Today I was walking about Newburyport, Massachusetts, an old seaport, now a lovely tourist town, following an exciting whale watching boat ride. As Doug and I strolled past the sidewalk shops, I noticed an old-fashioned barber pole, with the red and blue stripes.
“Ever wonder how the barber pole got its stripes?” I asked Doug. He had not.
Well, medical science was basically primitive in the Middle Ages. In fact, barbers sometimes performed surgery. After all, they had razors, right? A standard treatment for just about any ailment was “bloodletting,” where the doctors—or barbers—would drain someone’s blood. It was believed that blood sometimes contained bad “humors,” and a build-up of them needed to be released. You can see a decent portrayal of it in the wonderful 1995 Ang Lee movie “Sense and Sensibility.”
The barber pole developed as a symbol of bloodletting. During bloodletting, the patient would grasp a pole to make veins stand out. Then the barber-surgeon would cut into a vein, and blood would drip into a basin. Afterward, blood-soaked bandages would be hung outside as advertisement. Twirled by the wind, they would form a red and white spiral pattern that was later adopted for painted poles.
Eventually the bandages would be replaced by a wooden pole, with painted red and white stripes. Variations of the barber pole appeared in different countries, with some alternating a blue stripe with the red, like the one I saw today.
While the barber pole is recognized around the world, its days could be numbered. The William Marvy Company of St. Paul, Minnesota is the sole remaining manufacturer of barber poles in North America. To date, the William Marvy Company has produced over 82,000 poles, but only sells about 500 a year.
When you spy a barber’s pole, you are seeing an icon that dates to the Middle Ages, and now is quintessential Americana.