Back in the 16th century, the majority of Europeans couldn’t read. In fact, an estimated 61 percent of men in Norwich, near London, couldn’t even write their own name! For shopkeepers and craftspeople, this widespread illiteracy was something of a marketing problem: How could they advertise their businesses to a public that couldn’t read?

One solution was craftsman, or guild, signs. Above the doorway of most medieval businesses hung a metal emblem clearly illustrating the shopkeeper’s profession: A pair of scissors indicated a tailor; a key indicated a locksmith; a fish indicated a fishmonger. As for barbers? A red or blue candy-striped pole usually did the job.

Barber shop window with barber shop striped pole on corner of shop
Credit: evrim ertik/ iStock

Today, the literal significance of the barber’s pole might be lost on most passersby, but for a person living in medieval Europe, the meaning was obvious: This was the place to go for a phlebotomy.

That’s because 600 years ago, barbers did much more than just cut bangs and trim beards. They were all-around healers. They worked as surgeons and dentists. They popped abscesses, picked lice, and performed enemas. Sometimes, they did the occasional amputation. Among their most common services, however, was bloodletting.

At the time, bloodletting was standard treatment for a slew of maladies. Intellectuals widely believed that excess blood in the body was the cause of most medical problems and that the best way to improve one’s health was to drain the body of that "bad" blood. To properly "breathe a vein," a patient usually grasped a long staff, which helped his or her veins pop in relief. Bandages, or fillets, were tightly wrapped around the pole. When a barber lanced the vein, blood spiraled down the staff and collected in a bowl, or basin, on the floor.  

In the early middle ages, priests and monks—generally among the best educated people in society—performed these procedures. But in 1163, Pope Alexander III prohibited clergy from bloodletting; barbers, who were never lacking sharp and pointy tools, filled the vacuum. For a short time, barbers in England advertised their newfound trade by leaving a bowl of blood sitting in their shop's window. Londoners apparently found this a bit unappealing, and a 1307 ordinance was passed stating that “no barbers shall be so bold or so hardy as to put blood in their windows, openly or in view of folks.” Barbers compensated by doing the next best thing: By placing the blood-streaked staff outside instead. Over time, the bandages of a wind-dried bloodletting pole would unravel to reveal a macabre candy-cane pattern—the first true barber’s pole.

Eventually, barbers began painting poles into the striped pattern we know today. In the late 1340s, as the Black Death wiped out many of the continent’s trained physicians, “barber-surgeons” became even more prominent—and the symbolic barber’s pole became more visible. By 1540, the barber’s pole was likely synonymous with the barbering profession. That same year, King Henry VIII created the Company of Barber Surgeons by royal decree.

Flying barbers,” as wandering barber-surgeons were called, became common across Europe. They were so popular, in fact, that they even sparked the imagination of great artists, including Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes: In Don Quixote, the titular character’s helmet is made from a barber’s basin—the bowl used for collecting blood.

Two centuries would pass before England enacted legislation that formally separated the profession of barber and surgeon. The barber’s pole, however, was here to stay. In 1797, Lord Edward Thurlow spoke in Parliament about regulating the barber’s pole, stating: “[B]arbers and surgeons were each to use a pole. The barbers were to have their blue and white, striped, with no other appendage.”

With the exception of the pole’s color scheme, little has changed since. The modern barber’s pole continues to pay homage to the profession’s bloodletting past. The cap or ball on top of many modern poles represents the blood-catching basin—or, some ague, the bowl that held the leeches—while the spinning motion is said to represent the customer’s blood, gently swirling down the barber’s staff.