Why Do Barber Poles Have Red and White Stripes?
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. The red and white stripes on the barber’s pole have something to do with the work that barbers did in olden times.
Long ago, barbers combined hair cutting with minor surgery, such as treating wounds and bloodletting.
In bloodletting, the barber “let” blood out of the patient’s arm as a cure for illness. The barber hung bandages and a bowl on a red pole in front of his shop as a sign of his profession.
The original pole had a brass wash basin at the top and bottom. The pole itself represents the staff that, patient gripped during the procedure to encourage blood flow.
Today the barber pole, with red and white stripes around it, has replaced the old sign of the barber-surgeon. The red stands for blood, and the white for bandages. The pole may be stationary or may revolve, often with the aid of an electric motor.