok where he found employment as a marine engineer. Although the Russian port was relatively new, Bekofsky apparently thought he could make better money in Shanghai and eventually moved there at the beginning of 1883.

He appears to have had a rather adventurous spirit (along with a wife and two daughters to support) and when he learned the Korean government was establishing its own Customs Service, he immediately submitted his application ― carefully noting that he held "a government certificate as an engineer theoretical and practical," ― and was promptly hired.

In mid-June 1883, Bekofsky arrived in Jemulpo which, at this time, was mainly a collection of wooden shacks. He was placed in charge of construction and within two months had the Customs Service's foreign employees comfortably situated in new quarters. However, some of these employees were married and did not wish to be separated from their families ― including Bekofsky ― and soon began to move their families to the port.

In late September, Bekofsky's wife and two daughters arrived and took up residence in Hwato ― an area just outside of Jemulpo ― in, ironically considering his occupation, a dilapidated house that was later declared to be unhealthy. Unsurprisingly, his daughters found little to amuse them in Korea and apparently returned to Shanghai after spending only a short time in the primitive port.

The port of Jemulpo in the 1890s.  Robert Neff Collection
The port of Jemulpo in the 1890s. Robert Neff Collection

Mrs. Bekofsky, however, elected to remain with her husband until the Gapsin Coup in December 1884 disproved the description of Korea being the "Land of the Morning Calm." Unrest in the capital and fear that it would spread, compelled the handful of Western women in the port to be removed to Nagasaki ― they did not return until late the following month.

When his wife returned, they moved into the General Foreign Settlement of Jemulpo where it was thought they would be free from the infrequent-violence and rampant disease. It also was closer to his office and gave him more time to tinker with his inventions.

Not only did he invent the earlier-mentioned "Hair Cutting Machine" but also a car-coupler (for trains) in July 1886, a music recorder two months later and, in January 1887, a Balanced Cooking-Stove ― "a practically balanced stove designed particularly for use on shipboard" because it would "always maintain a horizontal position, no matter to what extent the ship may roll."

Shortly after inventing the Balanced Cooking-Stove, Bekofsky completed his contract with the Korean government and immigrated to New York with his family. Unfortunately, like many of these early sojourners, once he left Korea he disappeared from the pages of history.

Bekofsky's patent request for his hair-cutting machine in 1885
Bekofsky's patent request for his hair-cutting machine in 1885


Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.




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