The Barber Pole

It is one of the most recognizable symbols in America and in many parts of the world: the barber pole. The red, white, and blue diagonal stripes signifying barbering services. What is little-known today is the significance of the colors in the pole. In America, we might assume that the colors represented the colors of the flag. But that’s not the case.

Beginning in the 11th Century, barbers did more than cut hair, trim beards, etc. They performed some surgeries, did some dentistry, and treated other health maladies. Surgeons existed but did little surgery. They were academics and thought patient care was beneath them.

Barbers were trained through lengthy apprenticeships. Most had no other form of education. Some could not read. During war, barbers served on the battlefield and performed surgeries as serious as amputations.

One of the most common practices, of barbers was bloodletting. Until the 12th Century, monks performed the bloodletting. Pope Alexander III put a stop to the practice and barbers became the provider of bloodletting services. This consisted of using a sharp blade to open a vein, and blood would flow. White bandages would then be used to clean the wound spot. The barber pole colors are thought to be symbolic of the bloodletting; Red for blood, white for the bandages, and blue for the vein.

It wasn’t until the 18th Century that the roles of barbers and surgeons became what we know today. Beginnings often give us a glimpse of society at the time of the beginning. It’s hard for us to imagine today that your barber would be the go-to person for surgery. It’s also hard to believe that the roles of the barber and surgeon weren’t clarified until the 18th Century.

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“Beware of the young doctor and the old barber.” – Benjamin Franklin

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