The iconic barbershop pole with its red, white and blue stripes has a long and storied history dating back several centuries. While the origins are not entirely clear, most historians agree that the barbershop pole emerged as a symbolic marker designating barbers as medical practitioners who performed bloodletting and other medical procedures in addition to cutting hair.
Barbers as Medical Practitioners
In medieval Europe, barbers did much more than provide haircuts and shaves. They also served as surgeons and dentists who performed a range of medical procedures from pulling teeth to bloodletting. Bloodletting was a common medical practice that involved cutting open a vein and drawing out blood in an effort to balance the four humors – black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. It was believed that an imbalance in these bodily fluids could cause illness.
Barbers advertised their bloodletting services by tying bandages to poles outside their shops. The white bandages represented the bandages used in bloodletting, while the pole itself signified the stick that patients squeezed to make their veins swell before the procedure.
The Origin of the Red Stripe
Over time, the bandages were replaced with a red stripe to represent the blood involved in bloodletting. However, historians disagree on exactly how the red stripe came about.
Some believe it represented the blood-stained bandages used by barbers. As the bandages waved in the wind, streaks of blood would have created a red stripe effect. Others argue the red stripe deliberately signified bloodletting. By adding a red stripe to their poles, barbers could boldly advertise that they performed bloodletting procedures.
There is also a theory that the red stripe represented arterial blood. As barbers gained greater surgical skills, they moved beyond bloodletting to performing advanced procedures like limb amputations. The red stripe may have signified their new expertise with dealing with blood in arteries.
Addition of the Blue Stripe
While the origins of the red stripe may be murky, most accounts suggest that the blue stripe was a later addition representing venous blood. As barbers performed more complex procedures like vein repair and surgery on varicose veins, the blue stripe was added to highlight their surgical skills involving veins and venous blood.
The white stripe already present on the pole was said to represent the bandages used to dress wounds and stem bleeding after surgeries. Together, the red, white and blue stripes created the iconic barbershop pole symbolizing the blood, bandages, veins and arteries associated with the surgical procedures performed by barbers.
Barber Surgeons Split from Barbers
During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, barber surgeons flourished as respected medical practitioners who treated patients with bloodletting, limb amputations, enemas, tooth extractions and other procedures. In England, barber surgeons formed their own guild called the Company of Barber-Surgeons in 1540.
However, in 1745 the Company of Barber-Surgeons split to form the separate Company of Surgeons and the more craft-focused Company of Barbers. While highly skilled barber surgeons went on to become today’s surgeons and doctors, the barbers focused more on haircuts, shaves and beauty treatments. Nonetheless, barbers continued to use the iconic striped pole that had come to symbolize their former medical profession.
The Rise of Hair-Focused Barber Shops
|Late 18th century||Barber shops focused primarily on haircutting, shaving and styling for men|
|Late 19th century||Barber shops became social gathering places for men to relax, exchange news and debate issues|
|Early 20th century||Electric razors and scissors enabled barbers to cut hair more quickly and efficiently|
|Mid 20th century||Barbers developed skilled techniques like the flat top cut, pompadour, and crew cut|
|Late 20th century||Unisex salons began competing with traditional barber shops|
As barbers focused primarily on haircutting and grooming, barber shops evolved into social hubs for men to gather and chat. The role of the barber shop shifted, but the iconic striped pole remained as an emblem of the barber’s craft.
Preserving the Traditional Symbol
Today, the barbershop pole retains its symbolic significance even though modern barbers no longer perform medical procedures. Throughout its evolving history, it has become an internationally-recognized symbol of barber shops.
Many US states even have legislation to protect the barbershop pole by restricting its use to licensed barbers. While barber roles have changed, the pole preserves the traditional link between barbers and their bloodletting medical origins.
Although rich with history, the red, white and blue striped barbershop pole remains relevant today. Some modern interpretations of its meaning include:
- Red = blood extraction and vitality
- White = cleanliness and purity
- Blue = calmness and relaxation
These meanings tie into the welcoming, revitalizing environment barbers aim to create for their customers today. The pole colors reinforce the message that barbers help clients look and feel their best.
The long journey of the barbershop pole reflects the evolving history of barbers. In medieval times, it announced them as medical practitioners of bloodletting and surgery. While modern barbers no longer draw blood, the iconic pole remains a symbolic part of their craft. The next time you see the red, white and blue stripes spinning outside a barber shop, consider the rich history they represent!