These flickering signs always stand out when you hurry pass them on the street: a barber pole, of course! But if you stop for a moment and stare at the red, blue, and white spirals, spinning around and around, they start playing tricks to your eyes and you feel hypnotically drawn into them… Just when did barbers start using these signs, and what do they mean? PingMag finds that out for you today.
Written by Ryoko
Translated by Kevin Mcgue
Old times! A beautiful classic barber pole at the museum.
This one is not usually on display – but PingMag fortunately got a peek at it!
The history of barber poles dates back to the 7th or 8th century in Europe. Today we think of barbers and doctors as being in completely separate professions, but in medieval Europe, hair cutting and treatment of injuries were done by barber surgeons, who employed some crude medical techniques that would have many of us fleeing in terror today…
In the Middle Ages, barber surgeons frequently performed bloodlettings on patients, believing that draining excess blood from a sick person would help them recover. This seemingly shocking treatment was recommended by physicians, but usually carried out by barber surgeons: The patient would squeeze a pole to make the veins in their arm dilate. The barber surgeon would slit the patient’s wrist, and blood would flow down the pole and to be collected in a dish. It is believed that in order make the blood not so noticeable, the poles were painted red. Another theory is that white and blood-stained bandages would be put on the pole and hung outside the shop to dry, and get twisted around the pole by the wind, creating a spiral pattern.
Although bloodletting treatments ended in the 19th century, barber poles remain as a symbol of this gruesome past.
A historic barber pole closely resembling the bloodletting pole of a barber surgeon.
A 1902 catalogue from Koken, an American maker of barber poles. Nice patterns though!
By the way, both barber surgeons and surgeons used the poles to mark their places of business, making them indistinguishable. In 1745, however, the surgeons formerly split from the barbers, after which laws required that surgeons used red and white poles, and barbers used blue and white ones. There are lots of theories on what the blue colour represents, including that the colour combination was based on the French flag or the American stars and stripes. Another theory is that they represent blue veins.
Antique Barber Poles
Barber poles in very antique styles can be found around Japan, but actually they first arrived here when the country opened up to the West during the Meiji period, after the mechanism and design of barber poles had already been fully developed.
Another cute barber pole on a stand made in an antique style…
… and a new barber pole in old-school style.
One of the unique features of older barber poles are glass globes at the top. We found out that these also have a symbolic meaning: It seems that barbers in France used leeches for bloodletting, and the glass globe at the top of the pole was used to store leeches when then were not attached to a patient. Argh!
Barber poles always catch the attention of passers-by, anywhere on the world
Nostalgia! A pole prominently displayed on a corner.
Oh la la! A chic one with a pointy top…
… and look closer: a sign with a cross-hatch design.
Modern Barber Poles
Modern barber poles are made with the the same basic design that has continued from the Middle Ages. By now, they can be seen in a surprising array of models, including free standing signs, ones that attach to walls, ones that glow from within, or fully electronic models even with LED:
A free-standing barber pole with yet another nice design…
… and one made of LED looking like the “Saturday Night Fever” dance floor!
A modern one we found in the trendy Tokyo neighbourhood of Shiodome…
… and a barber pole connected to a sign board.
A new one in front of a rather old barbershop…
… and one inside a wooden frame.
A bit more of red and blue…
But it’s not all about poles: A cute character can be found in the windows of barbershops that are recognised by the Hairdressing and Hygiene Association of Japan. Actually, a contest was held to come up with designs for the mark, and manga artist Leiji Matsumoto and art director Atsumi Asaba had to judge all 16,250! A second contest was held to choose a name for the mascot, with the name “Choki-chan” winning out. Kawaii!
The little Choki-chan character on a shop sign…
…and in a shop window. Look how flexible it is!
Despite sharing all the same basic design, each barber pole is slightly different, often related to the history of its shop it stands in front of. Pay a little more attention next time you stroll down the street! You may discover something you didn’t know about…