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Barbers, beauticians get snippy over striped poles

By Brian Bakst

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 14 2012 1:25 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this March 5, 2010 file photo Howard Rettenmeier, who has cut hair for 55 years at the Uptown Barber Shop, stands by the barber pole at his Dyersville, Iowa, shop. The barber pole, one of the oldest signs that can be seen on storefronts across America, is an increasing source of friction between barbers and beauticians over which businesses get to display the iconic striped poles.

The Telegraph Herald, Dave Kettering) MAGS OUT, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Friendly arguments aren't hard to find in a barbershop, but try cutting in on a hallowed symbol — that red, white and blue pole — and it may be time to hide the scissors.

Steeped in history and symbolism, those iconic cylinders spinning on storefronts across America are an increasing source of friction between barbers and beauticians. Minnesota, Michigan and North Carolina are the latest fronts in a spreading legislative campaign to reserve the swirling poles for barbers. The proposals, which often include fines for offenders, are driving a new wedge in a trade where gender lines have long run deep.

"The barber pole is the oldest sign in town besides the cross. It should not be displayed where there is not a licensed barber," said Charles Kirkpatrick, of Arkansas, a barber since 1959 who keeps tabs on such legislation for the National Association of Barber Boards of America.

For many, the only real difference between a barber and hairstylist is the clientele they serve. But barbers say the tools of their trade and unique services they provide make them different, and that laws are needed to prevent beauty parlors, salons and other establishments from passing themselves off as barbershops, including chain shops that bear the barber name and logo but don't have a single licensed barber on site.

Cosmetologists argue that haircuts are haircuts, and say the protective efforts are silly and chauvinist.

"They're still trying to hang onto the vestiges that say they're special. I can cut a man's hair. Why shouldn't I be able to put a barber pole up?" said Jeanie Thompson, president of the Minnesota Salon and Spa Association and owner of a beauty parlor. "They're making a mountain out of a molehill."

As the story goes, the red on the pole signifies blood, the white stands for bandages and the blue represents veins. The symbolism dates from a time when barbers also performed surgical duties from teeth extraction to bloodletting. They had rods, or poles, for patrons to grip to make veins easier to tap. Barbers often twisted rinsed yet still blood-stained cloths around those same poles before hanging them out to dry.

As the role evolved, the painted striped poles — some spinning, some fixed — became as much of a barbershop hallmark as the ubiquitous jars of blue comb disinfectant and gel-heavy haircuts.

Barbers and cosmetologists both deal in hair, but there are distinctions in the crafts. A barber — a term derived from the Latin word for beard — is uniquely permitted to offer shaves with a straight-edge razor and specially trained to use shears and clippers. Cosmetologists also cut and style hair. But unlike barbers, they usually provide manicures, pedicures and an array of spa-type services as well.

Licensing requirements in the hair trade vary from state to state and by profession. In most cases, they depend on hundreds of hours of training and a yearly fee.

At least 10 states have rules or laws that reserve the pole for barbers, most recently passed in Nebraska and Nevada. Alabama considered going that route in 2010, but the bill stalled.

Ohio long ago outlawed the pole's use by anyone but barbers. State inspectors find about a dozen violations a year, from salons to dog grooming shops. Howard Warner, executive director of the Ohio State Barber Board, said regulators can impose a $500 fine, but usually just order the pole be taken down.

"We're not out to beat anyone up or take their money," Warner said. "Most of the time it's done innocently."

The Minnesota bill breezed through a House committee last month and is due for its initial Senate hearing on Wednesday. It hasn't yet set possible penalties for violators.

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