During the middle ages barbers did it all. They gave haircuts and shaves…and pulled teeth, performed enemas and amputated limbs. 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. Barbers, with their razors and skilled hands filled in to conduct the gory work.
Bloodletting was a popular practice and barbers would apply leeches to their patients. In fact the barbershop pole originates from this history. The barbershop pole is based on the staff that patients would grip during bloodletting to encourage blood flow. The original poles had brass washbasins at the top (representing where leeches were kept) and at the bottom (representing where the blood collected).
The colors of the traditional red-white-blue barbershop pole aren’t accidental. In Renaissance-era Amsterdam, 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. 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, and American poles often are 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 here.
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.