History of the Barber Pole: A Colorful History

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From the time of the mummified remains of pharaohs in ancient Egypt to the quaint, tinkle-brass bell on the old-fashioned America corner barbershop, the tradition and history of the barber pole has been intertwined with human civilization.

What may come as a surprise to many is that the iconic symbol of the barber, the red, white, and blue barber pole, has an intriguing history dating back many centuries that reveals a rich tapestry of medical, social, and cultural practices.

History of the Barber Pole

The earliest record of barbers dates back to 5000 BCE in Egypt. Subsequently, a barbering craft guild was formed in Rome called the Collegium Pistorum. In ancient Greece, barbers were known as “koureus,” which means “cutter of hair.”

Fast forward to 10th century Spain, barbers started performing basic surgical procedures like bloodletting while in England during the mid-14th century, the professional unions called London Companies were created to differentiate between barber-surgeons and academic surgeons.

The barber pole made its first appearance during the early medieval era in Europe as a representation of the dual services provided by barber-surgeons – cutting hair and performing surgical procedures such as bloodletting, tooth extractions, and even amputations.

Bloodletting was a popular practice during these times, as people believed releasing bad blood from the body could cure diseases and balance bodily fluids. This is where the design of the barber pole stems from; its colors symbolizing the process of bloodletting.

The original colors of the barber pole were red and white. The red represented the blood, and the white symbolized the bandages used to wrap the patients’ arms during bloodletting procedures. The traditional practice entailed wrapping a bandage around the patient’s arm to reveal the veins and encourage blood flow.

After use, the bloodied bandages would be hung outside the shop on a pole to dry, often becoming entwined with the pole as they waved in the breeze. This long pole with the red and white stripes became the emblematic symbol for barbers.

During the era of the barber-surgeon, the pole took on a functional purpose. In order to grasp and hold the veins steady, patrons would grip a brass knob on the pole’s top, causing small amounts of blood to drain into a brass basin at its base. The pole also served as a comfortable handle for patients to grip as their teeth were extracted.

In the United States, blue was added to the barber pole design somewhere between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although the theory behind the inclusion of this color is not definitively known, it is widely believed to be a reflection of the nation’s patriotic spirit – red, white, and blue representing the colors of the American flag.

In 1745, the British College of Surgeons and the Barbers’ Company signed a decree called “The Rose Agreement,” which severed the relationship between barbers and surgeons, prohibiting barbers from performing surgery and surgeons from shaving hair.

This separation of professions may explain the decline in surgery-performed barbers and the need for new iconography. However, the barber pole endured and continued to be associated with the profession.

Today, the barber pole is still prominently displayed outside barbershops around the world, evoking a nostalgic charm that has persisted through the centuries. It remains a universal symbol of the craft of barbering, a testament to the profession’s ancient origins and enduring relevance.

Replete with fascinating historical and cultural threads, the story behind the barber pole enriches our understanding of common yet mysterious symbols that permeate modern life.

FAQ – History of the Barber Pole

When did barber poles first appear?

The first recorded use of the barber pole dates back to ancient Greece. The Greeks used a pole with a small vase at the top to signify barbers and their services.

How has the barber pole evolved since then?

In early Europe, many medieval barbers included medical treatments as part of their services, and they used either a staff or pole to denote this outside their shop. Eventually, the use of red and white stripes was added to represent bandage wrappings used by early physicians and surgeons. Later in history, blue was added to represent the blood that had been drawn during bloodletting procedures.

How is the barber pole associated with modern day barbershops?

Today, the red-and-white striped pole is an iconic symbol of barbershops around the world. The colors are thought to represent both blood and bandages, while some also believe that they represent different aspects of a haircut—the white for shaving cream, red for blood, and blue for aftershave.