The Barber Pole: An American Icon

Retro Staff |  1  Comment

William Marvy Model 824 Globe Wall Barber PoleOne of the most recognized symbols from years past is quickly fading. The use of the traditional barber’s pole in the US has been on the decline since the early ’50s and numbers continue to drop. Prior to 1950, there were four manufacturers of the blue, red and white poles, and today there is just one – The William Marvy Company of St. Paul, Minnesota.

The original red and white pole dates back centuries, and was associated with the service of blodletting and other medical procedures. During medieval times barbers performed surgery and minor dentistry (like tooth extractions). The original pole represented what a patient gripped during a procedure, and it  also included a wash basin at the top (representing a vessel for leeches) and the bottom (representing a vessel to receive blood). The red represented bloody bandages.

In the 1300s an English law required barbers to use a blue and white pole, while surgeons were required to use a red pole. Many believe the US barber pole’s colors of red, white and blue pay homage to the national colors, but some believe the red represents arterial blood, the blue venous blood, and the white a bandage. (Interesting note: for some time academic surgeons were required to wear long robes, while barbers had to wear short robes. This also lent to the distinction of the two, and the medical limits of the barber from shop identification to his actual attire.)

Barber Pole and Signage

The William Marvy Company still makes barber poles the old-fashioned way, using hand-blown glass and stainless steel. Globed models feature bright light that enhances the pole’s impact and nostalgic charm.

In later years, the duties of a barber were reduced to primarily haircuts and shaves, with some shops offering other simple “beautification” services. More often than not, a standard straight razor shave is practiced only in traditional barber shops. In many states, barbers and cosmetologists are licensed differently, and only barbers may use straight razors. In some states only traditional barber shops may use the barber pole as a symbol, even if a hair salon offers some barbering services. And there are some locales where use of a barber pole is required by law.

The William Marvy Company began producing barber poles in 1950, and manufactured it’s 50,000th pole in 1967. To date, more than 82,000 have been produced but at a slower and slower pace. The company sells only about 500 per year, compared to more than 5,000 annually in the 1960s.

In some cities barber poles hang outside of other types of shops and restaurants due to historical preservation. Many remain in poor shape, having not been maintained in decades. Today, vintage poles hold collectible value and enthusiasts mount both old and newly produced barber poles in their homes, integrating them with retro inspired decor.

Is there a traditional barber shop still operating in your area? We’d love to see pics of the barber pole and vintage signage.


Last updated: Oct 17, 2012
Filed under: Retro Memories Tagged with: American icons, barber shops