If you live in a slightly old-fashioned corner of the world, or grew up in the days of soda fountains and drive-in movies, you will have seen it: a ball-topped pole on the pavement or a revolving tube outside a shop, painted red and white, and sometimes blue as well. For many of us, this will stir images of the high-backed chairs and white-draped figures, shaving foam and old-fashioned razors of barber shops. Even after most of these shops have been replaced by more fashionable hair salons, most of them still sport the candy cane-striped pole in one form or other.
But why on earth a pole with red and white and blue stripes and a ball on top?
A Short History of Barbers
And thou, son of man, take thee a sharp knife, take thee a barber's razor, and cause it to pass upon thine head and upon thine beard.
The Book of Ezekiel 5:1
It is an ancient trade, the barbers' art of shaving beards and cutting hair. Long before there was history, there were razor blades, found among the relics of the Bronze Age. It began with primitive men who believed that both good and bad spirits entered individuals through the hair and inhabited the body, and that the only way to drive the bad ones out was by cutting one's hair. Elaborate rituals were constructed around marriages and baptism to ward off bad spirits and retain the good ones. Even after the invention of documentation, the issue of hair would continue to persist.
Hair, it seems, has been a very important social and religious issue throughout all of the history of mankind, especially since many ancient superstitions revolved around it1. It is known that the Egyptians were very picky people where hair was concerned: ancient monuments and papyrus showed people being shaved, Egyptian priests were de-haired every three days, and Joseph was shaved before meeting Pharaoh so that the Great One would not be offended by a 'dirty face'.
Barbers in Greece have had an important niche in society since the 5th Century BC. In fact, the Greeks seemed to be so fastidious where facial hair was concerned that one prominent politician was defeated by an opponent who had a neater beard trim! The Romans had had barbers since 296 BC, when Ticinius Mena came from Sicily, bringing with him the art of shaving. The barbers set the trend of barber shops as a place for men to gossip, as they are still today. These shops prospered amidst the chatter of free men, who were set apart from the slaves by the absence of beards. In fact, these Roman dandies thought so highly of the barbers that a statue was actually erected in memory of the first Roman barber.
In fact, the art of shaving seemed to have military strategy value as well. The Persians defeated Alexander the Great's men because the Macedonians then had beards, which the Persians could grab and then pull their enemies to the ground before spearing them2. Subsequently, Alexander ordered for his troops to be shaved so that they could use the same tactic.
Barbers and Surgeons
Specialisation of professions is a relatively new invention. Back then, barbers were also dentists and surgeons, versatile performers of tooth extraction and enemas, bloodletting and wound surgery. These barber-surgeons formed their first official organisation in France in the year 1096, after the archbishop of Rouen prohibited the wearing of a beard. Later, as medicine became more defined as a field of its own, efforts were made to separate the academic surgeons from these barber-surgeons. Le Collège de Saint Côme, established in Paris in about 1210 AD, was the first to do this by identifying the academic surgeons as surgeons of the long robe and the barber-surgeons as surgeons of the short robe.
In 1308, the world's oldest barber organisation, still known in London as the Worshipful Company of Barbers, was founded. In an effort to systematically instruct barbers in surgery, a school was set up in France in the middle of the 13th Century by the Brotherhoods of St Cosmos and St Domains. The guild of French barbers and surgeons was established in 13913, and by 1505, barbers were allowed entrance to the University of Paris. The father of modern surgery, Ambroise Pare4 (1510-1590), was himself a common barber-surgeon before he embraced medicine and became the most famous surgeon of the Renaissance Period.
In England, barbers were chartered as a guild called the Company of Barbers in 1462 by Edward IV. The surgeons established their own guild 30 years later. Although these two guilds were merged as one by statute of Henry VIII in 1540 under the name of United Barber-Surgeons Company in England, they were still set apart: barbers displayed blue and white poles, and were forbidden to carry out surgery except for teeth-pulling and bloodletting; surgeons displayed red and white-striped poles, and were not allowed to shave people or cut their hair5. It was only in 1745 that George II passed several acts to separate surgeons from barbers. The surgeons went on to form a corporation with the title of Masters, Governors and Commonalty of the Honourable Society of the Surgeons in London, which was eventually dissolved in 1800 during the reign of George III and replaced by the Royal College of Surgeons.
Degeneration of Medicine and the Grisly Art of Slicing Open Arms
Back before the time when barbers were barbers and doctors were doctors, and there were electric razors and swivel chairs, barbers had another, darker role to play besides shaving beard bristles and cutting overgrown hair. Back then they also hacked people's arms open6.
To understand this horrifying practice, we must first go back further in time to the golden age of the Greeks. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was the first to conceive the notion that disease had a rational cause and therefore a rational cure. From borrowed knowledge he gathered from China and India, he stitched together the concept that bodies had four types of humours: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. He extrapolated from this knowledge his theory that disease caused imbalance in these fluids - others had thought that it was the imbalance of these humours that caused disease. Hippocrates reckoned that it was the bad diet, absence of exercise, poor air and injuries that were responsible for illnesses. (He was right about this. He was dead wrong about the four humours, though.)
Hippocrates, in other words, was a hero of the Western medical world. Spurred by his teachings, the Roman Empire built intricate aqueducts that supplied fresh water, bath houses and efficient sewage removal systems to almost every major Roman city - a course of action that has surely saved hundreds of thousands of lives from water-borne infectious disease. Unfortunately, he also had a shortcoming: being wrong about the four humours, Hippocrates also held the mistaken notion that bloodletting could eliminate an overbalance of blood, when in fact it served no useful purpose at all.
