A Little More Sweeney Todd Than You Might Think: Preserving a Vintage Barber Pole

In preparation for a new exhibition entitled By All Accounts: The Story of Elmhurst, The Conservation Center recently joined forces with the Elmhurst Historical Museum to help get a few artifacts in its archives in tip-top shape. This innovative exhibit contains numerous photographs, artifacts, art objects, and informational materials from the last 165 years showcasing the growth and development of Elmhurst, a Chicago suburb. After an on-site assessment at the museum, The Center identified a few objects that needed our conservation team's attention--notably a vintage barber pole, dated from the turn of the 19th century. Presumed to be from a local barbershop, the all-wood, painted barber pole was found in a local resident's barn, and came to the museum by way of a donation in 1983.

The origin of the classic red, white, and blue barber pole is a little more Sweeney Todd than one might otherwise think. This tradition arose during a time when a barber’s craft comprised much more than a simple haircut and a close shave. Until the 19th century, in Europe and America, a barber and a surgeon were one in the same profession—they were responsible for bloodlettings, leeching, basic surgeries, and even some dentistry. Though seemingly savage by today’s standards, these methods were viewed as essential primary care for a wide variety of illnesses and ailments. The barbershop was where the common people could seek medical treatment for boils, fractures, kidney stones, and even epilepsy.

In a time when the majority of the population was illiterate, the practice of denoting one’s place of operation, marked with a universally acknowledged sign or symbol, started as early as the Middle Ages. It was out of these practices that the barber pole came to be part of the public discourse. Bloodletting and leeching were two of the most utilized medical practices at the time, and contributed to the creation of the barber pole as we know it. As a way of advertising their services offered, barbers would often leave large metal basins in the window (used for collecting blood or containing leeches) and would hang used bandages out to dry in front of their store. It is in this nature that the barber pole evolved into what it is today. The pole’s white is a representation of the rod that patients would grip to increase circulation and blood flow during lettings; while the red encircling stripes represented the bloodied bandages used to clean up. The brass sphere at the top of the pole could be representative of the basin used to contain leeches, while the large bottom evokes the bowl used to collect blood. Up for debate, the blue helical spiral could represent veins, however, it is much more likely that it evolved from an 18th century nod to patriotism and the American Flag in the United States.

Despite their origins in European history, barber poles still retain an All-American, neighborly connotation, evoking a small town where your butcher, your banker, and your barber all know you by name. This piece of folk art has become integral to the museum’s story of Elmhurst, and it was essential that our conservators stabilize the piece in time for the exhibition’s opening day.

Upon the barber pole’s arrival to The Conservation Center’s studio, we noted the severity of damage the piece had sustained over the years. Most pressing and unbeknownst to the museum, the gold ball topper was entirely detached from the rest of the barber pole, and was solely resting on top. The wooden core of the pole had sustained major water damage, and had nearly rotted away, leaving the pole with little-to-no structural integrity and no place to reattach the gold ball. Originally, the piece had come in for a standard cleaning, but upon further examination, the topper was found to have been improperly treated, was propped at the incorrect height relative to the original pole, and exhibited evidence that it had sustained fire damage. Furthermore, the base had also been replaced sometime over the decades, and was no longer original.

The Center’s objects conservator, Andrew Rigsby, came up with a brilliant plan to reattach the topper without replacing any of the losses of the rotted wood.  After consolidating the core with conservation adhesives to retain as much original material as possible, Andrew hand-carved a tightfitting dowel, which joined the two pieces together. This provided a sound foundation to attach and support the ball to the main pole. After this strenuous work, the ball had to then be re-attached to the pole at its proper height. In order to align the topper with the angles and curves of the barber pole, Andrew devised a custom-made scaffolding system which held the topper in place while he continued to work on the piece, thus allowing him the freedom to reposition the topper at the exact height it needed to be, while also holding it in place as it dried.

After treating the instability of the structure, the surface still needed a little work.  The entire piece was cleaned and the cracks of the wood stabilized with a conservation-grade adhesive. All of the work done to the barber pole conforms to the standards of American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, and is completely reversible. No losses were filled in, thus the piece still retains the aura of historic wear and the era in which it was made, while still ensuring that it will still be around for generations to come.

By stabilizing the seriously damaged piece of folk art, The Center abated the possibility of future problems for the Elmhurst Historical Museum. The 200 year-old barber pole would be much worse for the wear if it had been moved or transported with the gold topper sitting on top. Luckily our art handlers noticed this and removed it. We were honored to be able to contribute to this new exhibition for the museum. “This was my first time working with The Conservation Center, and I was very pleased with the entire experience. There was great communication between the staff and myself, and that is important when a museum entrusts the care of its artifacts to another party,” said Nancy Wilson, Curator of Collections for the Elmhurst Historical Museum.

The barber pole now looks wonderful in the By All Accounts: The Story of Elmhurst exhibition, and the work The Conservation Center accomplished will ensure that all of their future guests will be able to admire this local piece of history.