The Barber Pole

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I visited the Watergate recently while in Washington, D.C., including a tour of the office building where certain improprieties were undertaken that resulted in, well, Gerald Ford’s asterisk notated presidency.  The complex carries on, with offices, condos, a hotel currently beginning a makeover, and various retail shops.

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Ho-hum, actually.

But, then, I’m always mindful that I need to visually distract my readers from what I’m saying by giving them, no insult intended, pretty pictures to look at.  So, I take pictures of all sorts of things never knowing if they’ll be useful, in part driven by my continuing fascination with the Hipstamatic iPhone app.  So, here, I offer the following:

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That’s a Barber Pole, one that appears to have been in use for quite a while.  I remember these as a kid when my dad took me to get haircuts, and while I see them occasionally, it’s certainly not frequent.  My indiscrete snapshot led to a discussion of one person who wasn’t familiar with them and another who said the red stripes were reminiscent of bloody bandages from the days when barbers provided medical services.

What?

Well, it’s true, at least according to Google references, and everything Google finds is true, yes?  So, flip back in your history book to 3500 B.C., from which bronze relics have been found.  Skip forward to Alexander the Great, who installed barbers (from the Latin word barba, meaning beard) amongst his army so that opposing soldiers would not be able to grab them.  If that wasn’t exactly a full time job, they also were the surgeons and dentists. 

There was an understanding that these weren’t trained surgeons necessarily, and the two were eventually separated in allowed practices in the 1700’s.

The barber’s pole, then, is attributed to the barber’s practice of bloodletting.  Poles were originally provided with a brass wash basin at the top to represent where leeches were kept and another at the bottom where blood was received.  The pole itself was a staff which the patient would grasp tightly to make veins bulge.  The red and white stripes represented the bandages used, bloodied and clean.  These would later be hung on a pole to dry after cleaning, at times twisting to form a spiral.  So it is said.

Interestingly, the red and white are the recognized colors of the barber’s pole, but blue was introduced, it is thought, due to American preference for the red, white and blue.  Interestingly,  England and France later reserved the red and white for the practice of (true) surgeons, with blue and white remaining for barbers.

There remains only one domestic manufacturer of barber poles, the William Marvy Company.  A 2007 CNN report indicates they sell 500 per year, as opposed to over 5,000 in the 1960’s.   Changing hair styles and competition from imports are the major factors, but as the Fedora generation passes, I suppose the barber shop will as well.

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