Have you ever wondered what that red, white and blue pole is outside of your local barbershop? For many years we just assume its some sort of symbolization to a barbershop since almost every one has it. But what does it actually stand for?
During Medieval times, barbers did not just cut hair. In fact being a professional barber meant you had quite a few tricks up your sleeve. Barbers were dentist, surgeons and, last but not least, hair stylist. Since this history goes back many years ago, we take you back to a time where bloodletting was still very relevant. The original pole had a brass basin at the top to represent where the leeches were kept and one at the bottom to represent where the blood was received. The pole itself represents the staff the patient gripped during the procedure to encourage blood flow.
The red and white part is a representation of the bandages that were used during the procedure. Originally, these bandages were hung out on the pole to dry after washing. As the bandages blew in the wind, they would twist together to form the spiral pattern similar to the stripes in the modern day barber pole. The barber pole became emblematic of the barber/surgeon’s profession. The blue part was added mostly in the United States to pay homage to our country’s national colors.
Barbering began early in human history with the primitive man. The first barbers were responsible for cutting hair short due to the belief that bad spirits could enter the hair through ones head. This act alone elevated barbers to a high place in society, along with religious ceremonies and priests. Barbering paired with religion is what put barbers in high demand in early civilizations. Ancient Egyptians visited barbers regularly and even priests had their bodies shaved completely every three days by a professional barber.
The trend of clean shaving was not the only responsibility of a barber. As early as BCE in Greece, barbers came into prominence as the popularity of facial hair increased. Wise men in Athens rivaled one another in the excellence of their beards. Beard maintenance and trimming became a common practice, which in turn lead to some of the very first barbershops in ancient Greece. These shops were an early reflection of what barbershops are commonly known for today; a social headquarters where one can discuss life, political and sporting news.
As the industry was thriving, it was also about to suffer an unfortunate decline. When the Macedonians — under the rule of Alexander the Great — invaded Asia, they lost several battles to the Persians because of their facial hair. During these wars, the Persians would grab soldiers by their beards, pull them to the ground and spear them. Alexander decided that from that point on all soldiers were required to be clean-shaven. Civilians followed the same example and so, naturally, the beard was now considered out of style.
Surprisingly, when facial hair became infamous, the barbering profession didn’t suffer at all. Along with the high demand for smooth shaves, barbers were not just limited to working with hair. As we learned from the history of the barber pole, barbers were not only hair stylists but also dentists, and surgeons. Considered the father of modern surgery, Ambroise Pare, was a common barber-surgeon before he embraced medicine and became the most famous surgeon of the Renaissance period. The practice of the barber–surgeon did come to an end in 1745 as advances were being made in medicine. This marked the decline of barbers as practitioners of medicine and by the end of the 18th century, most barbers ceased performing surgeries, except in small towns where surgeons were not yet available.
Today’s barbers are still an important staple in our society. Cutting and styling hair for a demanding public is a practice that will be needed until the end of time.