ASK! about History
“The history of the barber pole is intertwined with the history of barbers and their bloodletting practices. Patients would grasp a rod or staff tightly so that their veins would show, and the barbers would cut open their arms and bleed them until they fainted (nasty but true)…
Later, when leech therapy became popular, as they allowed for more controlled bleeding, the leeches were applied directly to the vein areas. After the procedure, the washed bandages were hung outside on a pole to dry, and to advertise the ghastly therapeutic specialties offered in the barbershop. Flapping in the wind, the long strips of bandages would twist around the pole in the spiral pattern we now associate with barbers.
This early barber pole was simply a wooden post topped by a brass leech basin. One source speculates that the poles were painted red to mask the bloodstains. Later, the basin was replaced by a ball and painted poles of red and white spirals took the place of the less tasteful pole with the bloodstained bandages, and these poles became permanent outdoor fixtures. After the formation of the United Barber Surgeon’s Company in England, barbers were required to display blue and white poles, and surgeons, red ones. In America, however, the barber poles were painted red, white and blue because the American flag also had all these colours.
Why the Colours?
There are several different interpretations for the colours of the barber pole. One is that red represented blood and white the bandages. Another interpretation is that red and blue respectively stood for arterial and venous blood, and white was still for the bandages. A third suggests that the spiral pattern represents a white bandage wrapped around a bloody arm. The ball, of course, represents the basin of leeches as well as the blood-collection bowl.
Today’s barbers more commonly use the updated combination of blue, white and red striped poles as an emblem of their profession. Thankfully, they no longer cut people’s arms, by the way. ”
(Accessed on 14 June 2007)
Answered by Mr Kweh Soon Huat, Librarian, Adult and Young People’s Services.
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