From the theory relating disease with imbalance of the four humours came the idea that the disease could be cured if balance was restored. The four humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) were corresponded to the basic elements of air, water, fire and earth, and bodily fluids were made up of various combinations of these elements. Foods were also characterised based on the four basic elements. One way of 'curing' disease, then, was to prescribe foods that had properties opposite to those of the condition. For example, if a patient was diagnosed as cold and wet, then the doctor would prescribe a diet consisting of hot and dry foods. Of course, this seldom did the patient any good, but we won't go into that for now.
The important thing is that the other method of curing disease was through the purging of whichever humour was causing it. Bloodletting was for patients who were too 'hot and wet'7. Although this therapeutic method was equally useless at curing illness8 most wealthy Europeans willingly underwent painful bi-monthly bloodletting as a form of preventive medicine9. This was because they believed that blood was made from food by their liver, and that overeating led to production of excess blood, which had to be removed.
The grisly art of bloodletting flourished during the Dark Ages, when medicine degenerated, people were mostly illiterate and the physicians of the time were monks and priests, whose thinking was deeply intertwined with religion. Barbers were first appointed assistants to the physician-clergy. Later, in 1163 at the council of Tours, it was declared sacrilegious for the clergy to draw blood from the human body, and these ministers of God were then banned from medical practices.
The Decline of Barbering and Bloodletting
Thus it was barbers, who were after all wielders of the razor, who continued the bloodletting tradition. They were initially pretty much given free rein in the business - until, that is, people started complaining that the barbers were making them more sick than well. In fact, most barbers were resorting to quackery by this time in an attempt to disguise their ignorance of medicine. It was fortunate for the people that these complaints found their way to the mayor and council in London, who were presumably not as gullible as the average citizen. The barbers must have been devastated when, in 1416, they were suddenly banned from taking charge of the sick unless these patients were presented to one of the masters of the Barber-Surgeon's Guild within three days.
However, it was easier said than done where trying to stop barbers from their ghastly bloodletting business was concerned. Although the barbers were becoming crippled with the rise of medicine and developments in surgery, they nevertheless doggedly pursued their practice. The 1540 barber-surgeon merger was, in fact, in favour of the barbers because the diploma entitling a surgeon to practice was signed by two barbers and two surgeons. Moreover, barbers were much favoured by the monarchy at that time: Henry VIII even decreed that barbers were to receive the bodies of four criminals yearly for the purpose of dissection.
Finally, in 1745, after a series of investigations, a bill was passed to separate barbers and surgeons for good. This marked the decline of barbers as practitioners of medicine. By the end of the 18th Century, most barbers had given up their rights to perform surgery, except in small towns where surgeons were not available. They lost their status and became labourers, fashioning wigs in the 18th and 19th Century, while their shops became shady hangouts. If barbers had once been popular for being administers of therapeutic medicine, they were certainly made unpopular by the appearance of Sweeney Todd. It looked like the end of the barber profession.
However, the art of barbering was revived in 1893 when AB Moler established a school for barbers in Chicago. Several years before, in 1886, the Barbers' Protective Union had been founded in Columbus, Ohio, which eventually became Journeymen Barbers' International on 5 December, 1887. In 1897, the State of Minnesota passed the legislation for a barber licence. Barbers began to thrive again during World War II, when short hair was the trend, and in 1959 Edmond Roffler developed the Roffler Sculptur-Kut technique, which now has over 6,000 followers.
Today's barbers are both men and women, again occupying an important niche in society as the barbers of old had, cutting and styling hair to meet the demands of the public. The only difference being that these barbers no longer carry out bloodletting practices.
What's the Deal With the Barber Pole, Then?
The history of the barber pole is intertwined with the history of barbers and their bloodletting practices. Patients would grasp a rod or staff tightly so that their veins would show, and the barbers would cut open their arms and bleed them until they fainted (nasty but true). Later, when leech therapy became popular, as they allowed for more controlled bleeding, the leeches were applied directly to the vein areas. After the procedure, the washed bandages10 were hung outside on a pole to dry11, and to advertise the ghastly therapeutic specialities offered in the barbershop12. Flapping in the wind, the long strips of bandages would twist around the pole in the spiral pattern we now associate with barbers.
This early barber pole was simply a wooden post topped by a brass leech basin. One source speculates that the poles were painted red to mask the bloodstains. Later, the basin was replaced by a ball and painted poles of red and white spirals took the place of the less tasteful pole with the bloodstained bandages, and these poles became permanent outdoor fixtures. After the formation of the United Barber Surgeon's Company in England, barbers were required to display blue and white poles, and surgeons, red ones. In America, however, the barber poles were painted red, white and blue because the American flag also had all these colours.
Why the Colours, Again?
There are several different interpretations for the colours of the barber pole. One is that red represented blood and white the bandages. Another interpretation is that red and blue respectively stood for arterial and venous blood, and white was still for the bandages. A third suggests that the spiral pattern represents a white bandage wrapped around a bloody arm. The ball, of course, represents the basin of leeches as well as the blood-collection bowl.
Today's barbers more commonly use the updated combination of blue, white and red striped poles as an emblem of their profession. Thankfully, they no longer cut people's arms, by the way.
- C Wanjek, 2002, Introduction - The Roots of Bad Medicine. IN Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New Jersey.
- History of Barbering
- The Barbers Club of NannyMUD
- Harry Perelman. The Barber Pole
- The History timeline of the Barbering - A timeline from the Ed Jeffers Barber Museum