The Intriguing Story Behind Barber Poles

It’s become universal. A red, white and blue striped pole means barber shop. But why and when did it become a thing?

Let’s me start by saying I work in a shop that has a barber shop next door. Being a good barber (and a Greek one at that), he loves to talk, so it was only natural that one day we got on to the topic of barber poles, and significance of the stripes. So I gave him a little history lesson!

Barber Shop. Credit: Wellcome Librarby, No. L0019296

Barber Shop. Credit: Wellcome Library, No. L0019296

Way back … and we’re talking back in medieval times here, barber’s didn’t just cut hair and offer shaves. No, no, no. They were also the local dentist, doctor and surgeon as well, and they were known as barber-surgeons.

Elizabeth Roberts writes it well …

“Up until the 19th century barbers were generally referred to as barber-surgeons, and they were called upon to perform a wide variety of tasks. They treated and extracted teeth, branded slaves, created ritual tattoos or scars, cut out gallstones and hangnails, set fractures, gave enemas, and lanced abscesses. Whereas physicians of their age examined urine or studied the stars to determine a patient’s diagnosis, barber-surgeons experienced their patients up close and personal. Many patients would go to their local barber for semi-annual bloodletting, much like you take your car in for a periodic oil change.”

Just to clarify things, physicians were the academics, who tended to work in universities, and mostly dealt with patients as an observer or a consultant, and considered surgery to be beneath them.

surgery at the barber shop. Wellcome Library, No. M0007321

surgery at the barber shop. Wellcome Library, No. M0007321

I sure can’t imagine my shop neighbour doing anything of the like. In fact I think he’d faint at the sight of blood.

Anyway back to the significance of the barber poles.

Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian writes …

“Barber-surgeons, like other craftsmen, were aware of the need to advertise their services to the greater population and went about doing so in various ways. In medieval London, barbers placed bowls of their clients’ blood in their windows, ensuring that even the most oblivious passerby stopped and took notice. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that you may be overdue for your own bloodletting, like those glossy cards that your dentist sends you in the mail every 6 months with the picture of a grinning toothbrush.

In 1307, the people of London decided they had had enough of the barber-surgeons’ bowls of congealed, putrid blood. A law was passed that stated: ‘no barbers shall be so bold or so hardy as to put blood in their windows’. How should they dispose of unwanted bodily fluids, the barbers asked? They should have it ‘carried unto the Thames’ and thrown into the river.

There, much better.

Despite the ban, barber-surgeons still needed to advertise their services, and so devised another way to do so. The barber’s pole quickly became recognised as the symbol of the barber-surgeon’s proficiency as a bloodletter and, of course, is still used as a promotional tool today, albeit to advertise slightly different services.

The barber’s pole originated from the rod that the patient gripped to make their veins bulge, thus making them easier to slice open. A brass ball at the top symbolised the basin that collected the blood. The pole’s red and white stripes represent the bloodied bandages, which would be washed and hung to dry on the rod outside the shop. The bandages would twist in the wind, forming the familiar spiral pattern we see on the barber poles of today.

In 1540, a statute was passed that required barbers and surgeons to distinguish their services by the colours of their pole. From that point forward, barbers used blue and white poles, while surgeons used red and white poles. Today, red, white and blue barber poles are often found in the United States, although this may have more to do with the colours of the nation’s flag than anything else. Some interpretations posit that the red represents arterial blood, the blue represents venous blood and the white represents the bandages.”

So you see it really was all advertising. And isn’t it fascinating to learn that the history of it dates back to far.

And if you stop random people on the street to ask them the meaning of the colour of the barber poles, they wouldn’t know, but now you do!

Barber Shop. Credit: Wellcome Library, No. V001964

Barber Shop. Credit: Wellcome Library, No. V001964