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  #1  
Old 17 August 2008, 01:39 AM
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Icon81 Origin of barber's poles

Comment: I've read several places on the internet that the modern barber
pole is an outgrowth of a pole that was set outside of barber shops to dry
bloodied bandages from the bloodletting process, and that early barber
poles had a basin at the top representing the vessel that held the leeches
and one at the bottom representing the vessel that collected the blood.

It doesn't ring true to me for several reasons. First, the blood ran into
a basin, not a bandage. Secondly, I find it hard to believe that the
blood-soaked bandage would be left to dry without being rinsed. Thirdly,
this explanation doesn't explain the blue stripe, or why the stripes on a
rotating barber pole invariable appear to move upwards (toward the leech
vessel) instead of downward (toward the blood basin).

Any ideas about this one?
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  #2  
Old 17 August 2008, 02:52 AM
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When my papa was trained to be a barber in the U.S. Navy in WWII, he was taught that the barber pole was a symbolic representation of blood and bandages.

Silas
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  #3  
Old 17 August 2008, 02:56 AM
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I'm pretty sure the blue stripe is a later "All-American" addition - traditional barber poles are white and red striped only. I've long heard the bloody bandages symbolism, but the leech vessel is a new one on me.
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Old 17 August 2008, 01:41 PM
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I was told by a re-enactor/leech breeder(!) that the bowl was for blood-letting by knife rather than leech. One historical feature was that a bowl was hung from the pole to show that the shop was open, and that as the pole now has a solid ball at the end replacing the bowl, the shop now technically is always open. In the UK stripes are always red and white (but now seldom used) and rarely rotate.
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Old 21 August 2008, 05:28 PM
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I read in a Dan Simmons short story that it was guild symbol going back to the middle ages when barbers were also surgeons. The red stood for blood flowing from a cut.
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  #6  
Old 21 August 2008, 05:35 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Silas Sparkhammer View Post
When my papa was trained to be a barber in the U.S. Navy in WWII, he was taught that the barber pole was a symbolic representation of blood and bandages.
I've long thought that was the case.
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  #7  
Old 21 August 2008, 06:00 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by General Redwood View Post
I read in a Dan Simmons short story that it was guild symbol going back to the middle ages when barbers were also surgeons.
This is the story that I've been told throughout my life. Mostly by teachers and history buffs.
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Old 21 August 2008, 07:24 PM
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I've never understood what the point of barber's poles was. Is it to let customers know a barber is there? Because I'd think a sign, with words or with a picture for times when not as many people could read, would work.
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  #9  
Old 21 August 2008, 07:54 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by candy from strangers View Post
I've never understood what the point of barber's poles was. Is it to let customers know a barber is there? Because I'd think a sign, with words or with a picture for times when not as many people could read, would work.
It's an icon, for preliterate times. These sometimes start out very literal -- like the giant pair of eyeglasses over a lensmaker's shop -- but, like most "hieroglyphs," often become stylized. A modern example might be the "Golden Arches" of McDonald's.

Silas
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Old 22 August 2008, 04:49 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by General Redwood View Post
I read in a Dan Simmons short story that it was guild symbol going back to the middle ages when barbers were also surgeons. The red stood for blood flowing from a cut.
This is true. I have it on good authority from a Ph.D. level history professor who specialized in the Middle Ages.
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Old 19 December 2013, 05:16 PM
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I'm still curious about this. Innumerable sources claim that the appearance of the modern barber pole stems from ancient versions which supposedly had:

1) A brass basin at the top representing the vessel in which leeches were kept and/or blood was collected from bloodletting procedures.

2) A pole representing the rod which patients held during bloodletting procedures to show the barber where veins were located.

3) Red and white stripes representing bloodied and clean bandages used during the procedure.

This all supposedly came together when barbers hung washed bandages out to dry on the rods outside their shops, and the wind twisted the bandages to form the familiar spiral pattern we see on the barber poles of today.

However, the only supporting evidence I've ever seen for this claim is innumerable sources simply repeating this information as fact and citing each other. I have yet to encounter anything documenting that this explanation is anything more than supposition -- no contemporaneous accounts of barbers using a rod and basin as a symbol of their trade, no contemporaneous accounts of barbers hanging washed, bloodied bandages on said rods,
no contemporaneous visual depictions of barber poles charting their evolution.

