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History of the Barbers Pole

The barber's trade is an ancient one. Razors have been found among relics of the Bronze Age (circa 3500 B.C). Barbering is mentioned in the bible by Ezekiel who said "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."

Barbering was introduced in Rome in 296 B.C. and barbers quickly became both popular and properous. Their shops were centres for dailynews and gossip. All free men of Rome were clean-shaven, while slaves were forced to wear beards. It is from the Roman (Latin) word barba, meaning beard, that the word "barber" is derived.

About 334 B.C. Alexander the Great made his soldiers shave regulary 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. The barbers of early days were also the surgeons and dentists. Most early physicians disdained surgery and the barbers did surgey of wounds, blood-letting, cupping and leeching, enemas and extracting teeth. Since the barbers were involved not only with haircutting, hairdressing and shaving but also with surgery, they were called barber-surgeons. They formed their first organization in France in 1094.

In an effort to distinguish between academic surgeons and barber-surgeons, the College de Saint Come, founded in Paris about 1210, identified the former as surgeons of the long robe and the latter as surgeons of the short robe. French barbers and surgeons were organized as a guild in 1391, and barber-surgeons were admitted to the faculty of the University of Paris in 1505. Ambroise Pare (1510-1590), the father of modern surgery and the greatest surgeon of the Renaissance, began his career as an itinerant barber-surgeon. His brother was a barber-surgeon and his sister married a barber-surgeon. 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 the statute of Henry VIII in 1540 under the name of the United Barber Surgeon's Company. In actual pratice, 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." In France a decree by Louis XV in 1743 prohibited barbers from practicing surgery from the barbers by acts passed during the reign of George II. The surgeons with the title of "Masters, Governors and Commonalty of the Honourable Society of the Surgeons of London." This body was subsequently dissolved and later replaced by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800 during the reign of George III.

The origin of the barber's pole appears to be associated with his service of bloodletting. The original pole has a brass basin at its top representing the vessel in which leeches were kept and also represented the basin which received 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 procedure, 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 similar to the modern day barber pole.

The bloodstained bandages became recognized as the emblem of the barber-surgeon'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. Another interpretation of these barber pole colours is that red represents arterial blood, blue is symbolic of venous blood and white depicts the bandage. After formation of the United Barber Surgeons Company in England, a statue required barbers to use a blue and white pole and surgeons to use a red pole. In France the surgeons of the long robe placed a red pole with a basin attached to identify their offices. The barber pole - a historical link with surgery.

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