Around the Nation
3:00 pm
Thu March 15, 2012

Battle Over Barber Poles Spins In Minnesota

What's red, white and blue, and has spun its way into controversy? It's the barber pole.

The pole sometimes rotates outside the shops of cosmetologists or hair stylists who don't employ barbers. That's made some barbers across the country unhappy.

Minnesota is the latest state to explore making it illegal to display a barber pole, unless you are a licensed barber.

Ken Kirkpatrick, who is helping lead the charge in the state, couldn't be in a better spot to promote his cause. He cuts the hair of Minnesota lawmakers in the Capitol Barber Shop in the Capitol building in St. Paul.

Kirkpatrick has been a barber for around 40 years.

"The barber pole has been a symbol for the barbers for many years," he tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.

Each part of the barber pole represents something about the original physician-barbers. Kirkpatrick says the white is for bandages, the blue is for veins and the end cap on today's pole represents the vessels used to catch the blood. When physicians stopped offering haircuts and shaves, the barbers kept the pole.

"The barbering practice has been around for 6,000 years," he says. "And I just think this is something that we need to keep in our profession."

He says it's misleading for shops without a barber to display one of the iconic poles. He compares it to branding around restaurants.

"You know, if you drive down the street and you want to get yourself a hamburger [and] you want McDonalds, you look for the golden arches," he says. "You don't go to Burger King if you're looking for a McDonalds."

Because of his shop's location, Kirkpatrick has become a sort of lobbyist for the cause when he cuts lawmakers' hair.

"It's just that I'm in the state office building where they do all of the legislation so I get asked a lot of questions about it," he says.

Kirkpatrick says he's optimistic the new law will get passed. It's been received well elsewhere; 10 states already have similar laws on the books.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

What is red, white and blue and has spun its way into controversy? Well, it's the symbol of the barber, profession of the barber pole. Sometimes, that pole rotates not outside a shop employing barbers but cosmetologist, by which we mean hairstylists, people who might also offer you a manicure, but couldn't give you, say, a shave.

This makes some barbers unhappy. Minnesota is the latest state to explore making it illegal to display a barber pole unless you are a licensed barber. And who knows better about barbering and legislation than the man who cuts the hair of Minnesota politicians? Joining us from the capitol barbershop in the state capitol building in St. Paul is Ken Kirkpatrick.

Welcome to the program, Ken.

KEN KIRKPATRICK: Hello.

SIEGEL: You've been a barber for about 40 years and, in addition to that, you're also lobbying for this legislation, I gather.

KIRKPATRICK: That is correct.

SIEGEL: Why?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I feel it's very important that we get this bill through. The barber pole has been a symbol for the barbers for many years. The barbering practice has been around for 6,000 years and I just think that this is something that we need to keep in our profession. It is called the barber pole.

SIEGEL: Well, is there actually a problem of non-barbers using the barber pole?

KIRKPATRICK: I don't think it's a problem with the cosmetologists solely. I don't think they really care, but I do believe that the chain operations that are coming into the different states, investors, they're not in the profession. They're just investing in these shops and so they're trying to run them as a barber shop. They're putting up barber poles and doing all they can to make it look like a barber shop, but there's no licensed barbers in these shops.

SIEGEL: Now, that barber pole that's at issue here is one of the most recognizable symbols of a trade that there is. I want you to tell us the origin of the barber pole.

KIRKPATRICK: The red stands for the blood. The white stands for the bandages and the blue stands for the veins. The bottom of the end cap today represents the vessels to catch the blood, so it was established back during the days of the barber physicians. And, after they split, the barbers kept the barber pole, where the physicians and the dentists got their own insignia.

SIEGEL: Time was, when the barber was the neighborhood surgeon, dentist, you name it.

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, that's correct.

SIEGEL: And do you think it matters to your customers? Do you think it's important to them?

KIRKPATRICK: I think it's like - you know, if you drive down the street and you want to get yourself a hamburger, you want a McDonald's, you look for the golden arches. You don't go to Burger King if you're looking for a McDonald's. And I think, with the barber pole, if somebody's looking for a barber and they see the barber pole, they go in there thinking they've got a barber and, a lot of times, they don't.

SIEGEL: Well, tell me about the other part of your working life as a lobbyist for the barbers.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I don't really lobby. It's just that I'm in the state office building where they do all of the legislation, so I get asked a lot of questions about it.

SIEGEL: And have you found legislators to be at all receptive to this argument?

KIRKPATRICK: Yes. I think that most people accept it. I think they look at it and say, well, it is the barber pole, so 10 states have already passed it and we have two states working on it now, Minnesota and Michigan. And I'm hoping that it goes through here, so our work isn't in vain, but if not, we'll try again.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Kirkpatrick, thanks for talking with us. And how much is a haircut at your barber shop?

KIRKPATRICK: My shop is $18.

SIEGEL: Eighteen dollars. Well, thanks so much for talking with us.

KIRKPATRICK: OK. Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: Ken Kirkpatrick is a barber at the capital barbershop in St. Paul, Minnesota. His shop is inside the state capitol building. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related Program