Barber's pole

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A software rendering of a spinning barber pole
Barber pole, c. 1938, North Carolina Museum of History
Barber shop in Torquay, Devon, England, with red and white pole

A barber's pole is a type of sign used by barbers to signify the place or shop where they perform their craft. The trade sign is, by a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, a staff or pole with a helix of colored stripes (often red and white in many countries, but usually red, white and blue in the United States). The pole may be stationary or may rotate, often with the aid of an electric motor.[1][2]

A "barber's pole" with a helical stripe is a familiar sight, and is used as a secondary metaphor to describe objects in many other contexts. For example, if the shaft or tower of a lighthouse has been painted with a helical stripe as a daymark, the lighthouse could be described as having been painted in "barber's pole" colors.

Origin in barbering and surgery[edit]

Antique red and blue striped pole in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, United States

During medieval times, barbers performed surgery on customers, as well as tooth extractions. The original pole had a brass wash basin at the top (representing the vessel in which leeches were kept) and bottom (representing the basin that received the blood). The pole itself represents the staff that the patient gripped during the procedure to encourage blood flow[3] and the twined pole motif is likely related to the staff of the Greek god of speed and commerce Hermes, aka the Caduceus, evidenced for example by early physician van Helmont's description of himself as "Francis Mercurius Van Helmont, A Philosopher by that one in whom are all things, A Wandering Hermite.[4]

At the Council of Tours in 1163, the clergy was banned from the practice of surgery.[5] From then, physicians were clearly separated from the surgeons and barbers. Later, the role of the barbers was defined by the College de Saint-Côme et Saint-Damien, established by Jean Pitard in Paris circa 1210,[6] as academic surgeons of the long robe and barber surgeons of the short robe.

In Renaissance-era Amsterdam, the surgeons used the colored stripes to indicate that they were prepared to bleed their patients (red), set bones or pull teeth (white), or give a shave if nothing more urgent was needed (blue).[7]

After the formation of the United Barber Surgeon's Company in England, a statute required the barber to use a red and white pole and the surgeon to use a red pole. In France, surgeons used a red pole with a basin attached to identify their offices. Blue often appears on poles in the United States, possibly as a homage to its national colors. Another, more fanciful interpretation of these barber pole colors is that red represents arterial blood, blue is symbolic of venous blood, and white depicts the bandage.[8]

Prior to 1950, there were four manufacturers of barber poles in the United States. In 1950, William Marvy of St. Paul, Minnesota, started manufacturing barber poles. Marvy made his 50,000th barber pole in 1967, and, by 2010, over 82,000 had been produced.[9] The William Marvy Company is now the sole manufacturer of barber poles in North America, and sells only 500 per year (compared to 5,100 in the 1960s).[10] In recent years, the sale of spinning barber poles has dropped considerably, since few barber shops are opening, and many jurisdictions prohibit moving signs. Koken of St. Louis, Missouri, manufactured barber equipment such as chairs and assorted poles in the 19th century.

As early as 1905, use of the poles was reported to be "diminishing" in the United States.[11]

In Forest Grove, Oregon, the "World's Tallest Barber Shop Pole" measures 72 feet (22 m).[12]

The consistent use of this symbol for advertising was analogous to an apothecary's show globe, a tobacconist's cigar store Indian and a pawn broker's three gold balls.

Use in barbering[edit]

Possibly as early as the later Roman Empire, and certainly continuing through the Renaissance into Industrialization (maybe even until the 1700s in some places) a "barber-surgeon" also performed tooth extraction, cupping, leeching, bloodletting, enemas, amputations, etc. However, today's barber poles represent little more than being a barber shop that cuts hair and does shaves.[13] Barber poles have actually become a topic of controversy in the hairstyling business.

In some American states, such as Michigan in March 2012, legislation has emerged proposing that barber poles should only be permitted outside barbershops, but not traditional beauty salons. Barbers and cosmetologists have engaged in several legal battles claiming the right to use the barber pole symbol to indicate to potential customers that the business offers haircutting services. Barbers claim that they are entitled to exclusive rights to use the barber pole because of the tradition tied to the craft, whereas cosmetologists think that they are equally capable of cutting men's hair (though many cosmetologists are not permitted to use razors, depending on their state's laws).[14]

Use in prostitution[edit]

In South Korea, barber's poles are used both for actual barbershops and for brothels.[15] Brothels disguised as barbershops, referred to as 이발소 (ibalso) or 미용실 (miyongsil), are more likely to use two poles next to each other, often spinning in opposite directions, though the use of a single pole for the same reason is also quite common.[16] Actual barbershops, or 미용실 (miyongsil), are more likely to be hair salons; to avoid confusion, they will usually use a pole that shows a picture of a woman with flowing hair on it with the words hair salon written on the pole.

