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Why Are Barber Poles Red, White, and Blue?

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It's as common a sight in business districts as street lamps or parking spaces: a revolving vertical tube that signals a destination for patrons in need of a haircut or shave. It's the barber pole, and it usually materializes with a red-, white-, and blue-striped color scheme.

It would be fair to guess that the design has something to do with patriotism. The truth, however, isn't so heartwarming.

The dual arts of cutting hair and shaving faces have been around for a very long time, as have the barbers who practice them: Razors dating from the Bronze Age have been found, and the "barber's razor" is even mentioned in the Bible. For much of their early history, barbers did much more than just take a little off the top; early physicians thought of some surgeries as being beneath them, so the tasks of mending wounds, bloodletting, and extracting teeth fell to barbers. For their dual roles of cutting hair and cutting veins, they were called barber-surgeons and later, when the Collège de Saint-Côme in Paris wanted to further distinguish between academic surgeons and barber-surgeons, "surgeons of the short robe."

The striped poles you see outside barber shops are a legacy of the barber-surgeons' practice of bloodletting. The typical barber-surgeon's equipment for bloodletting or applying leeches consisted of a staff (for the patient to grasp, causing the veins of the arm to stand out sharply), a basin (to catch blood and hold leeches), and a number of linen bandages. Often, the bandages were tied to or twisted around the staff, which was capped with the blood bowl, so everything was together when needed. The equipment would then be placed outside, both to dry washed bandages and to act as an advertisement. With the help of a stiff breeze, the bandages—clean in some spots, permanently stained in others—would twist around the pole and create an unmistakable swirling red and white pattern.

Over time, bloodletting fell out of practice, and the tools of the trade disappeared from barbers' shops as they concentrated on hair. (Some stubbornly continued to practice medicine; in 1745, England passed legislation to permanently separate barbers from surgeons.)

To maintain tradition and advertise their services with a recognizable symbol, many barbers placed wooden poles outside their shops, which they painted with stripes and topped with a ball, to resemble the staff/bandage/basin arrangement. The red represented the blood, the white the bandages, and the blue the protruding veins. The modern barber pole was born.

Many of today's poles feature rotating, light-up cylinders and weather-resistant plastic and steel parts. Most of these poles probably came from the William Marvy Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, which has, for decades, been the dominant producer of barber poles in America. Company founder William Marvy got his start as a barber supply salesman in the 1920s. He was convinced that he could produce a better barber pole than the ones he'd been pushing, so he launched his own company. By 1950, he had perfected his version of the barber pole. The Marvy model featured a Lucite outer cylinder, cast aluminum housing, and stainless steel fittings, making it lighter, sturdier, and more durable than the other poles available.

By the late 1960s, two of Marvy's competitors had gone out of business, and his other two rivals were farming out their pole manufacturing to his factory. Soon enough, the Marvy Company was the only game in town, and in the country.

William Marvy, the only non-barber in the Barber Hall of Fame, died in 1993, but the company is still going today under the direction of his son, Bob. Annual pole sales are down to about 600 (compared to 5100 in 1967), but the company keeps itself busy selling replacement parts and grooming supplies and restoring old poles. If you're in the market for one to advertise your styling or bloodletting services, they still offer several different revolving and stationary models.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?
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Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:


The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
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As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
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If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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