THE BARBER POLE AND IT’S LESSER KNOWN SYMBOLISM
June 13, 2021
A spinning pole of white with red and blue stripes on it, the symbol of the barbershop, easily recognisable and found outside many barbershops the world over. The spinning pole is eye catching and shows that the barbershop is open for business but have you ever stopped to wonder how this ‘barber pole’ came to be and what exactly is it’s symbolism? Read on as we explain.
The origins of the barbershop pole stem back to a time that is now ancient history. So, you should be forgiven if you are way off in your assumptions about the pole, it’s colors or what it actually symbolises. Most commonly barber poles are comprised of three colors, (white, blue and red) each of which has a deep meaning.
To explain further we must first look at the role of the barber and how that has differed over time. Jumping back to the middle ages, a barber was referred to as a barber surgeon. This, because as well as cutting hair and shaving beards they would pull teeth and perform minor surgeries like suturing wounds and setting bones. These were the days before hospitals, toothpaste and toothbrushes so you can only assume that business was booming.
One very common practice for the barber surgeon was bloodletting. This involved the cutting open of a vein to allow blood to drain and this was seemingly a remedy for everything from a sore throat to the plague. The belief was that the body could be brought back into balance by releasing the bad blood. The practice largely fell out of favour by the nineteenth century and today it remains a treatment for only a very small number of ailments.
The barber pole was put into use as a way to identity those barbershops where surgery was practiced. The pole itself was derived from the staff that the patient gripped onto to encourage blood flow during the blood letting procedures. As for the colors, the white is said to be symbolic of the bandages used to stem the blood. Red is symbolic of the blood itself and blue of the veins. In much of Europe the barber pole is typically only red and white while across America and here in Australia it is usually red, white and blue.
While the role of the barber has changed much over time and the days of bloodletting and barber surgeons have wained. The barbers pole remains, although understood to show that the barbershop is open for trade.