The Barber’s Pole: A Brief History of the White and Red Stripes

Barber shop pole at entrance of the window. background is dark.

Probably some of the most iconic imagery in the history of men’s grooming, the barber’s pole as we know it today signifies a spot where men can relax, talk-shop, get a shave and a hair cut. But previous to our modern day understanding of the red, white, and blue Marvy Company pole, barbershop poles signified something a little more sinister.


History        

Barber shop

      In the Middle Ages, barbers not only could give you a hair cut and shave, but they performed surgeries as well. Barbers performed “common” surgeries such as bloodletting, which was thought to help cure common illnesses, and tooth extractions, to more complicated surgeries such as setting breaks, surgically removing kidney stones, in some cases even removing limbs. Medieval to early modern barber shops used a red and white striped barber pole to let customers know that they performed these services- the red signifying the blood stained cotton cloths, the white representing the bandages used by the barbers (Fitzharris, A History of the Barber’s Pole).


Current Design

Marvybarberpole.jpg

            The blue stripe did not become popular until later in the modern period, and it’s origins are a little more fuzzy; some say it signifies the veins of the human body- others say it is the symbolic color for hair services performed by barbers. Whatever the meaning, the popular spinning red, white, and blue pole as we know it today was invented in 1950 by William Marvy of the Marvy Company of St. Paul Minnesota who became the sole manufacturers of barber’s poles in the United States. They are still a family run company today, continuing to make the classic barber’s pole run by William Marvy’s son Robert and his two sons (Marvy Company). Thanks to them the images of blood letting and back alley surgeries are gone, and the classic red, white, and blue barber’s pole brings to mind a more pleasant place to get a good shave, and a hair cut.