The history of a Barbershop is an interesting one. It goes farther back than many people might imagine, and has had an interesting story to tell. One of the most unique stories of its history is the creation of the Barbershop Pole and what significance its shape, color, and movement means. Do you have any guesses?
We’ve talked about the history of being a Barber and Barbershops in small spurts in past blogs. With the resurgence of vintage things and longing to go back to a slower time where pride was taken in every trade or daily activity, the popularity in understanding the history of these periods has seen a significant rise. More and more TV shows, movies, books, the fashion industry, and trends are celebrating these periods, helping us to remember pieces of the past and pushing us to cherish these traditions and memories.
When you step into my shop, I know you’ll feel the world slow down. I take time with each of my customers to understand who they are, what they want, what their personal needs are, and the best way I can provide the best experience to them.  I use tools and techniques that take time to use properly, to get the results I pride myself on, and for safety’s sake. You can’t rush a straight razor shave, and you don’t want to. That would be one sure-fire way to startle your customers in more ways than one. This is why I pride myself in the experiences I give to my customers every day.
All barbershops are different. Sure, you’ll come out with a new haircut, a trim to your facial hair, or a different style no matter where you go. The experience from walking into the shop, leaving it, and everything in between will always be different depending on what barbershop you call home. The one thing that will always be the same is the red, white, and blue pole that appears somewhere in every shop in some shape or form. Some are large beautiful pieces made out of ceramic and encased in glass, while others are stationary pictures or paintings. Regardless of what barbershop you frequent, you’ll find one waiting for you. Do you know their history and why they’re there? A barbershop pole is one of the most recognized symbols across the board. But, it’s history and what it stands for doesn’t hold as much recognition.
Everything about a barbershop pole has a meaning, purpose, and history. Barbers date back to the middle ages. They were not supervised by any higher power, medical board, or code at all. A barber was able to give you a hair cut, a trim to your beard, perform minor surgery, set broken bones, practice bloodletting, and pull teeth. It was a one-stop-shop to make you look and feel better. Many of these early barbers were men of the church, but in its earlier history the Catholic Church banned those of the cloth from practicing any type of medicine. At the same time, many doctors felt the practice of bloodletting (literally letting the blood drain from a human body) was beneath their talents. So who did these responsibilities fall too? Barbers! Barbers become responsible for some of the most gruesome and invasive surgeries almost overnight. They were not chosen because of their medical experience or training, but because they were skilled with sharp objects. At the time barbers were called barber-surgeons because of the different trades they offered.
During these early days of being a Barber, it was very common that the majority of the population, the barber included, were unable to read. So, to distinguish their business and communicate what services were being offered, the universal Barbershop pole was created. The red stripe on the pole stands for the blood that comes from surgery or during bloodlettings. The white stands for the color of the bandages that wrapped around any wound. The blue stripe has two different rumored possibilities for what it stands for. The first being that it was added to represent the color of blood running inside the veins. The second possibility is that the color was inspired by patriotism in the United States. People wanted red, white, and blue to match the pride of the nation. The shape of the pole was shaped after the stick that was held by patients while surgery was being performed. These surgeries were almost always done without any pain medication, without putting the patient to sleep, or without any anesthesia. Patients would squeeze the stick to help alleviate some of their pain. Have you noticed the way a moving barbershop pole spins? It spins this way to represent the flow of blood throughout the human body.
Around the 1500’s, most medical practices and procedures started to return to the medical world. By the 1700’s, bloodletting and other uncomfortable medical practices had become very unpopular and finally came to a stop. Doctors took back the medical world completely and left barbers to their trade of grooming. The barbershop pole was left behind and has stayed as the official sign and mascot for barbershops ever since the 1700’s.
Thankfully today no medieval surgery is performed, no teeth will be pulled, and barbers just focusing on your hair cut, style and grooming care. The barbershop pole to this day, after more than 300 years of being used to mark a good place for a haircut, has the power to tell anyone walking by exactly what can be found inside the building it’s attached to. But that 300-year difference also explains why the majority of people have forgotten its history. After the 1700’s, it continued to take quite an interesting journey. Today, the barbershop pole holds a sense of pride where ever it hangs. It represents the creativity of the barber behind the chair, the skills we wield, and our artistry that we bring to each haircut. I am so proud to represent the history of a Barbershop Pole and to give these qualities to every customer who sits in my chair every day.