Rags to Riches: The History of the Barber Pole

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Time was when you could glance down Main Street and tell which business was which simply by the symbols outside each shop. The local pharmacist displayed a mortar and pestle; the tobacconist, a wooden Indian. But today only one of these trade icons is still in widespread use: the barber pole.

The barber pole’s origins date back to the Middle Ages, when barbers worked as primitive surgeons, most of whom specialized in bloodletting. The typical barber shop featured a pole for the patient to hold on to, to make his veins stand out in higher relief.

After the bloodletting was done, the barber would hang the bloody linen bandages from the pole to dry. Many barbers then hung the pole outside. As the blood-stained bandages twisted in the wind, they formed a red-and-white spiral pattern that eventually became the graphic basis of the trade’s painted pole. The modern pole’s blue stripe is, depending on which source you consult, either a nod to American patriotism or a symbol of the patient’s blue veins. And the sphere seen atop many barber poles represents—get this—the early barber’s basin of leeches.

The man who had the greatest impact on the contemporary barber pole was a Minnesotan named William Marvy, who started a barber-supply business in 1936. Although he was an talented salesman, Marvy had long been fascinated by manufacturing, and by the mid-1940s, he’d become convinced that he could build a better barber pole than those he was selling.

By 1950 he’d perfected his version. With its Lucite outer cylinder, cast-aluminum housing, and stainless-steel fittings, the Marvy pole was lighter, sturdier, more durable, and more weatherproof than the others on the market. Hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “the first real improvement in the barber pole in a quarter-century,” it was an instant hit, and Marvy soon gave up his sales routes and set up a manufacturing plant. The four other pole makers then in business began losing sales to him, and by the late 1960s, Marvy had cornered the market so thoroughly that his two remaining competitors were actually jobbing out their pole production to him. By 1970, he had the industry all to himself. Today it’s safe to say that any barber pole currently operating in America is either a Marvy product or has been serviced with Marvy parts.

William Marvy died in 1993 (he remains the only non-barber ever enshrined in the Barber Hall of Fame), but his company still operates in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his son Bob Marvy running the operation. Although poles now constitute only about a quarter of the firm’s grooming-supply business, they remain Marvy’s signature product, and the company has meticulous records showing where each of its nearly 80,000 poles was installed. That includes pole No. 75,000, which is in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection-leeches not included.

Paul Lukas is the author of Inconspicuous Consumption: An Obsessive Look at the Stuff We Take for Granted. His last “Back Story” (December 2005), was about the Phillips-head screw.