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The Barber Pole – A Historical Link With Surgery

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Evidence of the existence Barbers goes back to ancient times.

Artifacts of metal razors estimated to be from the Bronze age (between 3,400 – 3,600 BC) have been uncovered in Egypt and there are also a multitude of references to Hair Cutting and Barbers in the Bible.

Barbering is mentioned in the Bible with some of the most notable mentions being Isaiah 7:20, Esekiel 5:1 Judges 16:19, Job 1.20, Jeremiah 48.37, Acts 18:18, Ezekiel 44:20, Deuteronomy 14.:1-2, Jeremiah 7:29, Micah 1.16, Luke 12:7 amongst many others.

The first large scale offering of barbering services appears to be in Egyptian culture some 1,500 years earlier. Around 5,000 BC archeological and historical evidence shows that barbering services were enjoyed by ancient Egyptians with cutting instruments made from sharpened stone flint and oyster shells, and that barbers were highly respected in the social order of the day.

There has always been a strong link between religious, medicinal and military cultural traditions and barbers. In many ancient cultures and peoples spanning a number of continents the earliest recorded barbers were also priests, medicine men and men of war. Barbering and body art through shaving were prominent in many cultures ranging from the Aztecs, Iroquois, Viking, Mongolian, Mayan, Ancient Chinese and Polynesian civilisation, and often was used as a mechanism to distinguish roles and hierarchy in society, in war and in tribal conflict.

In Ancient Greece men would have their beards, hair and even nails and styled in the equivalent of a salon in the agora (Greek market place) and this would also serve as a lively social meeting point for debate and discussion about ideas of philosophy and culture, and as a point to talk about local gossip.

Barbering was introduced to the Roman Empire via the Greek Colonies in Sicily around 290 B.C. and like their ancient greek counterparts Roman Barber shops, known as Tonsors quickly became popular gathering points for news and discussion.  It is from also from the Latin (Roman) word Barba, the word for beard, that the modern term “barber” is derived.

About 334 B.C. popular rumour has it that Alexander the Great made his soldiers shave before battles so they could gain an advantage in hand to hand combat. The idea being that his soldiers could grab the enemy by the beard while the enemy could not do the same to his soldiers. 

During both times of War and Peace barbers as far back as the European History goes did surgery of wounds, blood letting, cupping and leeching and extracting teeth.  Since the Barbers were involved not only with haircutting and shaving but also with surgery, they were called Barber-surgeons.

In the Middle Ages, Centuries before the modern understanding of the Medical Profession as we know it today, the role of the Barber evolved across Europe to take on increasingly military and medical functions. On top of cutting hair, shaving, styling and hairdressing barbers performed various grisly but necessary tasks such as surgery (both on and off the battlefield), bloodletting, the use of leeches to drain infections, enemas, the pulling of teeth, lancing and draining boils, ear candle burning and burning of cysts. A barbers duty even extended to some basic chiropractic functions such as the straightening of bent necks and backs.

Through this wide range of often grisly services Barbers became very highly prized and paid, much more so than simple Surgeons and medical practitioners. And from as early as 1492 Barber-surgeons even had their own guilds. In England the barbers were chartered as a guild by Edward IV in 1462 as the Company of Barbers and other powerful Barber-surgeon guilds such as the Worshipful Company of Barbers also formed. These guilds became powerful and wealthy.

It wasn’t until the British Navy started enlisting Surgeons in Naval wars against the Spanish, French, Flemish, Dutch and Portuguese that the this balance of power between barber-surgeons and surgeons began to shift.

In 1540 Henry VIII combined these guilds under one guild which was the United Barber Surgeons Company. Barbers were forbidden to practice surgery except for bloodletting and pulling teeth and were largely restricted to cutting hair and shaving beards, and surgeons were prohibited from shaving and beard cutting. This can be traced to the formation of what we consider the evolution of the role of the modern medical practitioner, which prior to 1540 was co-joined with Barber-surgeons.

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While today’s barber pole is largely symbolic the origin of the barber’s pole was associated with the practice of bloodletting.

The original pole had a brass basin at its top representing the vessel where leeches were kept and which also received the the blood. The pole was a staff which the patient held onto during the operation. The red and white stripes were the bandages used during the procedure.

Bandages stained with blood would be hung out to dry on the pole after washing and would blow and twist together with new unsoiled white bandages forming the symbolic spiral pattern that has come to represent the modern day barber pole.

Later, the bloodstained actual barber and leech pole was replaced by a symbolic wooden pole of white and red stripes which became the emblem of the modern day barber pole. Red, white and blue are widely used in many European countries and early British and French colonies including America and Canada.

The Strand Barber Shop is located at Shop 47B, The Strand Arcade, 72-80 Marine Parade, Coolangatta QLD 4225.

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