Barbers’ Poles

From Wikipedia

When I was very young, men went to barbers and women went to hairdressers. For a while after the emergency of ‘unisex salons’ you did not see many barbers*. Now with the rise of beards and hipsters, there is an abundance of barber shops where we live. But I am guessing they stick to beards and hair these days.

Hundreds of years ago, barbers used to cut hair and beards, as well as perform dentistry and surgery.  One of the things they did was bloodletting, which was very common, and seen as a way of removing infection from the body. The traditional red and white striped barber’s pole signified blood (red) and bandages (white).The pole itself represented the staff people used to grip onto during the bloodletting process. There were washbasins at the top (for leeches) and bottom (for the blood)

Barber Shop, San Antonio, Texas

In some countries barbers used the coloured stripes to indicate that they were prepared to bleed their patients (red), set bones or pull teeth (white), or give a shave if nothing more urgent was needed (blue) [Wikipedia]

Bloodletting was very common many years ago, and done with either instruments or leeches. Bloodletting was even performed on people who had suffered catastrophic blood loss.

* on a lighter note, I come from a small town where male hairstylists and unisex salons were viewed rather suspiciously in the late 1970s. We had a stylist called Jorge (well he was probably called something else but for work purposes he called himself Jorge) who joined a local salon. Men refused to have their hair cut at a ‘ladies salon’ so they continued to go to the barber. The women, after quite a long while, adored him. Jorge was a real character. He was flamboyantly gay, and probably the first openly gay person people had ever met, given that homosexuality was illegal in South Africa until 1994. I took a photograph of Lady Di to Jorge and said ‘I want my hair to look like this’. He took one look at my giant curly mop and said to me ‘Lady, I may be a fairy but this comb is not a wand’. Bless you Jorge, I have never forgotten your choice to be yourself, and your bravery.

EDIT: Have you ever wondered why surgeons change their title from Dr to Mr? One of my readers told me the reason. I looked it up and was gobsmacked.

Why are some Surgeons Mr and some Dr?

The tradition of addressing surgeons as “Mr”, rather than “Dr”, is firmly entrenched in English surgical practice. Its origins date back to the 1500s when the “barber-surgeons” evolved. This is when surgeons were trained in barber shops, not universities. By the 18th century, physicians (non surgical doctors) had gained university qualifications and started calling themselves Dr. The university trained doctors would not allow the surgeons to be called Dr as they had no formal qualification. The Dr’s also used this as a form of elitism, identifying those “fit to be called gentlemen”.

In 1745 the Royal College of Surgeons of London was formed with surgeons separating themselves from the Company of Barbers and Surgeons. The title “Mr” was retained and began to be seen as a label of status, as it marked the completion of formal examinations and acceptance as a College fellow. Modern surgeons have completed many years of training following successfully completing a medical degree at university.


Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

2 thoughts

  1. What a lovely story! I have a love-hate of hairdressers because they never seem to want to do what I want them to do but the single best hairdresser that I had was a man. His name was Andy and that was when I was living in England. A (French) friend of mine recommended I go see him so I did. I expected someone more like your Jorge but I got a man who looked like a truck driver (ample, big broad hands). He gave me the same haircut as Amélie from the French movie and I absolutely loved it! That was the best haircut that I’ve ever had! When my hair grew longer and YouTube videos were popular, I found a great video teaching me how to cut my hair. I bought a pair of hairdresser sheers and I’ve never looked back! I also dyed my own hair until recently. Now I only have to worry about the length of my hair!

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