William Marvy Barber Poles

Featured Article, Made in America, Odd Jobs, Traditions
on January 16, 2013
Ken Klotzbach Barber poles descend from medieval times when barbers performed surgical procedures such as bloodletting.

In 1950, Bob Marvy helped his father flip the switch on the first electric barber pole manufactured by the William Marvy Co. in St. Paul, Minn., and proudly watched the red, white and blue stripes spiral upward.

More than 83,000 barber poles later, Marvy and his three sons keep the motor-driven trade symbols twirling as the last manufacturer of barber poles in North America.

“Dad’s greatest wish was to keep the barber pole symbol alive,” says Marvy, 64, about his late father, William, who built, peddled and popularized the rustproof aluminum, stainless steel and glass cylinder barber poles posted at barbershops across the nation.

William began working in the barber supply business at age 12, bottling lilac water and other aftershaves and hair tonics, and eventually hawking supplies to barbershops across Minnesota. When he opened his own company in 1936, he sold 125-pound, cast-iron barber poles.

“The dealer was expected to install them and Dad would carry them up a ladder and bolt them to the wall,” Marvy says. “He saw an opportunity to design a lightweight pole.”

Today, an updated version of William’s original electric model, featuring a stainless steel dome and bottom bowl, an inner striped paper cylinder and outer glass cylinder, and a reflective panel in back, remains the best-seller of the more than two-dozen models made by the company.

From the start, William numbered each pole and recorded its sale in a ledger, making it easier to find replacement parts when poles are damaged or need refurbishing. Pole No. 50,000, made during the company’s busiest year in 1967, hangs on the factory wall while No. 75,000, built in 1997, turns at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Though the number of barbershops declined with the introduction of electric razors in the 1930s and longer men’s hairstyles in the 1960s, William Marvy Co. continues production. The business employs 14 workers, including a third-generation of Marvys—Scott, 38; Dan, 36; and Brad, 32—who manufacture and sell about 500 barber poles each year.

In the Marvy factory, Scott Gohr, 55, begins assembling the poles by shaping flat sheets of thick paper, printed with wide, colored stripes, into cylinders on an antique mandrel. He fastens metal ends to the cylinders with a crimper.

At a nearby workbench, Chue Vang, 44, fits the paper cylinders into glass cylinders that have been glued and caulked into aluminum frameworks. Electric motors, which turn the paper cylinders, are wired into the bottom of the stainless steel bowls, and lights are fastened to the top to illuminate the turning cylinders. Some poles sport round glass globes, whereas others feature metal domes.

The poles sell for $450 to $1,500, depending on model and size, which ranges from 18 to 47 inches tall. The company also produces chemical disinfectant and containers used to sanitize hair combs, brushes, scissors and straight razors.

“It’s important to keep the tradition of the barber pole going,” says Scott, grandson of the company’s founder. “It’s a symbol of the trade and part of American history.”