The history of the barber pole is intertwined with the history of barbers and their bloodletting practices. Patients would tightly grasp a rod or staff tightly so their veins would show, and the barbers would cut open their arms and bleed them until they fainted. Later, when leech therapy became popular (they allowed for more controlled bleeding), leeches were applied directly to the vein areas.
After the procedure, the barbers “washed” the bandages which were hung outside on a pole to dry, and to advertise the therapeutic specialities 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. Later the basin was replaced by a ball and painted poles of red and white spirals took the place of the pole with the bloodstained bandages, and these poles became permanent outdoor fixtures.
In fact, 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, many of the barber poles were painted red, white and blue.
There are several interpretations for the colors of the barber pole. One is that red represented blood and white, the bandages. Another interpretation says red and blue respectively stood for arterial and venous blood, and white was for the bandages. A third view suggests that the spiral pattern represents a white bandage wrapped around a bloody arm. The bowls represented the basin of leeches as well as the blood-collection bowl.
Red and White stripes and a ball on the top and bottom.
At some time in the past, you may have seen the revolving pole outside a shop, painted red and white, and sometimes blue as well. For many of us, this will stir images of the high-backed chairs and white-draped figures, shaving foam, and old-fashioned razors of barber shops. Even after most of these shops have been replaced by the more fashionable “hair saloons”, most of them still sport the candy cane-striped pole in one form or another.
The barber’s art of shaving beards and cutting hair is an ancient trade.
Long before there was history, there were razor blades, found among the relics of the Bronze Age. It began with primitive men who believed that both good and bad spirits entered individuals through the hair and inhabited the body, and that the only way to drive the bad ones out was by cutting one’s hair. Elaborate rituals were constructed around marriages and baptism to ward off bad spirits and retain the good ones.
Hair, it seems, had been a very important social and religious issue throughout all of the history of mankind, especially since many ancient superstitions revolved around it. It is known that the Egyptians were very picky people where hair was concerned; ancient monuments and papyrus showed people being shaved, Egyptian priests were de-haired every three days.
Barbers in Greece have had an important niche in society since the fifth century B.C.; in fact, the Greeks seemed to be so fastidious where facial hair was concerned that one prominent Greek politician was defeated by an opponent who had a neater beard trim.
The Romans had had barbers since 296 B.C, when Ticinius Mena came from Sicily, bringing with him the art of shaving.
These shops prospered among the chatter of free men, who were set apart from the slaves by the absence of beards. In fact, the art of shaving seemed to have military strategy value as well. The Persians defeated Alexander the Great’s men because the Macedonians then had beards, which the Persians could grab and pull their enemies to the ground before spearing them to death. After such attacks, “Alexander the Great” ordered his troops to be shaved so their enemies could not use the same tactics again.
Barbers and Surgeons
Historically, barbers were also dentists and surgeons, versatile performers of tooth extraction and enemas, bloodletting and wound surgery. These barber-surgeons formed their first official organization in France in the year 1096, after the archbishop of Rouen prohibited the wearing of a beard. Later, as medicine became more defined as a field of its own, efforts were made to separate the academic surgeons from these barber-surgeons.
In Paris, about 1210 A.D., identification of the academic “surgeons as surgeons of the long robe” and the barber-surgeons as “surgeons of the short robe” was established.
In 1308, the world’s oldest barber organisation, still known in London as the “Worshipful Company of Barbers” was founded.
In an effort to systematically instruct barbers in surgery, a school was set up in France in the middle of the 13th century by the Brotherhoods of St. Cosmos and St. Domains.
The guild of French barbers and surgeons was established in 1391, and by 1505, barbers were allowed entrance to the University of Paris.
The father of modern surgery, Ambroise Pare (1510-1590), was himself a common barber-surgeon before he embraced medicine and became the most famous surgeon of the Renaissance Period.
Pare was a surgeon in the French army and was the chief surgeon to both Charles IX and Henri III.
In England, barbers were chartered as a guild called the Company of Barbers in 1462 by Edward IV.
The surgeons established their own guild 30 years later.
Although these two guilds were merged as one by statute of Henry VIII in 1540 under the name of United Barber-Surgeons Company in England, they were still separated: barbers displayed blue and white poles, and were forbidden to carry out surgery except for teeth-pulling and bloodletting; surgeons displayed red and white-striped poles, and were not allowed to shave people or cut their hair.
Also, Louis XV of France decreed in 1743 that barbers were not to practice surgery.
In 1745, George II passed several acts to separate surgeons from barbers.
The surgeons went on to form a corporation with the title of “Masters, Governors and Commonalty of the Honourable Society of the Surgeons in London”, which was eventually dissolved in 1800 during the reign of George III and replaced by the Royal College of Surgeons.
Barbers and the practice of blood-letting to cure diseases
To understand this practice, we must first go back further in time to the golden age of the Greeks.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is given credit for being the first to conceive the notion that disease had a rational cause and therefore a rational cure. From borrowed knowledge apparently from China and India, he brought together the concept that bodies had four types of humours: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.
From this knowledge, his theory that disease caused imbalance in these fluids; others thought that it was the imbalance of these humors that caused disease.
Hippocrates concluded that it was bad diet, absence of exercise, poor air, and injuries that were responsible for illnesses. Hippocrates, although a Greek, has been a hero of the Western medical world.
Spurred by his teachings, the Roman Empire built intricate aqueducts that supplied fresh water, bath houses and efficient sewage removal systems to almost every major Roman city; a course of action that has surely saved hundreds of thousands of lives from water-borne infectious diseases.
Unfortunately, he also had a shortcoming in that he was wrong about the four humors, Hippocrates also had the mistaken notion that bloodletting could eliminate an “overbalance” of blood.
From the theory of relating diseases with the imbalances of the four humors, came the theories that diseases could be cured if a balance could be restored.
The four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) were compared to the basic elements of air, water, fire, and earth; and bodily fluids were thought to consist of various combinations of these elements.
The grisly art of bloodletting flourished during the Dark Ages, when medicine degenerated, people were mostly illiterate and the physicians of the time were monks and priests, whose thinking was deeply ingrained in religion. Barbers were first appointed assistants to the physician-clergy.
Later, in 1163 at the council of Tours, it was declared sacrilegious for the clergy to draw blood from the human body, and these ministers of God were then banned from medical practices.
The Decline of Barbering and Bloodletting
It was barbers, who were after all, masters of the razor, who continued this bloodletting tradition.
For awhile they were given free rein in the business; until people started complaining that they were getting sicker instead of better.
Although barbers were becoming handicapped with the rise of medicine and developments in surgery, they still pursued their bloodletting ractices.
Finally in London, in 1745, after a series of investigations, a bill was passed to separate barbers and surgeons for good.
This marked the decline of barbers as practitioners of medicine and by the end of the 18th century, most barbers had given up their rights to perform surgery; except in small towns where surgeons were still not available.
Today’s barbers consist of both males and females, again occupying an important niche in society as the barbers of old had, cutting and styling hair to meet the demands of the public. Only today’s barbers no longer carry out bloodletting practices.