If you live in a slightly old-fashioned corner of the world, or grew up in the days of soda fountains and drive-in movies, you will have seen it – a ball-topped pole on the pavement or a revolving tube 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 Even after most of these shops have been replaced by the more fashionable hair saloons, most of them still sport the candy cane-striped pole in one form or the other.
But why on earth a pole with red and white and blue stripes, and a ball on top?
A Short History of Barbers
“And thou, son of man, take thee a sharp knife, take thee a barber's razor, and cause it to pass upon thine head and upon thine beard.” – (in Ezekiel)
It is an ancient trade, the barber’s art of shaving beards and cutting hair. 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. Even after the invention of documentation, the issue of hair would continue to persist - even up to modern times.
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, and Joseph (who is immortalized in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) was shaved before appearing before the Pharaoh so that the Great One would not be offended by a ‘dirty face’.
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. The barbers set the trend of barber shops as Gossip Central, as it is still today. These shops prospered amidst the chatter of free men, who were set apart from the slaves by the absence of beards. In fact, these Roman dandies thought so highly of the barbers that a statue was actually erected in memory of the first Roman barber.
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*. (Subsequently, Alexander ordered for his troops to be shaved so that they could use the same tactics)
Barbers and Surgeons
Specialization of professions is a relatively new invention. Back then, 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. The College deSaint Come, established in Paris in about 1210 A.D., was the first to do this by identifying the academic surgeons as surgeons of the long robe and the barber-surgeons as surgeons of the short robe.
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.
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 set apart – 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. (Parallel to this, Louis XV of France decreed in 1743 that barbers were not to practice surgery) It was only in 1745 that 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.
Degeneration of Medicine and the Grisly Art of Slicing Open Arms
Back before the time when barbers were barbers and doctors were doctors, and there were electric razors and swivel chairs, barbers had another – and darker – role to play besides shaving beard bristles and cutting overgrown hair. Back then they also hacked people’s arms open *.
To understand this horrifying practice, we must first go back further in time to the golden age of the Greeks. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was the first to conceive the notion that disease had a rational cause and therefore a rational cure. From borrowed knowledge he gathered from China and India, he stitched together the concept that bodies had four types of humours: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. He extrapolated from this knowledge his theory that disease caused imbalance in these fluids – others had thought that it was the imbalance of these humours that caused disease. Hippocrates reckoned that it was the bad diet, absence of exercise, poor air and injuries that were responsible for illnesses. (He was right about this. He was dead wrong about the four humours, though)
Hippocrates, in other words, was 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 disease. Unfortunately, he also had a shortcoming. Being wrong about the four humours, Hippocrates also had the mistaken notion that bloodletting could eliminate an “overbalance” of blood.
From the theory relating disease with imbalance of the four humours came forth notions that the disease could be cured if balance was restored. The four humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) were corresponded to the basic elements of air, water, fire and earth, and bodily fluids were made up of various combinations of these elements. Foods were also characterized based on the four basic elements. One way of ‘curing’ disease was then to prescribe foods that had properties that were the opposite of the disease condition. For example, if a patient were diagnosed as cold and wet, then the doctor would prescribe a diet consisting of hot and dry foods. Of course, this seldom did the patient any good, but we won’t go into that for now.
The important thing is that the other method of curing disease was through purging of whichever humour was causing it, the most famous of which was bloodletting for patients who were too “hot and wet”. (Among other things, patients who suffered from inflammatory fevers, coughs, headaches, rheumatism, abscesses and some forms of heart disease were thought to need a good bleeding) Although this therapeutic method was equally useless at curing illness* most wealthy Europeans willingly underwent painful bimonthly bloodletting as a form of preventive medicine*. (This would be equal to those who nowadays guzzle antibiotics in hope that they will be protected from disease) This was because they believed that blood was made from food by their liver, and that overeating led to production of excess blood, which had to be gotten rid of.
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
Thus it was barbers, who were after all, wielders of the razor, who continued this whole bloodletting tradition. (how hard could it be to cut open an arm?) They were initially pretty much given free rein in the business – until people started complaining that the barbers were making them more sick instead of well. (In fact, the barbers were resorting to quackery by this time in an attempt their ignorance in medicine) It was fortunate for the people that these complaints found their way to the mayor and council in London, who were presumably not as gullible as the average citizen. The barbers must have been devastated when, in 1416, they were suddenly banned from taking charge of the sick unless these patients were presented to one of the masters of the Barber-Surgeon’s Guild within three days.
