Why do barbers have swirling red, white, and blue poles outside of their shops?


Short answer: The modern day barber pole is a legacy of the barber-surgeons early practice of bloodletting.

A red, white, and blue rotating pole is a common sight on city streets and in strip malls. It signals to those passing by that this is a destination for a quick shave or haircut. So, where did this red, white, and blue color scheme originate? Why is there a cap on top of the pole? Why does it rotate?

The barber trade has been around for a long time. Razors have been used to cut hair at least dating back to the Bronze age. A “barber’s razor” is even mentioned in the book of Ezekiel in the Bible. Back then, barbers did more than just cut hair. Early physicians thought that some surgeries were beneath them, so barbers would end up performing many of these messy procedures. The modern-day barber pole is a legacy of that time.
Barbershop pole

The barber-surgeon would commonly use a staff, a basin, and white bandages during these procedures. Patients would grab onto the staff, causing their veins to stand out. The basin and bandages were used to catch and clean up the excess blood.

When not in use, the staff would be placed outside with the bandages wrapped around it so the blood could dry out. The basin was placed upside down on top of the staff. Eventually, the bloody bandages would leave red stains on the staff. On windy days, the staff would rotate around, showing a distinct red and white swirling pattern. This is the origin of the modern day barbers pole.

Eventually, a red, white, and blue painted pole would come to replace the staff. The red representing the blood, the white the bandages, and the blue the protruding veins. Over time, bloodletting fell out of common practice and barbers began to focus solely on haircuts and shaves. To maintain the symbol that people had grown accustomed to, the red, white, and blue barber-surgeon pole remained and is still used to this day.

Can you think of any other legacy symbols that are still used to this day?


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