Eli5. How did a red white and blue spiral pole become synonymous for barber shops?


Eli5. How did a red white and blue spiral pole become synonymous for barber shops?

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The most common explanation is that it symbolizes the jobs that barbers used to do besides cutting hair. Specifically dentistry and minor surgery. The white for teeth, the red for blood and the blue for has an unclear origin but may have been added in the US as a patriotic thing.

So if your barber ever nicks you, remember it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

**From [The Straight Dope](https://www.straightdope.com/21343007/what-s-the-origin-of-the-barber-pole):**

>>Back in the 17th century, doctors were forbidden by the Catholic church to perform surgery. Their reasoning was that the human body was sacred, and men of God shouldn’t touch the “shameful parts”. At the time almost all the major medical schools were located at church-controlled universities, and most doctors were actually clergymen.

>>The slack was taken up by barbers, who conveniently had the sharp blades already on hand. Thus was born the surgeon-barber (insert your own “close shave” joke here).

>>Later, surgeons decided to distance themselves from the lowly barber. The Barber-Surgeon Company (guild) of England split up in 1745. The guild symbol was a red-and-white striped pole, meant to represent bloody rags hung out to dry. This was topped by a brass bowl or basin which was used to catch the blood from bloodletting, a common “cure” at the time. Patients used to grab this self-same pole to make their veins swell for easier puncturing.

>>After much debate over who would get this symbol when the barbers and surgeons split, it was decided that the barbers got to keep the pole.

u/Purepointdog requested that I use quote blocks, and not italics, for the quoted portion of this post for the purpose of enhancing readability.

Once upon a time, barber-surgeons were a thing. Barber-surgeons specialized in cutting hair, nails, and other body hygiene functions. One of those functions was bloodletting, and they would have a patient grasp a pole tightly to force the veins to stand out.

Blood is a liquid, so it would run in a streak.

Since most barber-surgeons would operate in a community with limited literacy, they would display their professional services by displaying old and outdated items of their profession, like a cooper hanging a barrel over their door.

Over time the professional symbol came to be a rotating red and white pole, then a red, white and blue pole.

But yeah, that barber’s pole refers to the medieval practice of bloodletting.

Barbers used to also be basic surgeons and dentists.

The pole itself represented the staff/shaft that patients squeezed to encourage floodflow, and the red and blue spirals were representation of the caduceus, a symbol associated with medicine.

Additionally the pole also was meant to have two basins, atop and at the bottom. The top one would represent the therapeutic leeches awaiting use, and the bottom one was the blood collection basin.

The colors themselves were about medical attention (red), bone correction (white), and general barber services if no other emergency was afoot (blue).

Then it simply became so associated with barbers that when surgeon doctors became their own thing, they just… Kept the pole itself, while the doctors just took the actual caduceus symbol.

Just for the record, in my experience at least (I’m in my late 60s), the traditional barber-surgeon’s pole in the UK is red and white. Red for blood, white for bandages is how I was taught it. Image searches largely support that. I’m not saying that you won’t see blue, but it feels like a recent/US addition.

(Just asked my wife what colour a barber’s pole is. Without prompting: “Red and white”. So it’s not just me.)