In the past barbers were more than just hair stylists or beard shavers. The true history of a barber’s blade is mostly forgotten, but the iconic pole with stripes has an interesting relationship with its history.
Excerpt from “The Medical Book” by Clifford A. Pickover
The barber pole with its red and white helical stripes has been used for centuries as a symbol of the barber’s trade. This emblem dates to an era in which a barber, in addition to cutting hair, also pulled teeth and performed various surgical procedures, including bloodletting, a practice in which blood was drained from the body in a questionable effort to improve health. The red bloody bandages, perhaps only partially cleaned, were placed outside the barber shop to dry. As they blew in the wind around a pole, they created a pattern that was eventually transformed into an advertising symbol in the form of a striped helical pole.
In 1096, the barber-surgeons formed their first official organization in France. Around 1210, in order to distinguish between academic surgeons and barber-surgeons the College de Saint Come et Saint Damien of Paris required that the former wear long robes and the latter wear short robes. Note that barber-surgeons should not all be considered crude practitioners – the French surgeon Ambroise Pare started as a barber-surgeon and became the most celebrated surgeon of the European Renaissance.
In 1540, the barber-surgeons and academic surgeons in England united to form a single guild – the United Barber-Surgeons Company – but the two classes of surgeons had different jobs. The barbers displayed blue and white poles and were prohibited from carrying out advanced surgery, although they still could pull teeth and perform bloodletting. Academic surgeons displayed poles with red and white stripes and were not allowed to cut hair or shave clients.
During bloodletting, clients would tightly clutch a staff to make their veins visible and encourage blood flow, and barbers would cut clients’ arms and bleed them. Blood drawing leeches were also used. The early barber pole was topped with a brass basin representing a container of leeches.
In the United States, the most famous manufacturer of motorized spinning barber poles was the William Marvy Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, founded in 1950. By 1967, the company had sold 50,000 poles.
(Pickover, 2012, p. 58)
Pickover, C. (2012). The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine. Sterling. New York. p.58-59