The Stamp and Coin Place Blog: connecting the past and present of stamp and coin collecting, and looking to the future.

The Bloody Background of Barber Poles

The barber pole, charmingly weathered with age, in the corner of our S&C store.

Warning: Barber poles have a bloody history.

What today represents a simple haircut once represented something very different.

Barbers used to do much more than a haircut and shave. Customers would come to them for such services as surgery, picking out lice and setting bones, all services that physicians considered beneath them.

The main service of the barber was bloodletting. Bloodletting was a common medical practice until the 19th century, even practiced in the early 20th century, as it was believed to let out bad humors. Taking out enough blood to make the patient faint was considered beneficial.

Of course, today the practice seems ridiculous; bloodletting really only helps a very limited number of medical conditions.

People regularly went in to a barber to have their blood let, much like a regular dentist appointment today.

Drapers Barber Shop in Martinsville, Virginia.

Drapers Barber Shop in Martinsville, Virginia.

Barbers in Medieval London simply put bowls of blood in the windows to remind passersby to get their regular bloodletting service. But in 1307 the city realized that bowls of old blood were actually quite disgusting (took them long enough). It ruled for extra blood to be thrown in the Thames.

The ‘World’s Tallest Barber Shop Pole’ in Forest Grove, Oregon is 70 feet tall!

Barbers (sometimes called barber-surgeons) needed some way to advertise their services. They chose a pole with symbolic colors.

When barbers hung bloodied bandages outside their shop, the bandages would twist around the rod in the wind. The spiraling barber pole represents the twisted bandages, with red spiraling downward to represent the flow of blood and white for the bandages. Some suggest that the blue on the poles represent veins.

A 1540 law required barbers and surgeons to distinguish services by color. Barbers used blue and white, surgeons red and white.

Today’s barber poles mix the colors together to make the universal barber shop symbol.

Don’t go rushing to your barber for medical help, but now you can take a moment to appreciate a barber pole the next time you get your hair cut — and be glad that’s all you’re doing.

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