Barber poles are a classic piece of Americana. When you see a barber pole you’re not just recognizing the services offered by an establishment. The pole also sparks a whole stream of comforting memories and emotions. A trip to the barber is often heavily tied to the larger moments of people’s lives.
We often recall fiddling in our seats while we’re trying to restrain all of the energy associated with childhood. Others might recall a moment where they decided to give a new haircut a try. Those memories are often linked to various life changing moments which came afterward.
There’s just something emotionally compelling and iconic in those red, white and blue barber poles. In fact, the poles are so iconic that we often forget to ask an important question. Where did the barber pole’s distinct color and design come from? To answer that we first need to delve into the professions surprisingly deep history.
A Profession and Its Tools Often Grow Together
It’s difficult to precisely define when barbers, as a profession, came into being. As we’ll soon see barbers go hand in hand with straight razors. Today, use of a straight razor is a main point of distinction between barbers and hair stylists. The link between barbers and their tools means people often tie the invention and use of the straight razor with the genesis of barbers. This would mean that the barber’s history dates all the way back to 3,500 B.C.
A barber’s profession would change dramatically over the course of this extensive history. The changes are often quite surprising to the modern eye. However, it’s always important to keep historical context in mind. The history of barbers, and of barber poles, dates back to a time when people had only the most superficial understanding of science and medicine. It’s important to remember that our current scientific vision is only possible because we stand on the shoulders of past giants. Surprising as it might seem, the barber pole stands as a testament to humanity’s dedication to scientific understanding.
Barbers Once Had a Very Inclusive Set of Skills
So far the link between barber poles, barbers and medicine might not seem readily apparent. Things become a little easier to understand when we once again look at the role of a straight razor. We need to remember that prior cultures didn’t see metal as a nearly disposable commodity.
Today people often can’t be bothered to pick up loose change which has fallen into their couch. But in the past every piece of metal was the result of a long and arduous process. Metal had to be painstakingly mined. It then needed careful forging using rare and valuable skill sets. Even keeping a blade sharp was a considerable amount of work. It makes sense for professions to essentially grow around their relationship to metal tools. It’s as true for the people forging metal as those using it.
All of this can help explain why early barbers handled almost anything which combined humanity and peaceful use of cutting instruments. A statement this broad might seem like hyperbole at first. But in fact this is why there are so many links between modern medicine and early barbers. Barbers were synonymous with ancient medical care. This might seem alien to our modern worldview. But people used to look at the human body very differently in the past.
Biology was a far more mysterious, even mystical, thing to ancient cultures. If a skilled hand could cut one part of the body then there wasn’t much reason to think they were unable to handle other areas. The same person who cut hair was trusted to cut off diseased skin as well. Barbers could, and would, cut almost any part of a person’s body. Someone could come in for a nice combination of hair cut and amputation. A shave may well go hand in hand with tooth extractions.
People of the past didn’t have a firm understanding of the underlying mechanism of hair growth. Nor did they understand why organs, or even blood, were so important to a healthy body. To be sure, ancient cultures did understand that blood and organs were vitally important to one’s health. But lack of a more scientific understanding led them to some incorrect assumptions. And standing tall in the midst of this misunderstanding we finally see the barber pole.
Poles With Dramatically Different Uses
Think back to the last time you had to receive a shot. Part of the process involves preparing veins. The medical professional giving the shot needs to carefully place the needle into a vein. Strange as it might seem to us, barbers once needed to do the same thing as part of their professional duties. And the barber pole was an important part of this procedure. The process reached its height in medieval Europe. This period combined rampant disease transmission with certainty that bloodletting could offer relief or protection from a wide variety of ailments.
Monks were often tasked with taking care of the severely ill. And part of this treatment would involve bloodletting. The skilled hand of a barber was often borrowed to act as an assistant. The role of bloodletting was eventually deemed outside the services of clergymen. And so the main responsibility for bloodletting fell on the shoulders of a local barber.
People would go to their barber for his advice and treatment. If he felt that bloodletting was advisable the recipient would often grip a pole within the barber’s workplace. A firm grip on the pole would ensure barbers could properly locate a usable vein.
From there the barber would make an incision and drain some of the patient’s blood. The pole would also serve as a way for people to bear with the pain of the procedure. Sometimes gritting your teeth and holding tight to something is the only way to ride out pain in a society which hasn’t figured out anesthesia yet.
Colors Which Are Both Beautiful and Disquieting
Eventually the pole would come to symbolize the experience of a visit to the barber. But a plain pole standing outside a place of business wouldn’t be quite plain enough. The average person of the time was illiterate. Nonverbal indicators become a lot more important in a society where most people can’t read.
A pole on its own might not send enough of a message. But a little paint was enough to give people a more solid idea that barbers were available within a building. The red on the pole was used to symbolize blood from the bloodletting. The blue was used to remind people of veins. Finally, the white on a pole represents bandages used to seal up a wound after the barber was finished.
This color combination would also gain more popularity in the far flung future. The similarity of a barber pole’s color and that of the United States flag is a coincidence. However, it’s quite possible that some of the barber pole’s continued popularity in the U.S. came about through this similarity.
The Times May Change but the Colors and Symbolism Remain
Bloodletting would eventually fall out of favor. English law effectively banned barbers from bloodletting in the mid-1500s. Barbers would continue to act as a dentist for a surprisingly long time. The symbol of blood on a barber’s pole was still quite apt until the 18th century. By the late 18th century the role of “tooth drawer” would move on to the new profession of dentist.
Today the red, white and blue barber pole has a heavy air of nostalgia about it. Most people recognize that a barber pole has a deep and seldom discussed history. However, they seldom have the full story. They might think that it dates back a few hundred years. Ironically enough the common conception of the pole’s creation actually dates back to the era in which it started to become an inaccurate representation of a barber’s profession.
Historians and passersby alike can agree on one thing though. The barber pole is an eye catching design which has endured the test of time for good reason. Most of the services a pole suggests have moved on to doctors and dentists. But the pole itself still speaks to a long and fascinating history. It’s a historical saga well worth remembering every time that swirl of red, white and blue catches your eye.