History of the Barber Pole

The barber pole is something we see in front of every barbershop, actually, it is required by law that barbershops in Massachusetts display a barber pole at their storefront.  It is often forgotten that the Barbers of the past were not just there to cut hair and shave beards, they also performed minor surgeries, dentistry, and tasks such as bloodletting.  Each day, customers walk into my shop and as what the significance and symbolism of our pole is, so I thought I would share it with you all.

The original barber’s pole has a brass ball at its top, representing the vessel in which leeches (for bloodletting) were kept and/or the basin which received the patient’s blood. The pole itself represents the rod which the patient held tightly during the bloodletting procedure to show the barber where the veins were located. The red and white stripes represents the bloodied and clean bandages used during the procedure. Afterwards, these bandages were washed and hung to dry on the rod outside the shop. The wind would twist the bandages together, forming the familiar spiral pattern we see on the barber poles of today.

After the establishment of the Barber-Surgeons Company 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. Some interpretations say that the red represents arterial blood, the blue represents venous blood and the white represents the bandages. Spinning barber poles are meant to move in a direction that makes the red (arterial blood) appear as if it were flowing downwards, as it does in the body.

Facts like this are often forgotten in the barbering industry. You may be surprised to find out that your own barber may not know the meaning of the one piece of his business that represents his art.