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15 Fascinating Explanations for How Things Got Their Colors

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You know pencils are yellow, and nothing points to a classy entrance like a red carpet. But do you know how these items got their iconic colors? Here are their back stories.

1. Why do first place winners get blue ribbons?

Knights who were part of France's Order of the Holy Spirit, founded in 1587, wore a special cross on a blue ribbon, or le cordon bleu, around their necks. The French phrase came to be associated with honor, achievement, and a delicious chicken dish. And when passenger ocean liners started to race across the Atlantic in 1830, they did so for the Blue Riband, a coveted prize that didn't actually exist in physical form until 1935. (Once it did, the winners claimed a trophy and a blue pennant they could fly on their ships.) Since then, the pursuit of blue ribbons—by land, by sea, by classroom science fair—has become an American pastime.

2. Why are barbershop poles red and white?

In medieval times, the trusted neighborhood barber didn't just give men a trim and a shave. He also performed tooth extractions, bloodletting, and minor surgery. Thus, the white and red colors on the traditional barbershop pole are said to represent blood and bandages. The addition of blue to the mix on American barbers’ poles is probably an expression of patriotism.

3. Why are pencils yellow?

Pencils were either unpainted or painted a dark color until 1890, when the L. & C. Hardtmuth Company introduced the Koh-i-Noor luxury pencil, named after what was then the largest diamond in the world. The writing utensil's high-quality Chinese graphite was the real selling point, and the company painted the pencil yellow to connote royalty and heroism. The gimmick worked so well that competitors soon started making their own yellow pencils. Sharp thinking!

4. Why do referees wear black and white stripes?

In the early 20th century, refs wore white dress shirts, bow ties, and beret-like hats, which probably made heckling them a little too easy. When a ref named Lloyd Olds got mistaken for a football player and passed the ball in 1920, he decided it was time to change clothes. A year later, he showed up at a game wearing the black and white striped shirt we know—and sometimes mock—today. Fans hated the new look, at least until they realized it really did help distinguish the referee from the players.

5. Why do celebrities walk the red carpet?

Long before movie premieres and snarky fashion commentary, red rugs and carpets were rolled out to welcome royalty and sacred figures. The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus first mentioned the ritual in the play "Agamemnon," and President James Madison stepped off a riverboat and onto a red carpet in 1821. By 1902, the red carpet was a more inclusive symbol of hospitality for railroad passengers. It was re-associated with royalty—the Hollywood kind—when it debuted at an awards show in 1961.

6. Why are white flags waved to surrender?

The white flag goes as far back as China's Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 CE) and Ancient Rome's Second Battle of Cremona (69 CE). The color was convenient before it was symbolic—white fabric was abundant, easy to see outdoors, and couldn't be mistaken for the colorful banners armies carried when they were ready to fight.

7. Why are baby girls dressed in pink and baby boys dressed in blue?

Gendered baby clothes haven't always been the norm in the U.S. For centuries, baby girls and boys were dressed the same — in cloth diapers and white dresses that probably didn't stay white for long. When pink and blue baby clothes were introduced in the mid-19th century, there weren't strict rules for how to wear them. Some people thought blue clothing looked better on blue-eyed, blonde babies and pink on brown-eyed brunettes. Others suggested that boys looked better in pink, because it was a stronger color.

Clothing manufacturers in the 1940s ultimately decided which colors were for which gender. They started making more dresses in pink and tiny pants in blue. The trend died down in the '70s and came back with a frilly-or-football-printed vengeance during the '80s once ultrasounds allowed expectant parents to learn their children’s genders before the babies made delivery room debuts.

8. Why are fire hydrants lots of different colors?

Good eye! The association of red with fire hydrants goes back to the early fireplug, a well of water plugged with a piece of redwood. But there are plenty of hydrants out there that aren't red. That's because they’re color coded to give firefighters details about their water supply. For example, hydrants using public water systems are yellow with various colored tops and caps to indicate how many gallons per minute (GPM) of water they have available. The tops and caps of hydrants supplying below 500 GPM are red, 500-999 GPM are orange, 1000-1499 GPM are green, and 1500 GPM or more are blue. (Don't worry. There won't be a test.) Red hydrants use a private water system, the rare purple hydrant supplies non-potable water, and a black fire hydrant won't save anyone because it's inoperable.

9. Why are barns painted red?

In the 18th century, farmers were trying to break the mold ... literally. They covered their barns' wood with a mixture of linseed oil, milk, and lime that turned the wood burnt orange. When that still didn't stop mold, farmers added rust, or ferrous oxide, to the mix. It helped tremendously, while also turning the wood that lovely shade of red known as falu. Then when mass-produced paints were made available in the late 19th century, red just happened to be the least expensive color available. Now the color chosen out of practicality and frugality is a charming tradition.

10. Why do doctors wear white coats?

You know what they say—dress for success. In the 19th century, most physicians tended the sick while wearing street clothes. With quite a few quacks running around at the same time, this business casual approach didn’t feel very official. Doctors started wearing white lab coats in the early 1900s to give the profession an image makeover. The coats bolstered their reputations by connoting scientific authority and sterility. (Medical innovation and more thorough training eventually helped, too.) Ironically, some modern hospitals ban white coats, because they spread germs and cause anxiety in patients.

11. Why are scrubs usually blue or green?

First came street clothes, then came hospital whites. But by the middle of the 20th century, doctors and nurses were tired of having to throw out uniforms once they got the inevitable stains that come with practicing medicine. Hospitals switched to blue or green scrubs that were easier to clean. Another advantage of colored uniforms: they make looking at the inside of a human body easier on surgeons' eyes, since blue and green are opposite red on the color wheel.

12. Why are most fast food logos red or yellow?

It's no coincidence. According to color psychology, warm reds and yellows subconsciously stimulate the appetite and trigger excitement and positivity. Fast food places use these colors on everything from logos to trays to décor to entice customers to happily gulp down food without hanging out too long. Cool colors, on the other hand, tend to suppress the appetite and slow everything down. The color of food packaging also affects how much people eat. White plates, boxes, and wrappings are said to encourage mindless overeating, even when a person is already full.

13. Why are basketballs orange?

In 1957, regulation basketballs were either tan or, if both teams agreed to it, yellow. Butler University’s basketball coach felt an orange ball would be easier for both players and spectators to see, and the orange ball made a successful test run in the 1958 college championships in Louisville. Orange was added to the list of color options a year later and is now the standard.

14. Why are tennis balls yellow?

Same story, different sport. The governing bodies of tennis actually approve both white and yellow balls. Because it was easier to see on color TV, the fluorescent yellow ball quickly became the norm after it was introduced in 1972.

15. Why does a red traffic light mean stop and a green one mean go?

The traffic light color scheme goes back to England in 1841, when the Liverpool and Manchester Railway—the world's first twin-track inter-urban passenger railway—decided to step up its safety game with colored flags, semaphores, and lights. The scheme followed that of other industrial equipment at the time. Red was a sign of danger, while green meant proceed with caution.

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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