However, it was easier said than done where trying to stop barbers from their ghastly bloodletting business was concerned. Although the barbers were becoming crippled with the rise of medicine and developments in surgery, they nevertheless doggedly pursued their practice. The 1540 barber-surgeon merger was, in fact, in favour of the barbers because the diploma entitling a surgeon to practice was signed by two barbers and two surgeons; also, barbers were much favoured by monarchy then. (In fact, Henry VIII decreed that barbers were to receive the bodies of four criminals yearly for the purpose of dissection)
Finally, 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. By the end of the 18th century, most barbers had given up their rights to perform surgery, except in small towns where surgeons were not available. They lost their status and became labourers, fashioning wigs in the 18th and 19th century, and their shops became shady hangouts. It looked like the end of the barber profession.
However, the art of barbering was revived in 1893 when A. B. Moler established a school for barbers in Chicago. Several years before, in 1886, the Barbers’ Protective Union had been founded in Columbus, Ohio, which eventually became Journeymen Barber's International on December 5, 1887. In 1897, the State of Minnesota passed the legislation for a barber licence. Barbers began to thrive again during World War II, when short hair was the trend, and in 1959 Edmond Roffler developed the Roffler Sculptur-Kut technique, which now has over 6,000 followers.
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.
What’s the Deal with the Barber Pole, then?
The history of the barber pole is intertwined with the history of barbers and their bloodletting practices. Patients would grasp a rod or staff tightly so that their veins would show, and the barbers would cut open their arms and bleed them until they fainted (nasty but true). Later, when leech therapy became popular (they allowed for more controlled bleeding), leeches were applied directly to the vein areas. After the procedure, the washed bandages* were hung outside on a pole to dry*, and to advertise the ghastly 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. (One source speculates that the poles were painted red to mask the bloodstains) Later the basin was replaced by a ball and painted poles of red and white spirals took the place of the less tasteful 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, the barber poles were painted red, white and blue because the American flag also had all these colours.
Why the Colours, Again?
There are several different interpretations for the colours of the barber pole. One is that red represented blood and white, the bandages. Another interpretation is that red and blue respectively stood for arterial and venous blood, and white was – still – for the bandages. A third suggests that the spiral pattern represents a white bandage wrapped around a bloody arm. The ball of course, represents the basin of leeches as well as the blood-collection bowl.
Today’s barbers more commonly use the updated combination of blue, white and red-striped poles as an emblem of their profession. Thankfully, they no longer cut people’s arms, by the way.
A Spot of Trivia
If barbers had once been popular for being administers of therapeutic medicine, they were certainly made unpopular by the appearance of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd (a.k.a. the Demon Barber) was a character from a 19th century horror flick, made popular by Stephen Sondheim’s musical, a razor-wielding barber who killed his customers for cash and turned them into meat pies. He first appeared in 1846 as a secondary character in a short story called ‘The String of Pearls: A Romance” (by Thomas Prest) that was published in The People’s Periodical. A hack playwright by the name of George Dibdin Pitt, who commonly filched other people’s stories, dramatized the story for the stage as “The String of Pearls: The Fiend on Fleet Street”, and advertised it as “founded on fact”. This play debuted at London’s Hoxton Theatre on March 1, 1847, and ever since then people have been speculating as to whether Sweeney Todd had really existed, or if he was simply an fictional bogeyman invented to sate the appetite of the morbid Victorian imagination.
Did Sweeney Todd really exist? Up until recently, nobody knew. A number of daily newspapers at the time had reported real-life horror stories that bore certain similarity to the ghastly tale of Sweeney Todd. (Stories of fainting ladies aside, the Victorian community had an enormous – and morbid – appetite for all things ghastly. Shocking tales of crime like this would have been spread through word of mouth like wildfire… although they were also probably embellished along the way) Also, many horror tales in the 19th century – ‘penny dreadfuls’ – were actually fictionalized accounts of real stories. And it was known that Thomas Prest, who first wrote about Sweeney Todd, had the habit of scouring newspapers for story ideas. However, these were just written off by most as a story to scare bad children and to thrill audiences.
All of this changed when British author Peter Haining recently revealed, through painstaking research, that there was once a psycopathic barber named Sweeney Todd who lived in the 19th century and who did actually murder his customers for money, although his tale is somewhat less exciting than Stephen Sondheim's famous musical. Unlike the Sondheim/Prest dramatized character, Sweeney Todd was simply an amoral, bitter man who was not adverse to killing for money. (The Victorians would have been disappointed) To know more, click here.
Man or myth, one thing is for sure - the tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber, is not likely to be forgotten anytime soon. As Anna Pavord of the London Observer wrote in 1979,
“Sweeney Todd will never die. We all need bogeymen and he was bogier than most.”
- Wanjek, C. 2002. Introduction: The Roots of Bad Medicine. IN Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New Jersey.
- History of Barbering
- History of The Striped Barber Pole
- Mark Gribben. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in concert
- The Barbers Club of NannyMUD
- Harry Perelman. The Barber Pole
- The History timeline of the Barbering: A timeline from the Ed Jeffers Barber Museum