Visual illusion[edit]

A spinning barber's pole in front of a barber shop in Tokyo, Japan (video)

A spinning barber pole creates a visual illusion, in which the stripes appear to be traveling up or down the length of the pole,[17] rather than around it.[18]

Other uses of the term[edit]

Visual similarity[edit]

  • The Swan portion of M17, the Omega Nebula in the Sagittarius nebulosity is said to resemble a barber's pole.[19]
  • Barber pole-like structures have been observed at the cellular level. The effects, origins and causes are controversial, and are subject to intense research.[20]
  • Matthew Walker's knot is a decorative knot said to vaguely resemble a section of a barber's pole.[A]
  • Sinosauropteryx (meaning "Chinese reptilian wing",[22] in Chinese 中华龙鸟: zhonghua longniao) is the first genus of non-avian dinosaur found with the fossilized impressions of feathers, as well as the first non-avian dinosaur where coloration has been determined. It lived in China during the early Cretaceous period and was a close relative of Compsognathus. It was the first non-avialan dinosaur genus discovered from the famous Jehol Biota of Liaoning Province. Zhang found "that the filaments running down its back and tail may have made the dinosaur look like an orange-and-white-striped barber pole. Such a vibrant pattern suggest that 'feathers first arose as agents for color display,' Benton says."[23]

Referential naming[edit]

Animal husbandry[edit]

Haemonchus contortus, or "barber's pole worm", is the parasitic nematode responsible for anemia, bottle jaw, and death of infected sheep[24] and goats, mainly during summer months in warm, humid climates.[25][26] Humans may become infected by the worms.[27]


Stenopus hispidus is a shrimp-like popcorn kernel decapod crustacean sometimes called the "barber pole shrimp". See also Stenopodidea.


In the insect world, there is the barber pole grasshopper, Dactylotum bicolor.[28] It is also known as the "painted grasshopper" and is said to be the "most beautiful" grasshopper.[29]


Because of its bright bands and colors, the redbanded rockfish Sebastes babcocki is referred to as "barber pole". Other pseudonyms include bandit, convict, canary, Hollywood, and Spanish flag.[30]


The old-fashioned American stick candy is sometimes also referred to as "barber pole candy" due to its colorful, swirled appearance. (See also candy cane.) "Candy stripe" is a generic description of the candy cane color scheme. Among many other names, the candy has been called Polkagris.[31]

Computer science[edit]

In user interface design, a barber pole-like pattern is used in progress bars when the wait time is indefinite. It is intended to be used like a throbber to tell the user that processing is continuing, although it is not known when the processing will complete.

Barber pole is also sometimes used to describe a text pattern where a line of text is rolled left or right one character on the line below. The CHARGEN service generates a form of this pattern. It is used to test RAM, hard disks and printers. A similar pattern is also used in secure erasure of media.[citation needed]


Barber-pole-like antennas on a model of the GLONASS-K satellite used for GLONASS, the Russian alternative to GPS

The strength and direction of magnetic fields and electric currents can be measured using a "magnetoresistive barber-pole sensor" (also called a "hermetic proximity sensor"), and its performance can be depicted using a mathematical formula.[32] Such a sensor interleaves a series of permanent magnet strips with a series of magnetoresistive strips. The "conductive barberpole strips are canted across the sensor and connect one magnetoresistive strip, over a permanent magnet strip, to another magnetoresistive strip." This is said to provide a "uniform magnetic field throughout the sensor" thereby enhancing its resistance to external magnetic fields.[33] The technology is used in wireless sensor networks which "have gathered a lot of attention as an important research domain" and were "deployed in many applications, e.g., navigation, military, ambient intelligence, medical, and industrial tasks. Context-based processing and services, in particular location-context, are of key interest ..."[34] (See Music (acoustic illusion), infra.)

Aviation and space flight[edit]

The term on the barber pole is pilot jargon that refers to flying an aircraft at the maximum safe velocity. The airspeed Indicator on aircraft capable of flying at altitude features a red/white striped needle resembling a barber pole. This needle displays the VMO (Maximum Operating Velocity) or—at altitude—the MMO (Mach Limit Maximum Operating Speed) of the aircraft.[35] This needle also indicates the maximum operating Mach number above the VMO/MMO changeover level. As the aircraft increases in altitude and the air decreases in density and temperature, the speed of sound also decreases. Close to the speed of sound, an aircraft becomes susceptible to buffeting caused by shock waves produced by flying at transonic speeds. Thus, as the speed of sound decreases, so the maximum safe operating speed of the aircraft is reduced. The "barber pole" needle moves to indicate this speed. Flying "on the barber pole" therefore means to be flying the aircraft as fast as is safe to do so in the current conditions.[36]

Barberpole is a phrase used to describe the striped output of indicators used during the Apollo and Shuttle programs. Typically an indicator was positioned below a switch. When the switch was activated and the activation indeed performed, the resulted activation was talked back via a separated electrical line to the barberpole indicator to show a grey and white striped pattern, thus verifying the action to the astronaut. Such switches with barberpole indicators were called talkback switches. Various indicators in the Apollo Command Modules indicated barberpole when the corresponding system was inactive. Astronaut Jim Lovell can also be found describing system indications as "barber poled" in the transcript of radio transmissions during the Apollo 13 accident.[37]

