What do the colors on the barber pole mean?

“The significance of the colors emerged during the Middle Ages when barber shops were essentially medical trap houses. These “barber–surgeons” and their shops operated with a lack of supervision and regulation that allowed them to give patron-patients a line up, a hair cut, perform a phlebotomy (bloodletting), do minor surgery, reset broken bones and pull teeth. After the Catholic Church banned its priests and clergymen from most medical practices and since physicians felt that bloodletting was beneath their expertise (it would’ve been considered the equivalent of a doctor writing a prescription for Advil) barbers became responsible for the most invasive of treatments if for no other reason they had (some) skill with sharp instruments. “In medieval London, barbers placed bowls of their clients’ blood in their windows ensuring that even the most oblivious passerby stopped and took notice,” says Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, a notable medical historian.

Since most of the populace was illiterate, including many of the barbers themselves, the barber pole became a way to advertise their services. “It was a not­-so-­subtle reminder that you may be overdue for your own bloodletting, like those glossy cards that your dentist sends you in the mail every 6 months with the picture of a grinning toothbrush,” says Fitzharris. But in 1307, “a law was passed that stated: ‘no barbers shall be so bold or so hardy as to put blood in their window… [and] the barber pole emerged from there,” writes Fitzharris. The red in a barber pole represents bloodletting, while the white was meant to signify the bandages used to wrap the wounds. The blue is said to represent the non-oxygenated blood in the veins. The downward spiral of the modern pole signifies the direction of the aortic flow of blood in the body.”

Words by Chaedria LaBouvier