Home Columnist EVER WONDER by Jacque Scott: Barber Poles

EVER WONDER by Jacque Scott: Barber Poles


Barber Poles

Sometime ago, we learned something about Dentists and mankind’s wish to not only enjoy his food but to look good as well.  Dentistry was often done in the all-purpose barbershop.  Today, I thought we might find out a little more about the red and white pole that used to be in front of almost every barbershop across America.  Most of us remember passing these poles outside small barbershops while we were growing up.  Today, they are considered some of the hottest collectibles around.

The origin of the barber pole is linked with the practice of bloodletting. During medieval times, barbers also performed surgery on their customers.  Barbershop attendants pulled teeth and treated illnesses by bleeding clients, especially with leeches.  The original pole had a brass basin at the top representing the basin holding the leeches.  The bottom of the pole also had a basin, and this one represented the basin used to catch the blood.  The pole itself represented the staff that customers gripped in order to encourage blood flow.

The red and white stripes on the pole symbolize the bandages used during the bloodletting procedure.  Red stood for the blood stained bandages, and white stood for the clean bandages.  Originally the bandages were washed and hung out to dry, and as the wind dried them, the long strips of cotton spiraled around each other. This reminds us of the barber pole today.  Some say that the red and white stripes around the pole represent the two long bandages, one twisted around the arm before the bleeding and the other used to bind the arm up after the bleeding.   When not in use, the pole with a bandage wound around it, hung by the door ready for the next bloodletting.  Later, for convenience, instead of hanging out the pole to be used in the bleeding, a pole was painted to represent it and was given a permanent place on the outside of the shop.  Thus, the well-known emblem of the barbershop was born.  It is believed that sometimes the color blue was added to the American barber pole to commemorate the colors of the American flag.

     Later the poles had motors attached so that the stripes rotated and seemed to be descending or ascending, depending on the direction of the spinning pole.  In recent years the sale of spinning poles dropped dramatically.  Very few new barbershops are opening, and many localities ban moving signs of any kind as unsightly.   

I also found that barber poles had a few other meanings.  In aviation, “on the barber pole” is pilot talk for flying at a maximum safe speed.  The airspeed indicator on an aircraft is a red and white needle that resembles a barber pole.  It is used to indicate that an aircraft is flying as fast as it is safe to fly in the current conditions.

And, in South Korea, the barber’s pole is often seen spinning on the tops or sides of buildings where haircuts are not for sale.  The businesses advertised by the spinning poles offer a wide variety of services such as massages, skin-stretching, coffee, and baths, but it is widely known that these legitimate businesses actually are hiding sex-for-sale.  Single pole places may not offer full-scale sexual services, but those with two or three poles do offer such activities.

Today, many barbershops no longer use the red and white pole to advertise their business.  In fact there is only one company, the William Marvey Company, that still makes barber poles in North America.  As a result, the poles have become very hard to find and more difficult to restore.  The most valuable ones found are the stained glass ones with porcelain tops and bottoms.  If you are collecting, the stationary poles bring a higher price than the revolving ones, because they are older and more difficult to find.

I, for one, love nostalgia and get a little sad when I see all of the uni-sex hair salons out there.  Where have all the barber poles gone?

There you have it… A bit about barber poles… God bless you.

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