The Barbers Pole & History

The word Barber comes from the latin word “baba” which means beard. Barbering is also mentioned in the bible. Ezekiel says “And Thou, son of man, take thee a sharp knife, take thee a barber’s razor, and cause it to pass upon thine head and upon thine beard.”

About 334 B.C. Alexander the Great made his soldiers shave regularly for the purpose of gaining an advantage in hand-to-hand combat so that his warriors were able to grasp an enemy by the beard, while themselves were safeguarded in this method of fighting.

It is alleged that Barbering was in existence in Rome around 296 B.C. Barbers quickly became both popular and prosperous. Their shops were centres for news and gossip (nothing new there then) All free men of Rome were clean-shaven, while slaves were forced to wear beards.

Later in history barbers were also surgeons and dentists. The early doctors didn’t care much for surgery or teeth pulling so it was the barbers who did things such as blood letting, cupping and leeching, enemas and of course the teeth extractions. Eventually they were to become known as Barber-Surgeons.

The origin of the barber’s pole is connected with the service of bloodletting. The original pole has a brass basin at its top, this bowl held the leeches and also the bowl which collected the blood. The pole itself represented the staff which the patient held onto during the operation. The red and white stripes represented the bandages used during the operation, red for the bandages stained with blood during the operation and white for the clean bandages. The bandages would be hung out to dry after washing on the pole and would blow and twist together forming the spiral pattern which we see on todays Barbers pole.

The bloodstained bandages became recognized as the emblem of the barbersurgeon’s profession. Later in time, the emblem was replaced by a wooden pole of white and red stripes. These colours are recognized as the true colours of the barber emblem. Red, white and blue are widely used in America due partly to the fact that the national flag has these colours.

In England the barbers were chartered as a guild by Edward IV in 1462 as the Company of Barbers. The surgeons formed a guild 30 years later and the two companies were united by Henry VIII in 1540 under the name of the United Barber Surgeon’s Company. However, barbers who cut hair and gave shaves were forbidden to practice surgery except for bloodletting and pulling teeth and surgeons were prohibited from “the barbery of shaving.” This body was dissolved and replaced by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800 during the reign of George III.

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