What is a Barber's Pole?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A barber's pole is a white pole marked with red and blue stripes which is used to indicate the presence of a barber shop. Traditionally, such poles were static, but many modern barber's poles rotate to attract the eye. The movement of the stripes on the barber's pole creates an interesting visual illusion, as it often looks like the stripes are sinking down the pole, rather than traveling around it.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

The origins of the barber's pole are quite ancient, but before delving into the roots of this classic symbol, it may be helpful to know that barbers and surgeons were once the same profession. Historically, barber-surgeons were authorized to perform bloodletting and other basic surgical procedures, while apothecaries provided medical preparations. Surgeons were looked down on by apothecaries and other members of the medical profession because their work was bloody and often deadly, thanks to poor sanitation and pain management.

Because many people were illiterate throughout Western history, business owners often used symbols to indicate their professions, rather than written signs, which would have been unintelligible to most potential customers. The barber's pole emerged as a symbol by 1200 CE, with the classic red and blue stripes symbolizing bloodletting, one of the major offerings of the profession. The white background of the barber's pole is said to stand for the clean white bandages which would have been needed in abundance in the office of a barber-surgeon.

It might seem odd to be performing surgery and cutting hair in the same office, but barber-surgeons used the same tools for both professions. Surgery and barbering both require razor-sharp knives, scissors, and other cutting tools, along with a steady hand. In an era before the methods of disease transmission were fully understood, re-using tools on multiple customers without sterilization was not at all unusual.

Barber-surgeons certainly did not perform the in-depth surgeries offered by surgeons today. In addition to bloodletting, they performed amputations and basic surgical procedures, with the survival rate varying, depending on the procedure, the health of the patient, the skill of the surgeon, and the working conditions.

As surgery began to branch off into its own profession, much to the relief of patients everywhere, barbers retained the barber's pole as a symbol for their businesses. It is common to see a barber's pole painted onto the sign for a barbershop, or displayed outside, although some municipalities prohibit moving signs, obliging barbers to keep their poles turned off. Some barbershops simply paint their trim in the red, white, and blue associated with the barber's pole to reference the historical symbol.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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