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Standing the test of time:Traditional barber pole has gruesome medieval origin

Staff writer

The red, white, and blue barber pole is a familiar sight, but its origin isn’t as familiar.

Medieval barbers provided services other than hair cutting and shaving. One of those services was bloodletting, barber Martin Bina of Marion said.

The white and red stripes on a barber pole represent linen bandages used in bloodletting. The white stripe represents a bandage tied around a person’s arm to make a vein stand out, he said. The red stripe represents a bandage used to bind the wound when bloodletting was finished.

The blue stripe is an American tradition, added as an homage to the flag, Bina said. The earliest rotating poles used a wind-up clockwork mechanism, which could rotate for an entire day with a single windup.

When he bought a barber shop in 1966 in Marion, it came with the same barber pole that he uses now. He still hasn’t used the spare motor he bought when he started, but he has replaced the colored inner cylinder on a couple of occasions.

Barber poles are a fading tradition, Bina said. Many barber shops are being replaced by unisex hair stylists that don’t display barber poles, he said. He thinks cost might also be a factor.

“A good pole will run you anywhere from $500 to $1,000, I suppose,” he said.

Regardless, he thinks it is a tradition worth keeping. Another is apprenticeship.

When Bina started into the barber business, he had to attend school for six months and apprentice for another 18. He learned the trade from Vernon Bartel in Hillsboro. Bina never taught an apprentice.

Now barbers are required to train for 12 months of school, but they can go into business on their own immediately afterward, he said.

“You’ll learn more from a barber than any time in school,” Bina said.

Last modified July 14, 2010

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