Symbolic Barber Pole
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Book: 
Petrified Lightning

Symbolic Barber Pole

An elderly acquaintance recalls that, during his youth, whenever he complained of a toothache his father would send him to the corner barbershop. For 50 cents the barber would (without anesthesia) extract the defective tooth. Another senior citizen will never forget a most embarrassing moment during his early teens, when his mother pointed out to the barber the all—too—obvious acne on his face. Knowing that barbers are enlightened in such medical matters, she asked him what he would recommend for her son's pimples. The barber, eager to justify Mom's faith in his expertise, tilted the young man's face to the light, scrutinized it thoughtfully, and prescribed in a fine, authoritative accent, "Use—a lemon juice."

Evidently barbers, whose craft had been intermingled with that of surgeons since about a.d. 500, were still practicing on—the—spot medicine in the 20th century. The partnership was not always based on mutual respect, and much of the time few regulations governed who was responsible for what particular treatments. As early as the 10th century, Albucasis, the great Arab surgeon and author of the first illustrated book of surgery, cautioned dental surgeons to avoid acting like ignorant and foolish barbers. He complained that they caused patients great injuries and were often guilty of removing the wrong tooth, breaking a tooth, leaving the root in the socket, and other inexcusable oversights.

Barbers became important figures in monasteries especially after 1092, when beards were banned and each monastic order had its special hairstyle. With the Edict of Tours in 1163 that held it to be sacrilegious for clergy to draw blood, monks were forbidden to perform operations, and surgical procedures fell to the barbers who had been their assistants. Separated from the clergy, barber—surgeons continued to practice for several centuries, expanding the scope of their practice somewhat. In the 13th century, along with bloodletting, tooth pulling, and cauterization, the craft—oriented hierarchy of barber—surgeons also became the suppliers of heat treatments and physical manipulation to set fractures. Surgeons were identified, not from university training as were the physicians, but from apprenticeship within the guilds.

In the 14th century some restrictions were put on those surgeons whose skill was an outgrowth of shaves and haircuts. But by then bloodletting, cupping, leeching, giving enemas, and extracting teeth had become the almost exclusive province of the barber—surgeons. Because bloodletting was an alleged panacea for so many ills, it was the treatment to which many ailing people would submit. Bloodletting equipment included a basin to collect the blood and a pole for the patient to squeeze so that veins would swell and blood would gush freely. The pole was painted red to conceal stains of blood overgushing and later was wrapped with white gauze to suggest the bandage applied to the blood—let arm. Hung outside the shop to advertise the service, the pole became a trademark of the barber—surgeon guilds. The red and white pole was certainly more tactful than the buckets of blood and blood—stained rags previously displayed to advertise the medical services of barbers.

One of the most notable surgeons who arose from the ranks of barber's apprentice was Ambroise Paré (1510—1590). He became a military surgeon to extend his operating skills and made several momentous discoveries. The established practice for the treatment of gunshot wounds was to cauterize them with boiling oil. When, after an extremely bloody battle, the supply of oil ran out, Paré was obliged to fabricate his own wound dressing. He covered the wounds with an unguent of egg whites, oil of roses, and turpentine. The next morning he found the soldiers thus treated were comfortable, while those who had been treated with boiling oil were feverish and in great pain. He resolved never to "cruelly burn poor, wounded men." Paré later became famous as a surgeon to several French kings. This barber—surgeon is known as the father of surgery.

Over several centuries most barber—surgeons continued with lucrative medical procedures to supplement the tonsorial business, which rose and fell as fashion dictated. Eventually surgeons and barbers parted ways, and the barbers inherited the pole of the barber—surgeon guild. The rotating red and white striped pole has continued to designate barbershops up to the present, although a pole of patriotic red, white, and blue is now more common. In earlier days the absence of a barber pole seemed to suggest that a fly—by—night nonprofessional was wielding the clippers, scissors, and razor.

Today, barbershops have again extended their services far beyond shaves and haircuts, but in the area of grooming rather than surgery. Most provide services for both men and women, and hairstyling has replaced the archaic "one—style—fits—all" haircut. As an easily recognizable piece of nostalgia, the elegant, unpretentious barber pole should remain a distinctive symbol in our cities. Like the three gold balls over the pawnshop, the barber pole refuses to become homogenized.