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The history of the barber pole is intertwined with the history of barbers and their bloodletting practices. Patients would tightly grasp a rod or staff tightly so their veins would show, and the barbers would cut open their arms and bleed them until they fainted. Later, when leech therapy became popular (they allowed for more controlled bleeding), leeches were applied directly to the vein areas.

After the procedure, the barbers "washed" the bandages which were hung outside on a pole to dry, and to advertise the therapeutic specialities offered in the barbershop. Flapping in the wind, the long strips of bandages would twist around the pole in the spiral pattern we now associate with barbers.

This early barber pole was simply a wooden post topped by a brass leech basin. Later the basin was replaced by a ball and painted poles of red and white spirals took the place of the pole with the bloodstained bandages, and these poles became permanent outdoor fixtures.

In fact, after the formation of the United Barber Surgeon’s Company in England, barbers were required to display blue and white poles, and surgeons, red ones. In America, however, many of the barber poles were painted red, white and blue.

There are several interpretations for the colors of the barber pole. One is that red represented blood and white, the bandages. Another interpretation says red and blue respectively stood for arterial and venous blood, and white was for the bandages. A third view suggests that the spiral pattern represents a white bandage wrapped around a bloody arm. The bowls represented the basin of leeches as well as the blood-collection bowl.

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