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Into It

Into It: Barber Pole


The barber pole has come a long way to be stationed above old brick shops, to repeat and repeat its lonely spins. In fact, the barbers themselves have a strange past, their title once denoting a more taxing profession.

In the middle ages, if you required dentistry, surgery, fire cupping, or a session of leeching, you’d visit the barber-surgeon. It was hundreds of years before the roles we now know as doctors and barbers diverged completely.

The barber pole’s spiraling red and while design derives from an important role beset upon these barber-surgeons. Bloodletting, an act where a patient’s vein is opened, allowing blood to spill into a washbasin, was performed with the intent of balancing the humors of the body. Meanwhile, the patient would squeeze a staff to dilate the veins. Afterward, the bandages were hung out to dry on the staff, thus creating the signature blood-red lines over a pale stick.

The design attracted customers, but also found its name attributed elsewhere, like the brightly-colored barber-pole grasshoppers of the Southwest and used as a slang term used by storm trackers for thunderstorm updrafts with twisting curves. It’s form inspiring Canadian hockey uniforms and parachuting stunts, the barber pole design has a wealth of history that spirals on and on.

(repeat broadcast from 8/2/11)