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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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holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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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