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July 19, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: What are the origins of the barber pole?

Barber shops don't exactly have a hard time standing out on the streetscape, and it's largely thanks to the mesmerizing poles that spin just outside of their door fronts. 

But where'd that barber pole come from? 

Curious, we reached out to Anthony "Sailor Tony" Reilly, who started barbering as a hobby in the Navy before eventually opening a professional shop in Toronto and, more recently, Franklin's Barber Shop in Fishtown. An avid collector of barber memorabilia, he teases out how barbers first began using the pole as a symbol. 

Why do barbers use the pole? What’s the origin story?

  • The world is full of questions we all want answers to, but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. With Infrequently Asked Questions, we set out to answer those shared curiosities. Have a question you want answered? Send an email to, and we’ll find an expert who can give you the answer you’re craving.

Traditionally, a lot of professions had symbols to show what their business was. But initially, barbers were always assistants for performing medical procedures. In the early Middle Ages, priests performed all medical procedures. We’ve obviously come a long way as far as medicine goes -- even 100 years ago medicine was a lot more rudimentary. Priests always performed procedures like bloodletting, to get "bad blood" out. But barbers always assisted priests in performing those procedures as well as cutting hair and trimming beards, and then there came a point in the Middle Ages when the pope made it so priests couldn’t perform medicine anymore – they thought it was them doing something they shouldn’t, I guess. That it was beyond the realm of being a spiritual leader. Barbers then took that over full-time. 

And I guess no one studies this enough for there to be concrete proof, but the legend goes that barbers would hang bloody bandages to dry outside their shop and that the wind would make them twirl around a pole. They’d twirl around a pole, so, next thing we know, you have a barber pole not made out of bloody rags and it became a symbol. There's not enough proof of that, but that’s the story.

Sort of like an optical illusion?

Yeah, definitely -- the twirling. For a long time, barber poles would have been a painted wooden pole with red and white. And eventually the barber pole became red, white and blue and they say that’s because of the American influence; more around the turn of the century, that’s when you’d see those barber poles -- a patriotic nod. And so, in the early 1900s is when motorized barber poles came about. You’d have to turn it with a crank; it’d be with cog and springs that would have it spin all day. Then in the 1920s is when electric poles came to be. That’s what we have now. 

The modern barber pole hasn’t changed much since the 1940s.

When did barbers stop doing surgeries?

It was in the mid-1700s when – this was in England, which ran the show – they’d be called barber-surgeons. By mid-1700s, that’s when barbers and surgeons were split. But I’d imagine barbers still performed some form of medicine early into the 1900s. As far as pulling teeth – there was no dental care so, if you had a bad tooth, you’d go to the barber and he’d yank it out for you. But that’s another thing there’s not a ton of proof for and just anecdotal stories.

Where do you buy a barber pole?

Like anything else, most barber poles are just made in China. Pretty junky. But the legendary barber pole is made by Marvy, a company still around that's out of St. Paul, Minnesota. Their poles are pretty much exactly how they made them before. William Marvy was a barber-salesman and he set out in the 1930s to make it so you didn’t have to crank by hand, that was electric -- already lit up. Then he came out with the Marvy Barber Pole in the 1940s. They’re still made by hand in Minnesota. If you're a barber like me, there’s no other barber pole but a Marvy. That’s what I have in my shop – and I actually just bought a second to put outside.

Is there an unwritten rule for who’s allowed to have a barber pole?

That’s a great question. There is not. The thing with barbering is it’s regulated on a state-by-state basis. It’s like any professional licensing, so in Pennsylvania, there really is nothing to enforce using a barber pole, who is and isn’t. That’s kind of a personal problem I have, because most barber shops in Philadelphia – maybe not most, but a lot – are not licensed barber shops, some really popular ones. They're actually salons. But they still use the name barber shop and display a barber pole. It’s not really fair to the general public. You assume the person cutting your hair is a barber in a barbershop, but in Philly, not necessarily.

Does Philly have a barbering history?

Not really. ... There’s no go-to shop in the whole city. 

A quick history of barbering, it’s one of the oldest professions in the world – it’s even mentioned in The Bible. So, it’s always been a place for people to get a haircut, up until the late ‘60s.  A lot of old-time barbers blame The Beatles, the counterculture idea of growing your hair out, protests, hippies, people bucking the trends of the 20th century for when barbershops started to die out. In Philadelphia, there’d probably be a barber shop on every corner in every neighborhood. But now, if you look, it's not until recently there’s been a resurgence of barbers like myself. People in their mid-20s trying to find a new career or not happy with how their life is going. Barbering has been a huge thing for my friends, too; it’s viable, you can provide for your family and it’s a good day’s work. But there’s a dark period from the ‘60s up until right now where people didn't become barbers. It was not looked at as a viable career option because so many men have long hair. So, I think that is part of why there’s not really anything – there’s no really old shop in Philly continuously run because they all closed down.

Where does the word 'barber' come from?

It’s Latin. It means ‘beard.’ Barbe I believe is the original word.

Anything to add?

The barber pole is really only one of three professional symbols still used. The pharmacist, the mortar and pestle and the pawn broker symbol. Pawn shops kind of stopped using it, but it looks like a mobile, with silver balls above a baby’s crib. Three of the oldest symbols for professions.