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.

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What Does CPR Stand For?

undefined undefined/iStock via Getty Images
undefined undefined/iStock via Getty Images

The life-saving technique known as CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It's a method that allows oxygenated blood to temporarily circulate throughout the body of a person whose heart has stopped. When the heart ceases beating during cardiac arrest, lungs stop receiving oxygen. Without oxygen, nerve cells start to die within minutes; it can take just four to six minutes for an oxygen-deprived person to sustain permanent brain damage or die.

The cardio part of the phrase refers to the heart, the muscular organ that pumps blood through the body's circulatory system. Pulmonary involves the lungs. People take approximately 15 to 20 breaths per minute, and with each breath you take, your lungs fill with oxygen. Resuscitation means bringing something back to consciousness, or from the brink of death.

We have two physicians, Peter Safar and James Elam, to thank for developing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the mid-1950s. In 1957, the American military adopted their CPR method for reviving soldiers. In 1960, the American Heart Association integrated chest compressions, which keep the blood circulating.

Doctors, nurses, dentists, first responders, lifeguards, and some teachers are required to be certified in CPR. But because approximately 85 percent of cardiac arrests occur at home, it’s smart for the average person to know how to perform it, too. In school, you were probably taught CPR by the traditional method of giving 100 to 120 chest compressions per minute (play the Bee Gees’ "Stayin’ Alive" in your head to keep the beat) and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Today, the American Heart Association recommends that average people learn hands-only CPR, which simply involves chest compressions. The organization has found that people can be reluctant to administer mouth-to-mouth CPR in an emergency because they're afraid of doing it wrong or injuring the patient. With hands-only CPR, bystanders feel less anxiety and more willingness to jump in. The AHA also notes that hands-only CPR can be just as effective in saving a life. (And any CPR is better than none at all.)

But how many people actually know CPR?

In 2018, a Cleveland Clinic survey found that 54 percent of Americans said they knew CPR, but only one in six people knew that bystander CPR requires only chest compressions. Only 11 percent of people knew the correct pace for compressions. Again, singing "Stayin' Alive" to yourself is one way to remember the pace—though being a fan of The Office can apparently help, too (as one lucky life-saver recently discovered).

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Are Left-Handed People Really More Creative?

Kuzma/iStock via Getty Images
Kuzma/iStock via Getty Images

The left-handed brand has come a long way in the last few decades. The majority of people no longer assume that southpaws are tools of Satan, alight with hellfire. Today’s lefties are surrounded by a far more benevolent glow. We associate left-handedness with intelligence, out-of-the-box thinking, and artistic talent. But are these flattering generalizations backed up by science? Does being left-handed really make you more creative? 

The answer to that is a definitive … maybe.

Scientists have been chipping away at the peculiarities of left-handedness, which occurs in about 10 percent of the population, for a long time. They’ve looked into the purported links between left-handedness and things like mental illness, faulty immune systems, and criminal behavior. They’ve studied whether lefties are better at problem-solving, and if they’re more likely to die young. From all these studies on left-handedness, we can conclude one thing, and one thing alone: science is complicated. 

A handful of studies have found a link between left-handedness and creativity, conferred (some think) by the fact that left-handed folks constantly have to adjust to a right-handed world. Other studies found no link at all. 

Some researchers conclude that lefties are no smarter than righties, while others say that left-handedness comes with a clear intellectual advantage. Is there really a left-handed personality? Are lefties more prone to schizophrenia and learning disabilities? That depends on who you ask. 

But "Are lefties different?" might not even be the right question. Over the last few years, a number of studies have concluded that it’s not which hand is dominant that matters—it’s the degree of dominance. According to researchers, very few people are truly entirely left- or right-handed; it’s more of a spectrum. We use our left hands for some things and our right hands for other tasks. 

These experiments have found that people toward the middle of the spectrum are more flexible thinkers. They seem to be more empathetic and better able to view things from other people’s perspectives. When considering the risks and benefits of any given decision, inconsistent-handed people (as researchers call them) are more likely to focus on the risks, whereas people at the outer edges of the handedness spectrum pay more attention to potential benefits. They may even sleep differently. It seems we’ve been aiming our stereotypes a little too far to the left.

But who knows? This is ever-changing, constantly evolving science. If you’re a lefty who enjoys feeling superior, we’re not going to tell you to tone it down. For all we know, you could be right.

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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