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typos_in_key_e in wtf_history

The History of Bloodletting and the Barber Shop Pole

Many of us are familiar with the candy-cane striped barber shop pole, but some are less familiar with the origin of the symbol.

Historical accounts vary in exactly how and when the red and white striped poles were created, but they all have one thing in common: bloodletting. In the old days (some would argue going back to Victorian times, other would go back to the days of Hippocrates), barbers performed more duties than just cutting hair - back then they also performed dentistry and surgical acts [2]. Historically, bloodletting was a very popular practice. People believed that bleeding was healthy for you, and helped to fight disease and infection [1].

How exactly the barbers got the blood to flow varied from barber to barber. Some historians point to the use of leeches [2]. Others point to razors or ghastly, tiered, razor-like contraptions that skewered the arms and allowed blood to flow freely (Picture of a razored machine, Picture of various instruments).

As mentioned before, the stories regarding the origin of the barber shop pole vary, but all accounts lead back to bloodletting. Some say that patients grasped a staff until the veins in their arm bulged. Then the barber sliced open the vein, and the blood ran down the arm, down the staff, and into a small bowl made for catching blood at the end of the staff [2]. Others say that the pole originated from the bloody rags that barbers hung out to dry in front of their places of employment. These rags, flapping in the breeze, would get caught up and twisted around the poles they were hung from [2, 3, 4]. Regardless of how exactly the barber shop pole came to be, the familiar and quaint symbol of a haircutter has a much darker past.


[1] "Bloodletting" from the UCLA Louise M. Darling BioMedical Library: link

[2] "Blood, bandages, and barber poles," from the BBC: link

[3] "Shave and a Haircut: 28 bucks", LA Times 8/14/97 - link

[4] "History of the Striped Barber Pole," Holtzclaw Barber & Style Shop: link

Additional resources:

From "At the Sign of the Barber's Pole" by William Andrews. See section "The Barber's Pole." Available via Project Gutenberg: link

"The Origin of the Barber Pole": link

Wikipedia: link


Good useless fact!

Did anyone else think of SNL and Theodoric of York??

"I was at the festival of the vernal equinox, and I guess I had a little too much mead.. and I darted out in front of an oxcart. It all happened so fast....."

"Well you'll feel better after a good bloodletting!"
0___0 I knew about the blood letting thing, but I sure didn't know barbers did it.

Great fact! ;D
My dad used to always tell me this story when I was little. We had a plaza nearby with one of those poles out front, but no barbershop in sight. I always thought it was really facinating.
Oh wow, I had forgotten about this particular story (or collection of stories). Thanks for sharing!
I had no idea. I knew that barbers used to do more than just cut hair, but no idea about how the pole came to be. That is really interesting.

i can't wait to drive past one of these poles with someone & tell them the background.

thx OP
Well THAT'S interesting.
Take a little off the back and sides...and about half a pint from the arm...thanks...
One of fav Origins Stories. =)

Oh man, I like this one.
This is so interesting in a kind of creepy way. I already knew that barbers used to do bloodletting procedures, I just never knew the specifics. Thanks for sharing!
A definite ew, and interesting fact. I wrote a 7 page paper about Medieval Medicine in High School, and learned so much! Medicine has come a very long way XD.

I heard that Nurses back then would taste urine for testing purposes o__o...