A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of the barber pole?

December 28, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

A few days ago while stuck in traffic I happened to look over at a row of storefronts and I notced a little barbershop and I was at once overcome with the urge to increase my repertoire of little known facts. When did the striped barber pole first come into popular use as the symbol for barbershops and why?

SDStaff Czarcasm replies:

Back in the 17th century, doctors were forbidden by the Catholic church to perform surgery. Their reasoning was that the human body was sacred, and men of God shouldn't touch the "shameful parts". At the time almost all the major medical schools were located at church-controlled universities, and most doctors were actually clergymen.

The slack was taken up by barbers, who conveniently had the sharp blades already on hand. Thus was born the surgeon-barber (insert your own "close shave" joke here).

Later, surgeons decided to distance themselves from the lowly barber. The Barber-Surgeon Company (guild) of England split up in 1745. The guild symbol was a red-and-white striped pole, meant to represent bloody rags hung out to dry. This was topped by a brass bowl or basin which was used to catch the blood from bloodletting, a common "cure" at the time. Patients used to grab this self-same pole to make their veins swell for easier puncturing.

After much debate over who would get this symbol when the barbers and surgeons split, it was decided that the barbers got to keep the pole.

Sources:

A Pictorial History of Medicine (Springfield,1956), Betmann, Otto

The Early History of Surgery (New York,1960), Bishop, W.J.

An Underground Education (New York,1997), Zacks, Richard

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