The white and red colors indicated barbers in days past who filled in as doctors and dentists. Barber poles actually descended from medieval times when barbers performed surgical procedures such as bloodletting. Patrons held a firm grip on a wooden pole that often had a brass basin at the top that contained leeches. Barbers hung both clean and bloodstained bandages outside their shops where they would twirl in the breeze.
Thus, those bandages came to represent the red and white stripes on the barber pole. Then in the U.S. later on, a blue stripe was added to show the American colors, making them patriotic.
A barber-surgeon often had mundane tasks such as picking lice from a person’s head, extracting teeth, and of course, blood-letting.
Now, can you imagine for a minute how clean those shops must’ve been? Not! I shudder to think about a barber cutting someone’s hair with blood-stained hands. Or worse, performing surgery with hair on him. Lord help! No wonder so many people died back then. Infection must’ve run rampant.
In the old days the pole had a crank that wound it which made for a tedious time keeping it turning. Electric ones that came along had a switch.
The cast iron models weighed around 125 pounds. They would’ve been very hard to wind. They’re much lighter today.
The William Marvy Company in St. Paul, Minnesota opened up for business in 1950 and they still make these today. They number each pole they sell. And they’ve produced over 82,000. They’re proud to say that No. 75,000 built in 1997 is hanging in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Though business sharply declined over time due to electric razors and trimmers, the company still employs 14 workers and are owned by third-generation Marvys.
The barber pole is such an outstanding and recognizable symbol. Today we know it only as a place to get your hair cut.
Thank goodness real doctors do the surgery now!
I wonder….would you have sought the services of a barber back then if you had a bad tooth ache? I sure don’t think I would’ve.