Barber’s and hairdresser’s pole: meaning and explanations

Barber’s pole: going back to the Middle Ages to understand its meaning

Have you ever wondered where the post of a bright tricolor barber and hairdresser that rotates on the front of your hair salon or barbershop came from? Pharmacies are taught a green cross, opticians have a pair of glasses for signage and bakeries a baguette of bread. So why don’t hairdressers just wear a pair of scissors but this red and blue barber post?

To fully understand the reasons for this tradition, we must go back to the Middle Ages, a time fortunately gone when we did not only go to the hairdresser for a haircut or a shave.
The origin of the barber pole therefore goes back to the time when hairdressers also worked as dentists and surgeons. They used their know-how, their tools and their dexterity in particular to practice bleeding, small surgical operations or pulling out teeth. This 3-in-1 service was explained by the prohibition of clergy from performing such interventions. The Church has blood in horror (“Ecclesia abhorret a sanguine”) as it decreed at the Council of Tours in 1163, making surgery a prohibited practice among the clergy and relegating it to a lower rank than medicine. Most doctors being precisely men of the Church, this led the barbers to take the place of the doctors to carry out all these interventions of small surgery. This is the birth of the profession of barber surgeon: your barber hairdresser was then also your surgeon! But what does this have to do with the barber’s hairdresser’s pole?

Ambroise Paré, often considered the father of modern surgery in France, also began his training by taking a place as an apprentice barber with a barber surgeon. There, he learned to handle the razor and became familiar with bleeding before being admitted as a nurse barber at the Hôtel Dieu in Paris in 1533 where he went from apprentice to master barber surgeon and realized the career that we know him today.

Barber post: significance related to the surgical activity of barbers of the Middle Ages

It was this parallel activity that inspired the creation of the barber post. The barber post symbolized the stick that the patient held in his mouth to make his veins more protruding and promote blood circulation. And then at the same time it allowed to channel the pain of the patient because at that time there was no anesthesia yet and it was necessary to bite into something … For the colors of the barber post, red and white come from the widespread practice of bleeding, which consisted of taking blood from the patient in an attempt to cure him of a disease or infection. Thanks to advances in modern medicine, we now know that this may not have been the best idea. However, this method was used in the Middle Ages to treat everything from simple colds to the most deadly diseases. The blood-soaked white bandages associated with the bleeding inspired the red and white stripes. The blue stripes that are not always present also symbolize the color of the veins cut during bleeding. Another theory suggests that blue was added to the barber’s pole out of patriotism to recall the colors of the American flag. Barbers placed the barber pole outside their hair salon, to let customers know they were open.

The barber post today

The male hairstyle has come a long way since the Middle Ages, but the barber’s pole still persists today in the iconic representation of the craft. Nowadays, the use of the blue-white-red barber post is less widespread in France than in the United States or in other Anglo-Saxon countries, but its use is becoming more and more widespread in France, especially with the revival of barbershops. The barber post gives a retro and vintage side that sticks rather well to current trends. They are also sometimes controversial when used by hairdressing salons because barber hairdressers claim exclusive use.

The stationary barber post that in its most recent version turns on itself thanks to an electric motor is therefore the traditional sign of hairdressers-barbers. Characterized by its blue, white and red helical stripes, they attract the eye with its colors, spirals, movement and optical illusion it creates. What is surprising with this sign is that although the movement is done around a vertical axis we have the impression of seeing a movement not horizontal but vertical too. This optical illusion deceives our visual system on the real movement that takes place on the cylinder. As the spirals of the barber post move to the right our eye perceives an impression of movement from the top down. This is explained by the cylindrical shape of the pole and our limited visual field. The lack of additional information makes our brain a shortcut by choosing the slowest and easiest movement to identify, namely the movement from bottom to top. Enough to catch the eye and turn heads. What could be better for a hairdresser-barber?

A relationship between the barber’s post and the expression hair at the pole?

But then is it from this tricolor post that the expression “to style someone at the pole” was born? Clever isn’t it? Yet nothing to see.
The origin of this expression is to be found in horse racing. The verb styling has taken on the meaning of protruding by a short head. To style an opponent, a competitor had overtaken him, beat him, take the lead in relation to him. In horse racing, long before the PMU made us bet on the right horses, the competition was already tough and the races were often played at a hair’s. Without technology, the finish line being dematerialized by a pole placed on the edge of the track, it is at the level of it that the winner could be designated. If at the last moment a horse passed another on the finish line then it was said that the horse had capped its opponent at the post. The expression then spread to other racing sports and then spread to express the idea of overtaking an opponent at the last moment.