During the middle ages barbers did it all. Known as barber surgeons, they gave haircuts and shaves… and pulled teeth, performed enemas and amputated limbs. Medieval physicians were few and far between, and tended to avoid the gritty reality of medical practice, working instead in academia or in the households of the wealthy. Barber surgeons, with their razors and skilled hands filled in to conduct the gory work.
Bloodletting with leeches was a popular medieval practice. It was the duty of barbers to apply leeches to their patients. In fact, it is for this reason that the barbershop pole exists.
The History of Barbershop Poles
The barbershop pole developed from the staff that patients would grip during bloodletting to encourage blood flow. The original poles had a pair of brass washbasins at the top and bottom. The top basin represented where leeches were kept, and the bottom represented where blood collected.
As a matter of fact, the colors of the traditional red-white-blue barbershop pole aren’t accidental either. The red-white-blue poles date back to at least Renaissance-era Amsterdam, where the red symbolized that the barber was capable of bleeding their patients, the white that he might set bones or pull teeth, and the blue that he was capable of haircuts and shaves. Likewise, In England, barber poles were mandated red and white to distinguish themselves from surgeon poles which were red. French barbershop poles have an attached basin. American poles often are typically red, white and blue (possibly due to the national colors).
Old-timey barbershop imagery is rare, but we discovered a few great barbershop pole images in 19th and 20th century catalogues, cleaned them up and removed the backgrounds.
We completed restoring 10 of these great illustrations. Download what might very well be the BEST (and only) barbershop pole image collection in the world.
Bonus trivia: Medieval Catholic monasteries all employed barbers as the monks were required to maintain their tonsures (the baldness on the top of their heads).
Bonus Bonus trivia: In South Korea, barbershop poles suggest there is a nearby barber…or brothel. Usually the brothels use two poles spinning different directions, but that isn’t always the case.