Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Book about a Thousand Things

Last week, I was stopped at a traffic light on Exchange Street in Bangor on the way to work. Across the street stood Cornerstone Barber Shop, the place where I usually go for haircuts & where I always take my oldest son.

Anyway, while stopped in traffic, I noticed the barber pole on the building. I had thought before that I knew or vaguely knew the origin of the stripes on the barber pole. It was something I thought I should look up.

That morning at work, probably not even an hour after thinking about that question, I was standing in the book stacks here & a book title caught my eye.

That book, A Book about a Thousand Things, by George Stimpson, copyright 1946. I suppose I wondered what the thousand things were, so I pulled the book from the shelf to take a look. I opened the book. Curiously enough, I opened the book to pages 94 & 95, page 95 containing the phrase "how did the barber pole originate?"
Call it kismet or dumb luck or simple coincidence, whatever you want, I had found the answer to my question without even knowing (at least not consciously) I was searching for it. Another beauty of this is that is that as I looked elsewhere in Stimpson's book, I found answers to questions I might not have thought to ask, but that I was nonetheless happy to have casually discovered. For example, do you know that Boycott was a person & it was he that was the first to be boycotted? He was a landlord who wasn't very nice to his tenants during the 1880s.

This anecdote well illustrates what I would like to think are the strengths of libraries: either by design or chance, a person will more than likely discover his or her answer here. Or will think to ask here. Or will learn here. Or just happen to find out because a book title or jacket catches his or her eye. One need only be curious.

So, according to George Stimpson, how did the barber pole originate?

"The barber pole with spiral stripes is a relic of the days when barbers were also surgeons. As early as the fifth century A.D. the barbers in Rome extracted teeth, treated wounds and bled patients as part of their professional work. When the London barbers were incorporated in 1461 they were the only persons practicing surgery in the city. In the reign of Henry VIII Parliament passed a law providing that barbers should confine themselves to minor operations such as bloodletting and drawing teeth, while surgeons were prohibited from 'barbery and shaving'. It was not until 1745, only thirty years before the American Revolution, that the barbers and surgeons of London were separated into distinct corporations, and the practice of surgery by barbers was not abolished in France, Germany and other European countries until much later. The barber-surgeons generally bled their patients in the arm, and, in the days when few people could read and pictures and emblems were used as shop signs, the emblem of the profession was a spirally painted white and red pole from which was suspended a brass basin with a semicircular opening in the rim. The white ground represented the bandage used in bloodletting, the red stripe represented the blood, and the basin represented the vessel used to receive the blood. Strangely it has been the barbers and not the surgeons who have retained, it a modified form, this ancient symbol of their profession. In the United States the brass basin is generally omitted from the barber pole, but it is still common in Britain. American barbers also added a blue stripe, perhaps to make the color conform with those of the national flag."
If you'd like, here is a link to another fan's opinion of Stimpson's book: http://www.mickhalpin.com/criticalmick_a_thousand_things.htm.

A Book about a Thousand Things and related books can be found in the 030-032 Dewey section of Bangor Public Library. If you need help finding a book, always feel welcome to ask me or another reference librarian here at Bangor Public Library. You can ask us in person, by phone (947-8336 x130), or by email (reference@bpl.lib.me.us).

Patrick Layne


Bangor Public Library

Bangor Public Library
Bangor Public Library,
145 Harlow Street,
Bangor ME 04401