Fighting For the Pole

In the era of franchised unisex stylers like Supercuts and Great Clips  it’s hard to imagine that barbers and cosmetologists are fighting over who can have a barber pole advertising their shops.  The latest legislative fights over the swirling red, white, and blue poles are in the states of Minnesota, Michigan and North Carolina.

“The barber pole is the oldest sign in town besides the cross. It should not be displayed where there is not a licensed barber,” long time Arkansas barber Charles Kirkpatrick, told the Associated Press.  Kirkpatrick keeps tabs on such legislation for the National Association of Barber Boards of America.

Notice Kirkpatrick said “licensed” barber.  The implication is that the licensing signals to the customer that a certain level of quality can be assured by the government’s stamp of approval.  Yet according to Morris Kleiner, “Occupational licensing has either no impact or even a negative impact on the quality of services provided to customers by members of the regulated occupation. Additionally, as occupations become licensed, members of regulated occupations see their earnings go up.”

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

While both barbers and cosmetologists deal in hair, barbers can offer shaves with a straight-edge razor and are supposedly specially trained to use shears and clippers.  Cosmetologists can provide manicures, pedicures and other spa services in addition to cutting and styling hair.

Barber pole symbolism dates back to a time when barbers pulled teeth and performed bloodletting.  “Barbers often twisted rinsed yet still blood-stained cloths around those same poles before hanging them out to dry,” writes the AP.

The AP reports that 10 states have rules allowing only licensed barbers to have barber poles.  One of those states is Nevada, which I learned first hand, as I had my late father’s small electronic barber pole hung and operating in my living room in Las Vegas.  One of my guests for a party one evening was a state senator who informed me that I was violating Nevada law.

State inspectors in Ohio find about a dozen violators of that state’s law each year.  The fine is $500 but most times state inspectors just demand that the pole be removed.

Minnesota barber Joel Martin believes the barber pole issue is about truth in advertising.  “A lot of men will not come into a shop that just says salon because they are looking for someone who has barbering experience,” Martin told the AP. “It tells people driving by that that’s what they can get here.”

In his studies on licensing, Professor Kleiner found, “individuals who have a license perceive themselves as being more competent.”   But research shows that licensees are not necessarily more skilled.

Barbers for years have tried to restrict competition by erecting licensing and advertising barriers.   The result is as Michale Rozeff  predicts in his article “Who Captures Whom? The Case of Regulation.”  Substitute industries arise to satisfy demand and earn a profit.  Millions of men now get their hair cut at chain shops with no licensed barbers cutting hair.  It’s cheaper, more convenient and the haircuts are just as good.