Red and white striped, sometimes with a bit of blue, a barber pole twisting next to a small storefront signifies a place where MEN can get a haircut, a shave and a bit of masculine bonhomie. But this was not always the case. Back in the day, the red and white we associate with good grooming used to represent blood, bandages, leeches and pain.

As long as people have been making razors, there have been barbers. In Egypt and other ancient cultures (as early as 3500 BC), barbers were often priests whose main job was to keep evil spirits from possessing people, they did this by trimming, styling and shaving off the hair through which demons liked to enter the body.

This role morphed into something that much more closely resembles a modern day barber by the time of the Greeks in the 5th century BC. Setting up in an agora, the Greek barber styled hair, trimmed beards and encouraged gossip. In Rome, barbers were known as tonsores, and many well-groomed Romans made a stop at their shops part of their daily routine away from the women.

The Barbers Pole

The famous pole is a study in semiotics. The white on the pole represents the bloodletting rod that was grasped by the patient during the procedure. The red stripes symbolize the bloodied bandages, often hung out to dry on the pole after they’d been cleaned as well as possible. As for the rest, things get a little murkier. It is thought that the brass ball at the top may represent the bowl of leeches, while the brass at the bottom evokes the bowl that catches the blood. For those poles that have a blue stripe added, many believe this represents veins.

The Legend of Sweeney Todd

Although experts disagree, the infamous Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd, may have been a real person. Believed by some to have been born in 1756, Todd is said to have grown up poor and twisted in a London slum. As a teenage boy, he was imprisoned in the notorious Newgate Prison where he apprenticed to a barber. Upon release, he eventually set up shop on Fleet Street, there he is said to have installed two barber chairs on either side of a trap door cut into the floor. When he pulled the lever on the barber’s chair, the chair with the wealthy patron tipped over to a basement where he would then cut the victim’s throat with a old style razor; the empty chair would pop-up, waiting for the next customer.

Todd is reputed to have delivered his victims’ organs to local baker Mrs. Lovett, who (it is said) cooked those parts into pies. Eventually discovered, Lovett confessed and killed herself, while Todd wanted a trial. During the proceedings, evidence was presented that Todd had killed 160 people, and after only 10 minutes of deliberation, he was found guilty and hanged in January 1802. Some say he slit his own neck while in custody.

In 1745, the surgeons split from the barbers and formed the Company of Surgeons that eventually became the Royal College of Surgeons of London in 1800. Barbers as surgeons gradually fell out of fashion, and it is believed that the last barber-surgeon in England died in 1821.