To the antique dealer, old barber poles are coveted finds. They date back as far as the Middle Ages. The oldest poles were made of wood, and the stripes were painted on them. Truly rare barber poles lit by oil lamps inside are especially sought after. Some are very ornate and are made of stained glass, while the poles of the electric age turned giving a swirling effect. The poles were first used in the Middle Ages, a time when the average man could not read nor write. When placed in front of a shop, the poles let everyone know what business was inside. However, the poles originally told of much more than cutting hair.
Since the barber of days long passed was an expert with a razor, he not only gave hair cuts and shaves. He was the man called upon by doctors and the sick to make the cuts for bloodletting, for extracting teeth, and even to perform surgeries.
In order to perform the task of bloodletting, the barber would have the patient grasp a staff tightly in order to make the veins on the arm stand out. Affixed to the top of the staff was a leech basin which was used not only to hold the leeches to be placed on the incision, but also to catch blood from the cut. Before the incision was made, a clean, white linen bandage was wrapped around the patients arm as a tourniquet. To stop the flow of blood, another bandage was wrapped around the arm. When the task was complete, the barber would take both the clean white bandage and the blood-soaked one and tie them around the top of his staff. Shocking and as unsanitary as it may seem, the staff was often hung outside the barber’s home or shop for advertisement. As the wind whipped about, the bandages would wrap around the staff, forming a spiral red and white pattern.
As time passed, permanent wooden poles were made to hang outside the barber’s shop. The twisted image of the red and white bandages were used as the pattern to paint the wooden poles. The basin which was atop the staff, was transformed into a ball. Later a blue strip was added to the poles. Why? Some say that it represents the blue protruding veins.
No matter what it is made of, wood, stained glass, or a swirling electric-powered light, the barber pole originally signaled much more than a shave and a haircut.