Many a person has poked their head in my doorway and asked, “What’s the origin of the barber pole?” Well, the common history that has been passed down is this. In the long ago days of the barber-surgeon, bloodletting was a very common practice. Believed to cure all kinds of distempers, bad humours, and complaints, folks went to the barber to be bled. The pole itself was what the patient clutched firmly through the procedure. A bandage was used to help the vein stand out and another to bind the cut when finished. Supposedly when not in use, the pole and bandages were hung out side to advertise. No heed was paid the flies that might be drawn to the bandages. The wind would cause the bandages to wrap around the pole giving it the familiar candy cane stripe. The ‘bowl’ underneath our modern pole represents the basin used to catch the blood and to lather soap in. It is said that the basin was also hung out with the pole. When a passerby saw this paraphernalia hanging out, he knew that the barber was free to draw some blood.
A verse from a book of fables printed in 1727 describes an 18th century barber’s store front.
His pole with pewter basin hung
Black rotten teeth in order strung.
Rang cups that in the window stood
Lined with red rags to look like blood
Did well his threefold trade explain
Who shaved, drew teeth and breathed a vein.
The barber pole has come in as many styles as barber chairs and automobiles. Arm poles, popular from the 1880s through the turn of the century, were reminiscent of the original use of the barber pole. They were wooden poles approximately three feet in length and hung on the front of the building. Some arm poles were six feet in height and could be fastened to the store front or stand alone on the side walk. In the 1880s wooden poles with square bases and reaching as high as thirteen feet were quite common. These poles were ornamented with bright colors, unique carpentry to add depth, and topped with balls, acorns or sometimes eagles. A patriotic flare was prevalent, with red white and blue stripes or other designs as well as white stars on a blue field. Some other less noted colors that were used on these poles were gold and black stripe, red and gold and many other combinations of red, white, blue, green, black, gold and occasionally a marbled effect.
Many of the old wooden street poles have been destroyed thanks to city ordinances. Some cities prohibited these signs and poles to be placed on the sidewalk. For what reason I don’t know, maybe they thought they were a hazard or an eyesore. As a result many cigar store Indians as well as poles fell victim to the fireplace or the river. When these items do come up for sale they bring a high price because of their scarcity.
By the early part of the twentieth century lights were added to some poles. An illumined globe atop the pole advertised ‘Barber Shop.’ Around 1909 they started making poles out of cast iron instead of wood. They kept the appearance of the old wooden poles, but now they were more durable. About the same time there were also ‘rotary wind signs.’ They attached to the side of the building and the wind would cause the sign to spin. This morphed into poles with clock work. You wind the pole in the morning and the inner cylinder turns all day long. Now we have electric motors that turn the pole.
Regardless of the changes to the barber pole over the years the purpose has always been the same. Catch the customer’s attention! And it still works today. If only I had a dollar for every time I heard a child ask their mom or dad, “What’s that?” as they point to the barber pole.
I had a customer tell me that he had shown up one day for a haircut and the shop was closed. The late Dean Larson was walking by at the time and he turned and tapped on the barber pole with his cane. “When that’s turning, he’s open”, proclaimed Larson. And so it is.