Antique red and blue striped pole in Pottstown, Pennsylvania
The origin of the red and white barber pole is associated with the service of bloodletting and was historically a representation of bloody bandages wrapped around a pole. During medieval times, barbers performed surgery on customers as well as tooth extractions.
The original pole had a brass wash basin at the top (representing the vessel in which leeches were kept) and bottom (representing the basin that received the blood). The pole itself represents the staff that the patient gripped during the procedure to encourage blood flow.
At the Council of Tours in 1163, the clergy was banned from the practice of surgery. From then, physicians were clearly separated from surgeons and barbers. Later, the role of the barbers was defined by the College de Saint Come et Saint Damien, established by Jean Pitard in Paris circa 1210, as academic surgeons of the long robe and barber-surgeons of the short robe.
After the formation of the United Barber Surgeon's Company in England, a statute required the barber to use a blue and white pole and the surgeon to use a red pole. In France, surgeons used a red pole with a basin attached to identify their offices. Blue often appears on poles in the United States, possibly as an homage to its national colors. Another fanciful interpretation of these barber pole colors is that red represents arterial blood, blue is symbolic of venous blood, and white depicts the bandage.
Prior to 1950, there were four manufacturers of barber poles in the United States. In 1950, William Marvy of St. Paul, Minnesota, started manufacturing barber poles. Marvy made his 50,000th barber pole in 1967, and, by 2010, over 82,000 had been produced.
The William Marvy Company is now the sole manufacturer of barber poles in North America and sells only 500 per year (compared to 5,100 in the 1960s). In recent years, the sale of spinning barber poles has dropped considerably since few barber shops are opening, and many jurisdictions prohibit moving signs. Koken of St. Louis, Missouri, manufactured barber equipment such as chairs and assorted poles in the 19th century.
As early as 1905, the use of poles was reported to be "diminishing" in the United States.
There are locales where the use of barber poles in barber shops is required by local ordinances.
In Forest Grove, Oregon, the "World's Tallest Barber Shop Pole" measures 70 feet (21 m).
The consistent use of this symbol for advertising was analogous to an apothecary's Show globe, a tobacconist's Cigar store Indian and a pawnbroker's three gold balls.