Jean Barber is a massage therapist, but for the past year she’s been into another kind of touch. Every Saturday, “if it’s not raining,” Barber, 61, stands for a few hours at the Burlington Farmers Market holding up a sign that says “Free Hugs.” She’s neatly and conventionally dressed with a radiant smile. Barber does not look anything like a wing nut.
Nor is she some kind of religious zealot. She’s just a darn good hugger. Though shy or curmudgeonly types may avert their eyes when they pass by, others go right up to Barber for a hug — and the inevitable conversation about why she spends hours each weekend inviting complete strangers into her warm embrace. Barber will usually tell them that she’s also a hooker. A rug hooker, that is.
Yes, the Hug Lady’s story involves a rug. A Hug on a Rug rug. It also involves her husband, Tom Barber: “Every morning he would invite me to get a hug on a rug.” Tom is a songwriter, Barber explains, with a penchant for rhyming.
Those daily hugs inspired Barber to design and hook a rug with “HUG ON A RUG” at the top, and “HEALING THE WORLD ONE HUG AT A TIME” at the bottom. In the center, she hooked two pairs of feet, indicating where the huggers could stand — toes overlapping an image of planet Earth. The rug’s colors are toasty brown and shades of blue.
“It took me four months to make the first one,” Barber says. That’s why, when friends began to request their own rugs, she goes on, “I knew I couldn’t make all of them.”
Barber and her husband decided to look into manufacturing the rugs. The Hug Lady carried her rug drawing around for about a year, she says, “looking for some rug company” to realize her dream. Finally, Barber says, “I found a friend whose nephew was from India, and was a designer who worked at a rug company. Then,” she adds, “we had to learn all about customs and importing.”
These days, Hug on a Rug has a website, and Tom and Jean Barber sell the handmade wool rugs — for $75 plus tax and shipping — out of their basement. “We ordered 500 in our first year and sold 300,” Barber says.
So the Hug Lady’s appearance at the farmers market has a motive — she hands out cards with the address of the Hug on a Rug website, and she may suggest the rugs make great Christmas presents. Still, you don’t get the impression Barber’s mission is strictly monetary.
Hugging “connects people on a heart level,” she says. “I have an instant rapport with people if they come for a hug.” Other vendors at the market have to stand behind a table, she notes. Her connection is full frontal.
“We know people can hug everywhere,” Barber continues, “but we’re promoting a hugging habit. It’s great for families — what if a child knew there was a place to go for positive energy and ‘time in’?”
No question, Barber is a hugging enthusiast. “There are lots of health benefits,” she touts, noting that Dr. Oz and Oprah Winfrey have discussed them. Did Barber send Hug on a Rug rugs to those TV celebrities? Yes, she says with a shrug, “but I got nothing.”
Barber is not the first person to offer free public hugs, as she readily admits. In fact, “There is a ‘free hugs’ movement worldwide,” she says — as a quick search on YouTube will attest. “We just took it a step further,” she says.
On her website, Barber also gives props to writer Shel Silverstein for his poem “Hug O’ War,” published in his classic book Where the Sidewalk Ends in 1974. And she invokes old peacenik slogans with the statement “We believe world peace begins at home, and that arms are made for hugging.”
“The world needs love,” Barber concludes. “I just love helping people — it’s such a win-win.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Hug Bug"