Monday, May 2, 2011

Barber Pole Symbolic

The grisly art of bloodletting flourished during the Dark Ages, when medicine degenerated, people were mostly illiterate and the physicians of the time were monks and priests, whose thinking was deeply ingrained in religion. Barbers were first appointed assistants to the physician-clergy.

Bloodletting was a method of curing disease through purging of whichever "humour" was causing it. Bloodletting was for patients who were too "hot and wet" (among other things, patients who suffered from inflammatory fevers, coughs, headaches, rheumatism, abscesses and some forms of heart disease were thought to need a good bleeding). Although this therapeutic method was useless at curing illness most wealthy Europeans willingly underwent painful bimonthly bloodletting as a form of preventive medicine. This was because they believed that blood was made from food by their liver, and that overeating led to production of excess blood, which had to be gotten rid of.

The history of the barber pole is intertwined with the history of barbers and their bloodletting practices. Patients would grasp a rod or staff tightly so that their veins would show, and the barbers would cut open their arms and bleed them until they fainted (nasty but true). Later, when leech therapy became popular (they allowed for more controlled bleeding), leeches were applied directly to the vein areas. After the procedure, the washed bandages were hung outside on a pole to dry, and to advertise the ghastly therapeutic specialities offered in the barbershop. Flapping in the wind, the long strips of bandages would twist around the pole in the spiral pattern we now associate with barbers.

This early barber pole was simply a wooden post topped by a brass leech basin. (One source speculates that the poles were painted red to mask the bloodstains) Later the basin was replaced by a ball and painted poles of red and white spirals took the place of the less tasteful pole with the bloodstained bandages, and these poles became permanent outdoor fixtures. (In fact, after the formation of the United Barber Surgeon's Company in England, barbers were required to display blue and white poles, and surgeons, red ones) In America, however, the barber poles were painted red, white and blue, perhaps because the American flag also had all these colours.

There are several different interpretations for the colours of the barber pole. One is that red represented blood and white, the bandages. Another interpretation is that red and blue respectively stood for arterial and venous blood, and white was still for the bandages. A third suggests that the spiral pattern represents a white bandage wrapped around a bloody arm. The ball of course, represents the basin of leeches as well as the blood-collection bowl.

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