That swirling red, white, and blue pole—as a barber, you’re probably all too familiar with the legacy symbol. Whether your shop has one proudly hanging in its doorway or you’re used to seeing them in other shops, it’s probably no surprise to you that this iconic décor means one thing very clearly—a barber works here.
But think about that swirling pole once more and ask yourself—aside from the fact that it signifies “barber,” do you really know what it means?
Believe it or not, the barbering pole is a symbol of a bygone era that we’re glad has been pushed to the wayside. While it’s true it does signify a barber’s workplace, that actual meaning of it is a little gorier than we bet you had in mind for your career.
Ready to learn more? Proceed with caution, but we’ll warn you—it’s a little stomach-churning (don’t worry, we’ll keep it all pretty PG).
The Origin of the Barber Pole: What Does the Red, White, and Blue Pole Really Mean?
Nowadays, the red, white, and blue pole that’s situated outside a barbershop simply means one thing—if you need some grooming, there’s a professional inside that can help you out.
The same poles in the past? A slightly different meaning.
In fact, this colored pole represents one of the slightly nastier parts of barbering of the past—bloodletting.
First things first, let’s talk about where this originally comes from.
It’s no secret that barbering has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years—it’s one of the oldest professions from the beauty industry out there, actually.
So, it should come as no shock that barbering was big in the Middle Ages.
Around this time (think 400-1500 AD-ish), barbers were multi-tasking, multipurpose professionals who did a lot more than cut hair. In fact, barbers worked as pretty much whatever you needed them to be, including:
You see where this is going right?
Barbers would set bones, pull teeth, perform surgery, cure sore throats, treat plagues, and beyond.
But above all, barbers offered one very specific service—bloodletting.
Bloodletting Barbers—Offering More Than Just a Haircut
At this time, barbers were known for bloodletting—that is, the practice of drawing blood from a patient with the goal of curing them of a disease, infection, or ailment.
While this might sound like bad advice, remember that this was a period of time before modern medicine—AKA, they didn’t know that drawing excessive amounts of blood from a sick person was a bad idea.
In fact, bloodletting was used to treat just about everything in the Middle Ages, from common colds and mild illnesses to serious conditions and life-threatening diseases.
Did it work? Not so much—but that’s a topic for another blog, probably.
Where Does the Multi-Colored Pole Come In?
So, by now, you get that being a barber was a pretty bloody affair—but that doesn’t necessarily explain where the red, white, and blue pole comes into play.
We’re getting there—hang tight.
Obviously, this bloody business generated a lot (and we mean a lot) of bloody bandages. The bloody bandages (usually white) inspired the red and white stripes of the pole—and the pole itself, well, that symbolizes the shape of a tool that patients (or customers) would grip on to during the procedure to help with blood flow.
Gory? Absolutely. Helpful? The jury is still out on that one.
Enter: The Modern Barber
Obviously, bloodletting isn’t in the barbering job description anymore—thank goodness, right?
You’re probably wondering when this shift from bloody and barbaric to basic barbering took place. Around the mid-1500s, things started to change.
Barbers were banned from offering and providing surgical treatments (though, they were still allowed to pull teeth) in England, but remained in the same trade guilt as surgeons until the mid-1740s.
The rest, as they say, is barbering history. As you know, nowadays all modern barbers focus on less-gory approaches to health and wellness. In our opinion, that’s probably a better use of time, too.
Did you learn something? We sure hope so. Yep, at NAOB we’re full of helpful knowledge—even if it’s a history lesson for your career of choice. While we’re super glad that being a barber doesn’t require bloodletting anymore (seriously, who of you would still opt for this career if that were the case?), it is valuable to understand and respect where our barbering history is rooted.
Want to learn more about the barbering of the old days? Interested in understanding how our career and industry have evolved since the Middle Ages. We can help! We’re constantly adding educational blogs, career resources, and lots of tips, tricks, and insight for your barbering career.
The best way to make sure you don’t miss a thing? Subscribe to NAOB right here, right now—this way you’ll never miss another post from us.