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.

15 Facts About the Bill of Rights

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December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, so let's celebrate by exploring the amendments that helped shape America.

1. IT OWES A LOT TO MAGNA CARTA.

Magna Carta
The seal of Magna Carta.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Some of the sentiments in our bill of rights are at least 800 years old. In 1215, King John of England had a serious uprising on his hands. For many years, discontentment festered among his barons, many of whom loathed the King and his sky-high taxes. On May 17, a rebellious faction led by Robert Fitzwalter captured London, forcing John to negotiate.

Their talks produced one of the most significant legal documents ever written. The King and his barons composed a 63-clause agreement which would—ostensibly—impose certain limits on royal rule. Among these laws, the best-known gave English noblemen the right to a fair trial. They called their groundbreaking peace treaty Magna Carta, or "The Great Charter."

The original version didn't last long, though. John persuaded Pope Innocent III to invalidate the document and, within three months, His Holiness did just that. The next year, King John's 9-year-old son, King Henry III, issued an abridged version of Magna Carta to appease the barons, and in 1225 enforced a new and revised Magna Carta. Today, citizens of the U.K. are protected by three of the 1225 version's clauses, such as the aforementioned right to a trial by jury.

Magna Carta's influence has also extended far beyond Britain. Across the Atlantic, its language flows through the U.S. Constitution. Over half of the articles in America's Bill of Rights are directly or indirectly descended from clauses in said charter. For instance, the Fifth Amendment guarantees that "private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation." Article 28 of Magna Carta makes a similar statement about the seizure of "corn or other goods."

2. ANOTHER BIG INFLUENCE WAS THE ENGLISH BILL OF RIGHTS.

An engraving showing the English Bill of Rights being presented to William and Mary (William III of England and Mary II of England), 1689.
An engraving showing the English Bill of Rights being presented to William and Mary (William III of England and Mary II of England), 1689.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Issued in 1689, this Parliamentary Act made several guarantees that were later echoed by the first 10 U.S. constitutional amendments. For instance, the English Bill of Rights forbids "cruel and unusual punishments" while ensuring the "right of the subjects to petition the king."

3. THE U.S. VERSION WAS CHAMPIONED BY AN OFT-IGNORED FOUNDING FATHER.

George Mason
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There's a decent chance that you've never heard of George Mason. By founding father standards, this Virginian has been largely overlooked. But if it weren't for Mason, the Constitution might have never been given its venerated Bill of Rights.

Back in 1776, Mason was part of a committee that drafted Virginia's Declaration of Rights. "[All] men," the finished product said, "are by nature free and independent, and have certain inherent rights … namely the enjoyment of life and liberty." Sound familiar? It should. As everybody knows, Thomas Jefferson would write another, more famous declaration that year. When he did so, he was heavily influenced by the document Mason spearheaded.

Fast-forward to 1787. With the Constitutional Convention wrapping up in Philadelphia, Mason argued that a bill of inalienable rights should be added. This idea was flatly rejected by the State Delegates. So, in protest, Mason refused to sign the completed Constitution.

4. MASON FOUND AN ALLY IN THE "GERRY" OF "GERRYMANDERING."

portrait of Elbridge Gerry
NYPL, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At the convention, the motion to include a bill of rights wasn't made by Mason, although he seconded it. Instead, credit belongs to one Elbridge Gerry, who had also withheld his signature from the Constitution. He'd go on to become a notorious figure during his tenure as the governor of Massachusetts. A staunch Democratic-Republican, Gerry was governor during the blatantly partisan re-drawing of the Bay State's congressional districts. These days, we call this unfair political maneuver "gerrymandering."

5. THOMAS JEFFERSON WAS A HUGE PROPONENT …

portrait of Thomas Jefferson
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The Sage of Monticello sided with Mason. Following the Constitution's approval, Jefferson offered a few comments to his friend James Madison (whom history has called its father). "I do not like … the omission of a bill of rights," he wrote. "Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth."

6. … AND SO WAS JOHN ADAMS.

