Written by Kate Smith, CMG, CfYH
I saw a statement in a small town newspaper today that said that the red and white colors used in a barber pole are symbolic of bandages: white for clean bandages and red for blood-stained bandages.
I'd never heard this before. Though I've seen haircuts I would describe as "butchered," I clearly didn't think that any bloodshed was involved. This made me wonder what bandages had to do with the profession of being a barber.
I have come to find out that during medieval times, in addition to a shave and a haircut, your barber might perform surgery, tooth extractions, and bloodletting. The red and white stripes symbolize the bandages used during bloodletting.
Originally, these bandages were hung out on a pole to dry after washing. As the bandages blew in the wind, they would twist together to form the spiral pattern similar to the stripes in the modern day barber pole.
The barber pole became emblematic of the barber/surgeon's profession. Later, the cloths were replaced by a painted wooden pole of red and white stripes.
Blue often appears on poles in the United States, possibly as an homage to the national colors.
Another, more fanciful interpretation of these barber pole colors is that red represents arterial blood, blue is symbolic of venous blood, and white depicts the bandage.
- See more about the meaning, messages and symbolism of the color red, white, and blue.