The Barber Pole

The Barber Pole: 
By Harry Perelman, M.D.
The origin of the barber pole appears to be associated with the service of bloodletting. The original pole had a brass basin at the top representing the vessel in which leeches were kept, and also representing the basin which received the blood. The pole itself represents the staff which the patient held onto during the procedure.

The red and white stripes symbolize the bandages used during the procedure red for the bandage stained with blood during the operation and white for the clean bandages. These bandages were hung out on the pole to dry after washing. As the bandages blew in the wind, they would twist together to form the spiral pattern similar to the stripes in the modern day barber pole. The bloodstained bandages emerged as the emblem of the barber-surgeon’s profession. Later in time, the emblem was replaced by a painted wooden pole of red and white stripes. These colors are recognized as the true colors of the barber emblem. Red, white and blue are widely used in America due in part to the fact that the national flag used these colors. Another interpretation of these barber pole colors is that red represents arterial blood, blue us symbolic of venous blood and white depicts the bandage.

After formation of the United Barber Surgeon’s Company in England, a statute required the barber to use a blue and white pole and the surgeon to use a red pole. In France, surgeons used a red pole with a basin attached to identify their offices.
In recent years, the sale of barber poles has dropped considerable because very few new barber shops are opening, A few years ago there were over 100,000 barber shops in this country, but now there are only about 85,000.

Prior to 1950 there were four manufacturers of barber poles in the United States. In 1950, Mr. William Marvy of St. Paul, Minnesota started his barber pole manufacturing business. By 1967, Mr. Marvy made his 50,000th barber pole and by the early part of 1996 over 74,000 poles were produced. The William Marvy Company is now the only surviving manufacturer of barber poles in North America.

William Marvy passed away in March of 1993. Today the company is operated by Mr. Marvy’s son, Robert, who plans to continue in the fine tradition of his father.


Another History Lesson:

Back in the 17th century, doctors were forbidden by the Catholic church to perform surgery. Their reasoning was that the human body was sacred, and men of God shouldn’t touch the “shameful parts”. At the time almost all the major medical schools were located at church-controlled universities, and most doctors were actually clergymen.
The slack was taken up by barbers, who conveniently had the sharp blades already on hand. Thus was born the surgeon-barber (insert your own “close shave” joke here).
Later, surgeons decided to distance themselves from the lowly barber. The Barber-Surgeon Company (guild) of England split up in 1745. The guild symbol was a red-and-white striped pole, meant to represent bloody rags hung out to dry. This was topped by a brass bowl or basin which was used to catch the blood from bloodletting, a common “cure” at the time. Patients used to grab this self-same pole to make their veins swell for easier puncturing. After much debate over who would get this symbol when the barbers and surgeons split, it was decided that the barbers got to keep the pole.


And yet another interesting story of Barbering History:

The barber’s trade is an extremely ancient one. Razors have been found among relics of the Bronze Age (circa 3500 B.C.) and barbering is mentioned in the Bible by Ezekiel who said “And Thou, son of man, take thee a barber’s razor and cause it to pass upon thine head and upon thine beard.” Shaving, either of the head or face, was not always a voluntary act, for it has been enforced by law in England and elsewhere. Cleanliness and vanity were therefore not the sole reasons for a ‘clean shave’, the origins lie deeper. Barbering was introduced to Rome in 296 B.C. and barber shops quickly became very popular centres for daily news and gossip. All free men of Rome then had to be clean-shaven while slaves were forced to wear beards. It is from the Roman (Latin) word ‘barba’, meaning beard, that the word ‘barber’ is derived – and hence ‘barbarians’ as the name used during that period to describe tribes who were bearded. When Caesar landed in Britain in 54 B.C. he found that the Britons wore no facial hair at all, except on the upper lip. Similarly, at the time of the Norman Conquest, Harold and his men also had their chins ‘reaped’ as the Saxons termed it; an expression no longer in use except by the harvester. At a later period full beards came into fashion. The barbers of former times were also surgeons and dentists. Most early physicians disdained surgery, and therefore, as well as haircutting, hairdressing and shaving, barbers performed surgery of wounds, blood-letting, cupping and leeching, enemas, and the extraction of teeth. Thus they were called ‘Barber Surgeons’ and they formed their first organisation in 1094. Barbers were chartered as a guild by Edward IV in 1462 as ‘The Company of Barbers’. The surgeons formed a guild 30 years later and the two companies were subsequently united by a statute of Henry VIII in 1540 under the name of ‘The United Barber Surgeons Company’.

During the reign of Henry VIII the authorities of Lincolns Inn prohibited wearers of beards from sitting unless they paid certain penalties. Queen Bess went one better: in her reign a law was passed that the wearer of a beard of more than two weeks’ growth should be taxed according to his station in life – a man in a lowly position was taxed to the extent of 3s. 4d. per annum for growing whiskers! So taken was Peter the Great with this enactment that he introduced the law into Russia. In Ireland it was enacted that, in order to be recognised as an Englishman, a man must have all the hair above his mouth shaven. And this law actually remained in force for two hundred years! In 1745 surgeons were separated from barbers by acts passed during the reign of George II. The surgeons with the title of ‘Masters, Governors and Commonalty of the Surgeons of London’. This body was later dissolved and replaced by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800 during the reign of George III. The origin of the barber’s pole is associated with his service of blood-letting. The original pole had a brass basin at its top representing the vessel in which leeches were kept and also that which received the blood. The pole represented the staff which the patient held onto during the operation, with the red and white stripes portraying the bandages – red for blood stained and white for the clean ones. Being hung out to dry on the pole after washing, they would often blow and twist together forming a spiral pattern which lead to the subsequently painted barber’s pole of red and white stripes. As previously indicated, the origin of shaving the head or face was not always a voluntary act. Both law and superstition played their part in various countries. At one time, in England, cutting of the hair or nails on Sundays was considered to be extremely ill-advised, as is borne out by one old saying which held that: “It was better you were never born, than on the Sabbath pare hair or horn”