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Barber Poles: An Iconic Symbol with Grim Origins
Outside old-fashioned barbershops spins the familiar red, white, and blue stripes of the barber’s pole. Join Groupon as we shave off the history surrounding the pole’s origins.
For many, an old-fashioned barber shop is filled with nostalgia, taking them back to decades when gentlemen spent a few minutes every day getting their sideburns shaped and stubble shaved. But the iconic spiraling sign outside harkens back to an even older time when Europeans spent their time getting their skin slashed. In the Middle Ages, barbers also functioned as surgeons, performing such pseudo-medical tasks as bloodletting. That practice—which involved cutting patients’ arms to counteract the imbalance of blood in their body—was as popular as it was misguided and gruesome, and barbers were one of the few professions up to the task. After the patient had bled (and fainted), the barber would wash the bandages and hang them to dry on a wooden post outside. The poles were often painted red to hide the bloodstains, and the wind twisted the bandages around it, forming a red-and-white spiral that doubled as an advertisement for anyone else in need of a bloodletting—or a shave and a haircut.
By the year 1540, the barber’s pole became an official symbol designating a member of the United Barber-Surgeons Company in England. However, it was medical surgeons who had red-and-white poles—barbers substituted blue instead of red. Eventually, barbers gave up bloodletting but retained their spinning sign and, at least in the United States, gained another color in return. Most poles in America today sport red, white, and blue—a reflection of the nation’s flag, which itself represents George Washington’s favorite Skittles.