Is there any real evidence out there behind this common origin tale?
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  #12  
Old 19 December 2013, 06:23 PM
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That sent me down a twisting rabbit hole of circular references that only proved your point. Everyone is saying the same thing (or one of a few very similar versions) and they reference one another and use whole identical phrases without any source material. I thought I found a goldmine in a BBC article, but all the links to source material were dead.
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Old 19 December 2013, 06:33 PM
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Barbers were never involved in blood letting or leeching. These jobs were done by doctors. Barbers were also surgeons and used to amputate limbs and the poles were symbolic representations of the blood and bandages. When first used, and they date from at least Tudor times, they did not rotate and were just a sign to a largely lliterate population that here you could either get your hair cut or have your leg cut off.

It is worth pointing out that the Tudor warship Mary Rose ad a barber-surgeon and his quarters had instruments that could be used either for hair cutting or amputation.

Last edited by Andrew of Ware; 19 December 2013 at 06:45 PM.
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Old 19 December 2013, 06:40 PM
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Exactly. I would expect that by now someone would have tried to track down early references to the use of red-and-white barber poles, then used that as a starting point to try to identify where and when they originated. Then from there, try to determine *how* they originated -- did the modern barber pole evolve over time from earlier forms, was it one of multiple barber symbols that eventually supplanted all the others, or did it seemingly spring into use all at once? Without knowing any of this, how can we possibly know *why* the barber pole looks the way it does?

From what I've seen in terms of real evidence, it's just as likely an explanation that one day some anonymous barber somewhere simply decided he wanted something visually catchy to attract people to his shop, so he just designed a red-and-white striped bowl with a shiny globe on the top to attract the eyes of potential customers.
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  #15  
Old 19 December 2013, 09:18 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Andrew of Ware View Post
..... Barbers were also surgeons and used to amputate limbs and the poles were symbolic representations of the blood and bandages. When first used, and they date from at least Tudor times, they did not rotate and were just a sign to a largely lliterate population that here you could either get your hair cut or have your leg cut off....

.
Uh, I really just wanted a trim....

Brad "no tip for this guy"from Georgia
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Old 19 December 2013, 09:29 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Andrew of Ware View Post
The poles were symbolic representations of the blood and bandages. When first used, and they date from at least Tudor times, they did not rotate and were just a sign to a largely lliterate population that here you could either get your hair cut or have your leg cut off.
How do we know that? What documentation is there that demonstrates red-and-white poles were used as signs by barbers several centuries ago? How do we know, other than supposition, why those poles were red-and-white? Do we even know for sure that it was common practice to dress wounds with white cloth bandages back then?
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  #17  
Old 19 December 2013, 10:38 PM
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One of the pages I found on the subject was about a dutch barber. It claimed that the white represented the medical profession. It also indicated that the ball on top was supposed to be a wad of cotton to stop up blood.
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  #18  
Old 19 December 2013, 10:59 PM
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In the Annals of the Barber Surgeons of London (1890), it is recorded that the guild records show that an ordinance was imposed in 1307 because the Barber Surgeons were advertising their trade by having blood visible from the windows.

https://archive.org/stream/annalsofb...ge/22/mode/2up

A list of laws of the guild mentions barber poles in 1566.

https://archive.org/stream/annalsofb...up/search/pole

Basins and pots are not to be set out on Sunday and Holy Days.

Interestingly enough, according to the Annals, there were Barber-Surgeons and Surgeons. They were represented by separate guilds. Surgeons could place signs outside their place of practice, while the Barber-Surgeons could not. This is likely why the pole came into being (it is not outright stated, but that is what I'm understanding).

https://archive.org/stream/annalsofb.../n253/mode/2up

1637, A barber has been suspended and has been ordered to bring in his bowls and pole.

http://www.barberscompany.org/historical_group.html#The history of the company

This page talks about how Surgeons and Barbers were separate, merged and separated once again. Somewhere I read that the two colours on the pole represented barbery and surgery. I don't know.

Ir has been fun, but I've got stuff to do. I'll look up more when I can.
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  #19  
Old 19 December 2013, 11:00 PM
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Yeah, prior to the germ theory of disease, there is no reason to assume white bandages were even used. White is (afaik) because they can be bleached to sanitize.
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  #20  
Old 19 December 2013, 11:16 PM
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Thomas Rowlandson's etching, "Customers mill around and tie up horses before going into a barber's shop in Alresford, Hampshire" from 1782 features a blue and white pole. And so far it's the earliest authentic image of a barber pole that I've found online.
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