FYI: The History of a Barber Pole

Curious about the history of the barber pole? Read the brief history below and let us know your thoughts. Were you surprised to learn the origin of the barber pole? Source: History Channel.


The barber pole’s colors are a legacy of a (thankfully) long-gone era when

people went to barbers, not just for a haircut or shave but also for bloodletting

and other medical procedures. During the Middle Ages bloodletting, which

involves cutting open a vein and allowing blood to drain, was a common

treatment for a wide range of maladies, from sore throat to plague. Monks,

who often cared for the sick, performed the procedure, and barbers, given

their skill with sharp instruments, sometimes provided assistance. After Pope

Alexander III in 1163 prohibited clergymen from carrying out the procedure,

barbers added bloodletting—something physicians of the day considered

necessary but too menial to do themselves–to their repertoires. Known as

barber-surgeons, they also took on such tasks as pulling teeth, setting bones,

and treating wounds. Ambroise Pare, a 16th-century Frenchman considered

the father of modern surgery, started his career as a barber-surgeon.


The look of the barber pole is linked to bloodletting, with red representing

blood and white representing the bandages used to stem the bleeding. The

pole itself is said to symbolize the stick that a patient squeezed to make the

veins in his arm stand out more prominently for the procedure. In Europe,

barber poles traditionally are red and white, while in America, the poles are

red, white, and blue. One theory holds that blue is symbolic of the veins cut

during bloodletting, while another interpretation suggests blue was added to

the pole as a show of patriotism and a nod to the nation’s flag.


By the mid-1500s, English barbers were banned from providing surgical

treatments, although they could continue extracting teeth. Both barbers and

surgeons, however, remained part of the same trade guild until 1745. While

bloodletting largely fell out of favor with the medical community in the 19th

century, it’s still used today to treat a small number of conditions.