The phrase barberpole continues to be found in many subsystem descriptions in the Space Shuttle News Reference Manual,[38] as well as the NASA/KSC Acronym List.[39]

During World War I and World War II, the pattern has also been used as an insignia for aircraft identification.[40] Spad XIIIs of the 94th Aero Squadron USAS in early 1919 used variations on barber pole patterns, including: "Barber Pole" of Lieutenant Dudley "Red" Outcault; S.16546 "Flag Bus" of Captain Reed Chambers; and "Rising Sun" of Lieutenant John Jeffers.[41]


Used in flyfishing, Au Sable River guide Earl Madsen's "Madsen's Barber pole" is a traditional Michigan fly in the form of a "Stonefly" imitation "with grizzly hackle tip wings tied in a downwing fashion".[42] Photo of Madsen's Barber Pole Fly, parachute form.


The phrase barber pole is derisive jargon in craps, and refers to the commingling of "gaming cheques of different denominations". Wagers that combine different denominations are "supposed to be stacked with the highest denomination at the bottom".[43][44]


  • The Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Command Parachute Demonstration Team, which operates out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, executes a "barber pole maneuver" (also known as "the Baton Pass") during demonstrations.[45][unreliable source?] Two jumpers leave the aircraft and fly their bodies together to link while in free fall. "Once together they will then exchange a wooden baton ... [and] maneuver their bodies ... to create the illusion of a giant barber pole in the sky."[45]
  • Alternatively, a "Four Man Star" can "Hook Up" and then the formation rotates to the right, creating a "Barber Pole" effect with use of trailing smoke.[46]
  • Another parachuting use of the term describes having a mess of lines tangled "behind your head and you have to cut away your main chute and pull your reserve."[47]



Red or rubric posts were sometimes used by booksellers in England prior to 1800. William Roberts reports in The Book Hunter in London that certain 18th-century bookshops in the Little Britain district of London sported such poles:

A few years before Nichols published [in 1816] his Literary Anecdotes, two booksellers used to sport their rubric posts close to each other here in Little Britain, and these rubric posts were once as much the type of a bookseller's shop as the pole is of a barber's ... Sewell, Cornhill, and Kecket and De Hondt, Strand, were among the last to use these curious trade signs.[52]

Border and lane markers[edit]

Canadian Naval group[edit]

The famous Barber Pole Group was originally a group of 120 Flower-class corvettes built in Canada during World War II, and charged primarily with protecting freighter convoys. The original group was Escort Group C-3. This group of ships, with its red and white barber pole stripes painted on the funnel, is still represented in the current Royal Canadian Navy: all Atlantic fleet ships wear this insignia. HMCS Sackville is the last remaining Flower-class corvette.[53][54][55]

Daymarks as a navigational aid[edit]

White Shoal Light


Brown-haired man in jersey of vertical red, black and white stripes
Ottawa Senators Bruce Stuart in 1909–10 jersey


The "Barberpole Cat" group, a/k/a "Polecats"—perhaps a portmanteau of "barber's pole" and "catalogue"—is an essential repertoire of 12 songs that every barber shop quartet should know.[65] The Barberpole Cat Program[66] was created many years ago and features popular Barbershop songs arranged and voiced so all singers can learn and participate. For decades these have been the standard arrangements where singers can meet at conventions and sing together having never met before.

The songs in this collection are:

The Polecats have had a version 2.0 with additional songs added.

Music (acoustic illusion)[edit]

See also Buchla 200 series Electric Music Box and Buchla 200e.


Barbasol cans use a barber pole motif.[72][73][74] The can's motif is a registered trademark of Barbasol.[75][B]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Used to keep the end of a rope from fraying and said to resemble a barber's pole. Though highly decorative, and historically one of the most common knots, on a modern yacht it is almost unused and unknown.[21]
  2. ^ "Barbasol Co. v. Jacobs. No. 8969" (full text). 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, 160 F.2d 336. 1947. Retrieved 15 December 2010. As the court noted: 'Plaintiff's shaving cream product is identified by the word trade mark "Barbasol" and by the distinctive package design trade mark hereinafter referred to. Said product is displayed and offered for sale in two types of cartons. One of said cartons is of rectangular shape, the length of which is about 3½ times its width and the depth is a little less than the width. In addition to the word "Barbasol" being provided thereon, the carton has a striped border of blue, white and red diagonal stripes surrounding a rectangular panel or field in blue color. The shaving cream disposed in this type of carton is packed in an elongated soft metal tube, which is received and housed within said carton. The other type of carton is approximately square and it also has the word trade mark "Barbasol" provided thereon, and the entire carton is provided with diagonal colored stripes of red, white and blue, said stripes forming a border for a blue field, on which appears the word "Barbasol" and other printed matter. The shaving cream is disposed in a glass jar of octangular cross section and upon which the word "Barbasol" appears. The jar is white and is disposed within the square carton.'


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]