Historical Signs & Brackets
Signs of the Medieval Period
Signs hung outside shops at this period were visual symbols of the trade carried out in the building. Most people could not read so the symbol was a useful clue of what was on sale.
The origin of the barber pole is associated with the service of bloodletting.
During medieval times, barbers also performed surgery on customers as well as tooth extractions. The original pole had a brass basin at the top (representing the vessel in which leeches were kept) and bottom (representing the basin which received the blood). The pole itself represents the staff that the patient gripped during the procedure to encourage blood flow.
The red and white stripes symbolize the bandages used during the procedure: red for the blood-stained and white for the clean bandages. Originally, these bandages were hung out on the pole to dry after washing. As the bandages blew in the wind, they would twist together to form the spiral pattern similar to the stripes in the modern day barber pole. The barber pole became emblematic of the barber/surgeon's profession. Later the cloths were replaced by a painted wooden pole of red and white stripes.
Symbol of Pawnbrokers
The pawnbroker's symbol shows three balls suspended from a bar.
The three ball symbol is attributed to the Medici Family of Florence, Italy, because of its symbolic meaning of Lombard, referring to the Italian province of Lombardy, where pawn shop banking originated under the name of Lombard banking.
It is now as well established as anything of the kind can be that the three golden balls, which have for so long been the trade sign of the pawnbroker, were originally the symbol which medieval Lombard merchants hung up in front of their houses, and not, as has often been suggested, the arms of the Medici family. It has, indeed, been conjectured that the golden balls were originally three flat yellow effigies of byzants, or gold coins, laid heraldically upon a sable field, but that they were presently converted into balls the better to attract attention.
Most European towns called the pawn shop the "Lombard". The House of Lombard was a banking family in medieval London. According to legend, a Medici employed by Charles the Great slew a giant using three bags of rocks. The three ball symbol became the family crest. Since the Medicis were so successful in the financial, banking, and money-lending industries, other families also adopted the symbol. Throughout the Middle Ages, coats of arms bore three balls, orbs, plates, discs, coins and more as symbols of monetary success. Pawnbrokers (and their detractors) joke that the three balls mean "Two to one, you won't get your stuff back".