Saturday, 23 November 2013

Blood, bandages and barber poles - the gruesome history of barbers

In which G.M. Norton frequents a new hair establishment and delves into the bloody history of the barber pole.


When I discovered that a new barbers was opening in Manchester specialising in rockabilly and traditional cuts and shaves, I must confess that it rather caught my attention.
Barber Barber as it is called is run by Johnny Shanahan, or Johnny The BaBa as he prefers to be known. Since becoming a patron this week, the ‘BaBa House’ is now my new favourite haunt.
Working alongside Johnny are three other splendid chaps, Steve, Ben and Mav.

I must implore you to spend one minute and fifty eight seconds enjoying this film footage. After watching it, I’d wager that you rather fancy hot footing it to Manchester city centre to meet Johnny and his hair cutting crew. Please be warned though, Johnny operates a strict no-women policy. Awfully sorry ladies.
As my regular readers will already be aware, I love traditional barbershops. The atmosphere, the smells, the sanctuary from the hectic world in which we inhabit. I also love the history of barbers so I thought that now would make as good a time as any to prattle on about it.
Well, here goes.
I will start like any good story, at the beginning. During the Bronze Age to be precise, when primitive men believed that evil spirits entered a person's body through their hair and the only way to relieve oneself of the dastardly spirits was to cut it off.
Indeed, The Romans held barbers in such high esteem that a statue was actually erected in memory of the first Roman barber.
Today, barbers cut hair and the good ones like Johnny will offer a shave with a straight razor. 
Many years ago however, barbers also performed the duties of dentists and surgeons by extracting teeth, performing enemas, offering a vile service called bloodletting and wound surgery.
To put it crudely if I may, bloodletting basically involved hacking people’s arms open and allowing them to bleed until they lost consciousness. Disturbingly, this wasn’t seen as a form of punishment, people willingly subjected themselves to this horrifying practice.
It seems that the blame for this is firmly pinned on Hippocrates from the Roman Empire. Hippocrates apparently held the mistaken notion that bloodletting eliminated the overbalance of blood. And so the bloodletting service was freely performed by razor-wielding barbers. Until, that is, people started complaining that the barbers were making them more sick than well.
The barber pole is synonymous with the profession. But why you may wonder? Fear not, dear reader, I will tell you.
The history of the barber pole is intertwined with bloodletting. After cutting an arm open, leeches were applied directly to the veins and the open wound was wrapped in a bandage. Afterwards, the washed bandage would be hung outside on a pole to dry. Flapping in the wind, the long strips of bandages would twist around the pole in the spiral pattern we are familiar with.
Thankfully, as medicine developed and came to the forefront (Hippocrates is credited for this too so he’s reprieved), efforts were made to separate surgeons from barbers.
Finally, in 1745, after a series of investigations, a bill was passed to separate barbers and surgeons for good. Thank Heavens for that! And thank goodness that establishments such as Barber Barber still exist. I'm relieved to confirm that they just stick to the haircuts and shaves.

G.M. Norton
Protagonist of ‘Norton of Morton’



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