The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


July 6, 2012

Barbershop hallmark cause of increased friction

Point Blank

When is the last time you noticed a rotating red-white-blue sign in front of the local barbershop?

You probably won’t have to look too far to find one.

Even so, the old-fashioned, spinning barber pole, taken for granted by most of us, is an increasing source of friction between barbers and beauticians.

To be sure, those iconic cylinders spinning on storefronts across America are hallowed emblems steeped in history and symbolism.

And Minnesota, Michigan and North Carolina are the latest fronts in a spreading legislative campaign to reserve the swirling poles for barbers.

The proposals, which often include fines for offenders, are driving a new wedge in a trade where gender lines have long run deep.

Actually, the barber pole is the oldest sign in town besides the cross. It should not be displayed where there is not a licensed barber, according to the National Association of Barber Boards of America.

For many, the only real difference between a barber and hairstylist is the clientele they serve. But barbers say the tools of their trade and unique services they provide make them different, and at the same time maintain that laws are needed to prevent beauty parlors, salons and other establishments from passing themselves off as barbershops, including chain shops that bear the barber name and logo but don’t have a single licensed barber on site.

Cosmetologists argue, meanwhile, that haircuts are haircuts, and say the protective efforts are silly and chauvinist, claiming that barbers are still trying to hang onto vestiges that say they’re special.

Those same Salon and Spa Association members reason that if they can cut a man’s hair, why shouldn’t they be able to put up a barber pole? What is more, they think that barbers are making a mountain out of a mole hill, so to speak.

As the story goes, however, the red on the pole signifies blood, the white stands for bandages and the blue represents veins.

The symbolism dates from a time when barbers also performed surgical duties from teeth extraction to bloodletting. They had rods, or poles, for patrons to grip to make veins easier to tap.

Barbers often twisted rinsed yet still blood-stained cloths around those same poles before hanging them out to dry.

As the role evolved, the painted striped poles-some spinning, some fixed-became a barbershop hallmark.

And while barbers and cosmetologists both deal in hair, there are distinctions in their crafts. A barber — a term derived from the Latin word for beard — is uniquely permitted to offer shaves with a straight-edge razor and specially trained to use shears and clippers.

Cosmetologists also cut and style hair. But unlike barbers, they usually provide manicures, pedicures and an array of spa-type services as well.

Licensing requirements in the hair trade vary from state to state and by profession. In most cases, they depend on hundreds of hours of training and a yearly fee.

According to The Associated Press, at least 10 states have rules or laws that reserve the pole for barbers. The regulations most recently were passed in Nebraska and Nevada. Alabama considered going that route in 2010, but the bill stalled. Ohio long ago outlawed the pole’s use by anyone but barbers.

State inspectors find about a dozen violations a year, from salons to dog grooming shops. Sometimes fines are imposed; other times, the poles merely are ordered to be taken down.

Barbers, meantime, remain determined to get a barber pole monopoly for the simple reason that it’s been a centuries-long, recognizable symbol of a barber and only a barber.

Some men won’t go into a salon because they are looking for someone who has barbering experience.

And the barber pole tells people driving by that there’s a barber in the house.


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail:


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