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What does the red and white barber pole mean?

What does the red and white barber pole mean?

The familiar red and white barber pole seen outside barbershops is a long-standing symbol of the barber profession. But what is the meaning and history behind this iconic image? The red and white spiral pattern and its origins reach back several centuries.

The Origins of the Barber Pole

In medieval times, barbers didn’t just cut hair. They also performed surgery and dentistry, being known as “barber-surgeons.” The red and white colors of the barber pole represent the bloody rags used by these early barbers. White signified the bandages while red symbolized blood.

The pole itself traces back to when people would get blood lettings, believing it could cure ailments. Patients would tightly grasp a rod or staff to make their veins more prominent for the procedure. Afterward, bandages with blood would be washed and hung on a pole outside the barbershop to dry. As the striped cloths twisted in the wind, they formed the spiral pattern that inspired the barber’s pole.

The Meaning of the Colors

While the red symbolizes blood and the white bandages, the colors have taken on additional meanings:

– Red = Surgery, Bloodletting, Medicine
– White = Purity, Cleanliness

Together, they indicated the multiple services offered by early barber-surgeons. The red came to signify surgery, bloodletting, and general medicine while the white portrayed the clean, sanitary conditions of the barbershop.

Color Meaning
Red Surgery, Bloodletting, Medicine
White Purity, Cleanliness

The Spiral Pattern

The spiral pattern of the barber’s pole has roots in the twisted, bloodstained cloths hung to dry. But the helix shape took on additional significance:

– Spiral = Continuity, Ongoing Service
– Wrapping Around the Pole = Interminable, Never-ending

The continuous, spiraling stripes came to represent the ongoing, reliable services provided by the barbershop. The spiral visually reinforced this perpetual, looping symbolism.

Blue Added to the Color Scheme

Today’s barber poles typically include a third color: blue. The blue first came into prominence when barbers began offering vein-cutting in addition to bloodletting. Here’s what each color represents in modern times:

– Red = Surgery
– White = Bandages
– Blue = Vein-Cutting

While red and white remain tied to the origins, blue is a more recent addition from when barbers expanded their skills. The blue complements the red and white in what are now the colors representative of a barbershop.

Color Meaning
Red Surgery
White Bandages
Blue Vein-Cutting

The Barber Pole Embraces Change While Retaining Tradition

Over the centuries, the barber pole has evolved along with the profession it represents. What began as a practical means of drying bloody rags has transformed into an enduring symbol of the barber trade. While its colors and patterns have shifted, the basic design retains connections to long-standing traditions.

The addition of blue is an example of how the icon has adapted. When barbers incorporated vein-cutting, the new color was incorporated into the pole to reflect this fresh service. Yet the essential elements of red and white stayed to maintain ties to the past.

A Connecting Thread Through the History of Barbering

Despite shifts in meaning and additions like blue, the barber pole remains instantly recognizable worldwide. It continues to visually link present day barbershops to centuries of history and heritage.

The trade has progressed and expanded from its medieval roots. While barbers no longer perform surgery and dentistry, their fundamental role in society has persisted. The barber pole is an enduring reminder of how today’s barbershops retain connections to their rich origins.

An Evolving Symbol Interwoven With the History of Barbering

Few symbols so succinctly capture the history and evolution of a profession as the barber pole does for barbering. The icon continues to revolve outside barbershops centuries after its initial origination. While its colors and pattern have adapted, the core design remains rooted in tradition.

Much has changed since the days of the bloodletting barber-surgeon. But throughout transformations in skills and roles, barbers have retained their essential function in communities. The spinning barber pole embodies these ideas of heritage and endurance, interweaving past and present just as the spiral forever loops without end.


The iconic barber pole symbolizes how the history of barbering continues in an ongoing spiral. Though meanings have broadened and new colors added, core connections remain to ancient roots. Red and white recall how barbers were once surgeons who displayed bloodied rags. Blue signifies updated services like vein procedures. And the interminable spiral reinforces ideas of timeless community service and reliable skills passed down through generations of barbers. This heritage, adaptation, and continuity are embodied in a simple but powerful design that has ceaselessly rotated outside barbershops for centuries.