The History of Barbers… and Doctors

If you can remember the brilliant children’s television show, The Wonderful Misadventures of Flapjack, then you can remember Doctor-Barber, which children view as just a man with two jobs. Nope! Who knew that the character had so much history behind it – considering back in the ole’ days, your average barber was also your average doctor – considering doctors thought they were too classy for such a bloody job. I find history to be not only vitally important to understand the present and perhaps the future, but also extremely intriguing. That is why this post exists.

Who knew there could be so much behind this candy-striped pole? (photo by Steve Snodgrass)

Who knew there could be so much behind this candy-striped pole? (photo by Steve Snodgrass)

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Now Sweeney Todd makes so much more sense! He’s not just some deranged barber (sort of) – he’s actually a surgeon too! A surgeon who simply went mad and then proceeded to give the human meat to his sweetheart.

You know those symbols you just see and know? Well, the barber pole is one of them. Spun with red and white (and occasionally blue,) who would have guessed that there was a lot behind it. If you’ve ever questioned yourself, why isn’t the universal symbol scissors, it’s because of this: the barber pole didn’t mean barber, it meant surgeon.

Think about it. What’s red? And what’s white? And what’s blue?

No, it’s not the American flag. And it’s not the British flag. It’s blood, gauze, and if the barber pole happens to have blue spun with it, it’s also symbolic of the veins in your body. If that’s not eerie enough for you, imagine the circumstances back in the old day.

In one moment you could be receiving a simple haircut, then proceed to talk to your barber about the pain in your foot, to which he may or may not amputate it depending on his level of expertise. After all, this is just a tiny bit before the time that leeches were being used to suck the bad blood out – the blood that was making you sick, apparently.

For whatever reason, hair was such a vital issue for the people of the past. It mattered in Biblical times, all the way up to modern times when we realized bad spirits didn’t enter our bodies through our hair (although that seems like such cool imagery.)

So where were the real doctors when all of this was happening? Or did they simply not exist?

Well, not only were doctors sort of pious toward everyone – thinking they were above surgery – but they were also, as according to iO9, “…to pull out of the trade as well. Some cultures had taboos against interfering physically with the body. The Pope famously banned priests from bloodletting. Meanwhile feudal lords, who imposed justice on their territories, would put doctors to death for¬†malpractice¬†so few were likely to attempt anything as risky as surgery. Few people had the money to pay surgeons, anyway, while barbers were cheap.”

Eventually, all of that stuff let up and dentists, surgeons, and barbers could all be separated in profession, which is good for the 18th century man who just wanted to cut hair but couldn’t because he was scared of blood. All’s well that ends well.

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