The Barber Pole: Do you know the history?

History of the Barber Pole

This history of the barber pole is a fascinating one. Here in North America, we all recognize the red, white and blue striped pole that is placed at the front of the barber shops. In Europe and many other parts of the world, the blue color is often not present and the pole is simply red and white. But have you ever stopped to think what these colors actually mean? To answer this question, we need to step back into medieval times.



Background: A Look Back into Medieval Times

Picture yourself walking the streets in the year 1050 in England and asking a local to point you in the direction of the local barber.  You’ll be taken to shop very different than what you might expect today.  While the barber did trim hair, shave beards and pick lice from scalps, the ‘barber’ from the year 1000 on  took on many other responsibilities centred around healing the healing the sick.  Barbers (or more properly termed barber-surgeons) was a medical practitioner. They performed small surgical procedures, performed tooth extractions, leaching, enemas. Barber-surgeons helped lance boils, amputate gangrenous limbs. Trepanning was also popular– a procedure where a hole was drilled into a person’s head to let out the evil forces that cause a range of mental illnesses. They removed kidney stones and helped with bladder obstructions.  In fact, the barber-surgeon cared for soldiers during battle. Barber-surgeons trained in various types of apprenticeships and these could last 5 or more years. Many had no other formal type of education and some could not read.


Surgeons were a separate profession than barbers until the mid 1500s. Surgeons were more expensive than barber-surgeons and most people went to the barber-surgeon for help with their illnesses rather than a surgeon or a physician. In fact, physicians typically did not perform surgery. Physicians at the time were mainly academics and worked in university settings or in castles. Surgery was considered beneath them.


In 1540 the Barbers Surgeon’s company was founded to unify barber-surgeons and surgeons thanks to legislation that King Henry VIII passed. But that was not enough for a happy harmony. Legislation was soon passed that required barbers and surgeons to specialize. Barbers had a blue and white pole and surgeons had a red and white pole.  Finally, in the mid 1500s, barbers in some parts of the world were banned from providing surgical treatments altogether but were permitted to extract teeth.  It was not until the mid 1700s that barbers and surgeons took different roles. In 1745, barbers and surgeons split off in different directions as professions. Surgeons would form the Company of Surgeons which matured into many of the present day societies.



Bloodletting and the barber


It is the bloodletting services that came to be represented in the barber’s red, white and blue pole.  Bloodletting was added to the list of responsibilities of barber-surgeons in the 12the century. Monks and clergymen traditionally performed bloodletting prior to 1163 and barber-surgeons simply assisted. But in 1163, Pope Alexander III prohibited bloodletting procedures by religious leaders and barbers added this to their list of procedures. Bloodletting was especially common and was a technique used for a range of maladies.  It soon came to be that bloodletting that was among the most common procedures of the barber. The barber used a sharp blade to open the vein.  The patient would grip a rod to help the blood flow out. White bandages where then use to clean the patient.  The dirty bandages were washed (the best they could be) and hung to dry on the grasping tod outside the shop. Some patients had leech therapy rather than bloodletting. These were used for wounds that were too tender to perhaps difficult to reach.


The Barber Pole


After reviewing this history, we can now review the meaning of the colors of the barber pole.   The white color represents the white bandages used after bloodletting; the red presents the bloodied bandages.  The blue color is thought to represent the veins or a patriotic gesture in America to blue color in the red, white and blue colors of the flag.

Dr. Jeff Donovan is a Canadian and US board certified dermatologist specializing exclusively in hair loss. To schedule a consultation, please call the Whistler office at 604.283.1887

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