- Education and Science
Barber Pole History
Barber Pole: Magic, Blood & Gore
A barber pole is an upright pole with stripes of red and white (and often blue) that is placed outside of a barber shop to signify that specific business. I don't see barber poles very much these days but I take special note when I do.
As a child I was fascinated with barber poles, especially those that spun. Watching each stripe move downward or upward - depending on the direction of rotation - seemed like pure magic. As I watched, each colored ribbon would spiral and disappear, only to seemingly reappear again at the top or the bottom. The ball on the top of the poll was like icing on the cake. It always made me happy.
Little did I know then that the symbolism of the barber pole was based on the ancient practice of draining blood. The stripes represented twisted bandages - both bloodied and clean, and the ball at the top symbolized the bowl that held the leeches and collected the dripping blood.
Brief History of Barbering
Background for the Birth of the Barber Pole
In ancient Greece, barbers were depended on for shaving and trimming beards, cutting hair, manicuring, massaging and applying healing ointments. In ancient Rome, the role of the barber was so highly revered that a statue was built to honor its first barber. Then, during the rule of Hadrian c. 111 AD, barbering went out of style, but came back soon after that.
Fast forward to medieval times, when the duties of the barber increased to include surgery. This was performed by bloodletting, which was believed to rid the body of disease. This practice went on for almost 2000 years, and this is actually where the barber pole originated. Until the fourteenth or fifteen century, it was only the barbers who practiced surgery. But as new discoveries were being made, the profession of surgeon began to come into its own, and the barber began to do less surgery and instead began to concentrate on their other duties. They weren't happy giving up the practice of surgery, and to appease them, King Henry VIII of England granted them the bodies of four executed criminals each year on which to perform dissections. Finally, in 1745, a bill was passed in London, England, forbidding the barber from performing surgery and doing dissections, thereby completely separating the profession of the barber from that of the surgeon.
Extracting the Stone of Madness by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1492
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The Role of the Barber in the 16th Century
One Barber is Cutting Hair; One Barber is Bloodletting
16th century Wood Engraving by J. Amman showing a Barber Shop in the 16th Century. The barber in the forefront is cutting hair while the barber in the background is bloodletting. Bandages and basins are are depicted in the shop.
"A Barber Shop" by J. Amman, 16th Century. This image is in the public domain.
17th Century Depiction of Bloodletting
Patient is Shown Holding a Staff, which is the Source for the Barber Pole
This 17th Century image depicts the barber performing a blood transfusion on a patient. The patient is holding on to a staff, which is the source for the Barbers Pole. Also shown is the blood collecting bowl, which is later symbolized by the ball on the top of the barber pole.
"Armamentium Chirugiae," by Ioannis Sculteti, 1693
PD image depicting a patient receiving a blood transfusion from a sheep. Credit: Wikipedia
The Origin of the Barber Pole
The barber pole goes back to ancient times when the barbers performed bloodletting as their principle duty.
Bloodletting was literally "bleeding" a person and it was based on the belief that any disease could be cured by reducing the amount of blood and other bodily fluid in the patient. The barber was always prepared with an ample supply of long bandages and a basin in which to catch blood and hold leeches. During this procedure, the early barber provided a staff for the patient to squeeze (both in order for their veins to stand out and also to help the patient deal with their pain). When the bloodletting was over, the barber would advertise the successful surgery by hanging the bandages on the staff and placing it outside for all to see. These bandages would then swirl in the wind and create a red and white spiral pattern that we now associate with the barber pole.
Note: Although barbers ceased performing bloodletting in the eighteen century, they kept the pole as their symbol.
"The barber pole goes back to ancient times when the barbers performed bloodletting as their principle duty."
Evolution of the Modern Barber Pole
The Barber Symbol We Know Today
Fast forward to America in the 1920s. Attractive glass poles with swirls of red, white, and blue began to replace the painted poles and by the 1930s, motors were being added.
In 1950, an American barber pole salesman by the name of William Marvy invented a spinning weatherproof pole made of enamel, porcelain and glass. These spinning poles were motorized and had the option of a light in the inner cylinder and in the globe at the top. Barber shops throughout America, Canada, and the world soon had a Marvy Barber Pole. Even the barber shop at the White House had a Marvy Pole.
These poles are still made today, although production has dropped considerably because fewer barber shops are opening.
Barber Pole Gifts - Antiques and other Collectibles
Barber Poles in America
Red, White & Blue
Beginning in the 1930s, the barber pole was seen all over America. The earlier addition of the blue stripe, said to symbolize the veins, was associated with the colors of the American Flag. Today the poles are thought of as Americana and are widely collectable.
Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York City, 1935
Credit: NYPL DIgital Archive PD
Harlem Street: II. 422-424 Lenox Avenue, New York City in 1938
Credit: NYPL DIgital Archive PD