Only the thorough-going nerd delights publicly in her oddball research finds. So it’s with buttons-busting pride that I share with you one charming answer I discovered to the query: Why are barber’s poles striped?
Enter this crumbling volume, History of Signboards, published in 1866:
Co-authors Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hottes can be fairly described as graphic-design flâneurs. Not only did they range far and wide across Victorian London, cataloguing eye-catching signage everywhere they found it, but they cannily yoked themselves to a “research” project that doubtless required downing a pint or three enroute. Curious about what the three golden balls advertising a pawnbroker mean? Turn to page 128 for the explanation (a modification of the heraldic arms for the banking dynasty, the House of Medici). Thus sated with prosaic facts, you can then feast on the rumor-laden details: that the three Medici blue orbs turned golden “to gild the pill for those who have dealings with ‘my uncle.’” The popular explanation for their triangular arrangement is, apparently, that “there are two chances to one that whatever is brought there will not be redeemed.”
History of Signboards reads like a proto-Tumblr, a grand magpie collection of images made complete with apt captions. The authors decoded signs’ meanings, regaled tales of notable drunkards frequenting each establishment (with a particular glee for any sober-sided gentlemen), recorded songs, jingles and literature featuring the pub or its namesake, or simply editorialized whilst deep in their cups. Like any excellent photoblog, you come for the pictures, but you stick around for the curation and commentary.
Larwood and Hottes do not disappoint when it comes to barber’s poles. First the core question: Why are they striped?
The BARBER’S POLE … dates from the time that barber’s practiced phlebotomy: the patient undergoing this operation had to grasp the pole in order to make the blood flow more freely. … As the pole was of course liable to be stained with blood, it was painted red; when not in use, barbers were in the habit of suspending it outside the door with the white linen swathing-bands twisted round it; this, in latter times, gave rise to the pole being painted red and white …
So much for the meat; stick around for dessert. Next comes a discursus of disgustingly specific signs announcing the barber’s mixed trade of hair-cutting, bloodletting and tooth extraction. Like this one:
His pole with pewter basins hung,
Black, rotten teeth in order strung,
Rang’d cups that in the window stood,
Lined with red rags to look like blood,
Did well his three-fold trade explain,
Who shaved, drew teeth and breathed a vein.
Anyone who’s labored silently under the loquacious surge of a barber will appreciate the quoted observations of someone named Steele: “… from whence [should it proceed] that of all the lower orders barbers should go further in hitting the ridiculous than any other set of men. Watermen brawl, cobblers sing: But why must a barber be forever a politician, a musician, an anatomist, a poet and a physician?” Disastrously musical barbers would apparently whip out a cittern—a kind of mandolin—at the lightest provocation.
Deluded about both their musical skills and their learnedness, History of Signboards recounts several self-styled scholar-barbers: In Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, the character Vossius’ barber was said to comb his hair in iambics. Barber Hugh Hughson pointed with pride to his own true-to-live cameos in a popular picaresque novel, Roderick Random.
Erudition sometimes led to a merciful snobbery. One French barber near the Collège de France placed a forbidding sign in Greek in his shop window. When translated, the sign read: “I shear quickly and am silent.”
Naturally the commentary reverts to ground sodden with booze. Many barbers lured in customers with a combination now much-prized among Williamsburg hipsters: beer and a shave. One variant of a common slogan appears in a Sir Walter Scott novel:
Rove not from pole to pole – the man lives here,
Whose razor’s only equal’d by his beer;
And where, in either sense, the Cockney-put,
May, if he please, get confounded cut.
This entry finishes off with witticisms featured in French barber’s windows: Ici on rajeunit (“‘People made younger here,’ alluding to the youthful appearance of a man without a beard”) or this frequent inscription:
La nature donne barbe et cheveux,
Et moi je les coupe tous les deux
(Nature gives beard and hair
And I gladly cut them both)
Whether or not History of Signboards tells the gospel truth about the origins of striped barber’s poles is somewhat beside the point. As in my book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, I’m less interested in nailing every blessed fact as finding the right nonfiction starting point from which explanatory lore spools outward.
Back to the research hunt! I’ll be sure to share any patterns treasures I unearth next.
Want more colorful insight from Jude Stewart? Check out Color Palettes & Patterns. In this download, you’ll discover the history of color, how certain colors have gained and lost favor over the years, and explore the backgrounds of different prints and patterns.