The iconic striped barber pole’s symbolism goes back centuries. There was a time, pre 1500s, when barbers performed many services for the public, and not all of them were limited to the cutting and shaving of hair. Barbers would remove lice from scalps, pull teeth and perform minor surgeries like bloodletting. Yes, bloodletting! A barber pole is an amalgam of symbols derived from the procedure of draining one’s body of blood, an ancient method meant to keep body fluids or “humours” in balance. Let’s take a closer look.
The brass ball atop a classic barber pole represents the vessel used to capture a patient’s drained blood. The pole itself is symbolic of a rod that patients would firmly grip in their hand to expose their veins to the barber. The alternating stripes on the pole signify the bandages used during a bloodletting procedure – white for clean ones and red for the blood-soaked aftermath. Post operation bandages, once washed, were hung on a pole to dry where they would invariably twist together in the breeze. Hence the red and white spiral motif.
Some barber poles consist of red and white stripes but many, especially in North America, are tricoloured – red, white and blue. There are several theories behind the addition of blue to the design. One story says it represents a person’s bluish veins, another posits that blue joined the mix when barber poles came to the USA – echoing the colours of the Stars and Stripes flag. No one knows for sure. Personally, I like the blue vein story.
So the next time you’re visiting a barbershop, ask about the bloodletting services that they advertise and see what kind of response you get.