The Curiosities of Barber Poles

Ever wonder why barber poles are red, white, and blue?

The white and red colors indicated barbers in days past who filled in as doctors and dentists. Barber poles actually descended from medieval times when barbers performed surgical procedures such as bloodletting. Patrons held a firm grip on a wooden pole that often had a brass basin at the top that contained leeches. Barbers hung both clean and bloodstained bandages outside their shops where they would twirl in the breeze.

Thus, those bandages came to represent the red and white stripes on the barber pole. Then in the U.S. later on, a blue stripe was added to show the American colors, making them patriotic.

A barber-surgeon often had mundane tasks such as picking lice from a person’s head, extracting teeth, and of course, blood-letting.

Now, can you imagine for a minute how clean those shops must’ve been? Not! I shudder to think about a barber cutting someone’s hair with blood-stained hands. Or worse, performing surgery with hair on him. Lord help! No wonder so many people died back then. Infection must’ve run rampant.

In the old days the pole had a crank that wound it which made for a tedious time keeping it turning. Electric ones that came along had a switch.

The cast iron models weighed around 125 pounds. They would’ve been very hard to wind. They’re much lighter today.

The William Marvy Company in St. Paul, Minnesota opened up for business in 1950 and they still make these today. They number each pole they sell. And they’ve produced over 82,000. They’re proud to say that No. 75,000 built in 1997 is hanging in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Though business sharply declined over time due to electric razors and trimmers, the company still employs 14 workers and are owned by third-generation Marvys.

The barber pole is such an outstanding and recognizable symbol. Today we know it only as a place to get your hair cut.

Thank goodness real doctors do the surgery now!

I wonder….would you have sought the services of a barber back then if you had a bad tooth ache? I sure don’t think I would’ve. 

About LindaBroday

I'm a NY Times and USA Today bestselling author of western historical romance. I love stories of the old West and the people who once lived there. I haunt libraries and museums and can hang out in them for hours. To tell all the stories that are in my head would take a lifetime.


The Curiosities of Barber Poles — 6 Comments

  1. Good morning Linda- what a very intriguing topic. Rob’s dad was a barber, as was Rob’s brother in law. Very interesting to know how the barber pole came to be known. I do not think I’d want a barber pulling or working on my tooth, much less taking care of a medical condition. However I guess back in the olden days if that was your only choice, I guess it was where you sought or had to receive treatment. Can you just imagine waiting for a haircut while the barber was pulling a tooth or letting blood. Worse than that, would of been waiting on him to finish a haircut to perform a medical procedure on you. Yikes!!!!! Have a very blessed Monday and enjoy your full week back to normalcy from your RT trip. Love you my sweet sister friend. Happy Early Birthday, too.

    • Hi Miss Tonya……..Oh good heavens! I wouldn’t want a barber doing anything except cutting my hair. They didn’t even have one speck of medical education either. I would’ve had to be in dire shape and, even then, I would’ve stayed far, far away. Ollie in Texas Redemption didn’t trust Jake the barber with her heart condition either. Nor would I.

      Thanks for the early Happy Birthday wish! Thank you so much for the beautiful necklace. Love you, sister friend.

  2. I get a little thrill when I see a barber pole these days. They are few and far between. I never knew about them having to wind it up to make it turn. How would that look on a job ad? Barber Pole winder wanted. 🙂 No, I don’t think I’d have gone to a barber to get a tooth pulled and for SURE wouldn’t want to have my blood let. Good post, sister!

    • Hi Miss Jan…….You make me laugh. But seriously, they must’ve hired someone to keep the thing wound. I’ll bet it ran down pretty quickly too. Nope, no barber for pulling teeth or letting blood. Glad you enjoyed the blog. Go out now and apply for that barber pole winder job. Ha!

      Love you!

  3. Hello Linda hope you are rested and recovered from RT.
    I had such a grand time meeting with you.
    I am sure back in the day people went to the Barber without thinking of the dangers for it was probably all they knew. One thing that makes me think “hum” is didn’t they think the clean bandages would become soiled with the bloody ones as they twirled in the wind? I think I would have taken my chances with a horse Dr

    • Hi Miss Glenda……I’m still recovering. That was some trip and it was go, go, go the entire time. The very best part was meeting you and your beautiful girls. Loved every minute of our time together.

      People back then were really dumb. They didn’t know a whole lot or give one thought to contamination. Probably why the average lifespan was only to age 40. Those germ had a field day. I agree about the horse doctor.

      Love you, pretty lady!