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Barber Pole (one of a pair; see 2006.706.1)

1830-1850
Origin: America
Each approximately: 35 1/4 x 3 11/16 x 3 11/16in. (89.5 x 9.4 x 9.4cm)
Paint on wood
Gift of Ellin and Baron Gordon
Acc. No. 2006.706.2
One of two small barber poles, each intended to be wall-mounted from a square mid-section that is painted red. On either side of each square mid-section, the poles are turned and taper to, at the ends, acorn-shaped finials painted white. The turned poles are painted white with twining red stripes and with blue collars, or cushions.

Maker unknown.
Label:Today, most people recognize red and white spirally-striped poles as advertisements for barber shops, but few realize that the symbols derive from an ancient history shared by barbers and surgeons.

Early monasteries retained barbers because the church required priests and monks to be clean shaven. When ecclesiastics were forbidden from practicing surgery, such tasks fell to barbers, who possessed the basic equipment and hand skills. Lancing abscesses, amputating, splintering broken limbs, dentistry, and bloodletting (removing quantities of blood from the body in an effort to cure or prevent various ailments): all of these were carried out by early barber-surgeons.

Exactly when barber-surgeons first began using spirally-striped red and white poles as trade emblems is unknown. Clearly, however, the colors represent blood and bandages (or tourniquets), while the form of the pole itself derives from the stick gripped by patients in order to dilate their veins for bloodletting. Eventually, when barbers and surgeons were separated into distinct professions, barbers took their long-standing symbol with them.
Provenance:The Gordons, AARFAM's donors, purchased these poles at the East Side Antiques Show, New York, NY. The date and their exact source are unknown.