John Adams
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Adams was away in Great Britain when the Constitution was being created. Upon reading its contents, he proclaimed that "A Declaration of Rights I Wish to see with all my heart, though I am sensible of the Difficulty in framing one, in which all the States can agree."

7. AT FIRST, JAMES MADISON THOUGHT THAT IT WOULD BE USELESS.

James Madison
National Archive/Newsmakers

From the onset, this future president admired the principle behind a bill of rights. Still, he initially saw no point in creating one. Madison explained his position to Jefferson in October 1788, writing, "My own opinion has always been in favor of a bill of rights … At the same time, I have never thought [its] omission a material defect." But Madison eventually changed his tune. After becoming a congressman in 1789, he formally introduced the amendments that would comprise the current bill of rights.

8. BEFORE HE COULD INTRODUCE THE BILL OF RIGHTS, MADISON HAD TO DEFEAT JAMES MONROE.

James Monroe
James Monroe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Madison won his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after running against the man who would become his Oval Office successor. Both candidates acted with civility: While on the campaign trail, they regularly dined together and even shared sleeping quarters.

9. CONGRESS PASSED 12 AMENDMENTS, BUT TWO WERE LATER EXCLUDED.

Declaration of Independence signatures
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Originally, Representative Madison presented 19 amendments. On August 24, 1789, the House green-lit 17 of them. That September, the Senate made some heavy edits, trimming these down to an even dozen, which the states then looked over. In the end, numbers three through 12 were approved and collectively became our Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.

10. AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT GOT ONE OF THOSE AXED AMENDMENTS RATIFIED IN 1992.

Bill of Rights
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Better late than never. The second proposed amendment would have restricted Congress' ability to give itself a pay raise or cut. No law that tweaked the salaries of its members would take effect until after the next Congress had begun. Sensible as this idea sounds, the amendment wasn't ratified by the required three-fourths majority of U.S. states. So, for 202 years, it was stuck in limbo.

Enter Gregory Watson. His rollercoaster-like journey with the dormant proposal began in 1982. Then a student at the University of Texas, Watson was researching a term paper when he discovered this Congressional Pay Amendment. As he dug deeper, the undergrad found that it was still “technically pending before state legislatures.”

So Watson mounted an aggressive letter-writing campaign. Thanks to his urging, state after state finally ratified the amendment until, at last, over 38 had done so. After a bit of legal wrangling with Congress, on May 20, 1992, the constitution was updated to include it as the 27th (and most recent) amendment. (Watson, by the way, got a C on that term paper.)

11. SOME OF THE ORIGINAL COPIES WERE PROBABLY DESTROYED.

Original Bill of Rights
National Archives and Records Administration, WIkimedia Commons // Public Domain

During his first term, President Washington and Congress had 14 official handwritten replicas of the Bill of Rights made. At present, two are conspicuously unaccounted for.

One copy was retained by the federal government while the rest were sent off to the 11 states as well as Rhode Island and North Carolina, which had yet to ratify. Subsequently, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Georgia all lost theirs somehow. It's believed that the Empire State's was burned in a 1911 fire while Georgia’s likely went up in smoke during the Civil War.

In 1945, a long-lost original copy—experts aren't sure which—was gifted to the Library of Congress. Forty-nine years earlier, the New York Public Library had obtained another. Because it's widely believed that this one originally belonged to Pennsylvania, the document is currently being shared between the Keystone State and the NYPL until 2020, when New York will have it for 60 percent of the time and Pennsylvania for the rest.

12. NORTH CAROLINA'S COPY MAY HAVE BEEN STOLEN BY A CIVIL WAR SOLDIER.

General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865.
General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During the spring of 1865, Raleigh was firmly under the control of pro-Union troops. According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney's office in that city, "Sometime during the occupation, a soldier in Gen. William Sherman's army allegedly took North Carolina's copy of the Bill of rights [from the state capitol] and carried it away."

Afterward, it changed hands several times and eventually came into antique dealer Wayne Pratt's possession. When the FBI learned of his plan to sell the priceless parchment, operatives seized it. In 2007, the copy went on a well-publicized tour of North Carolina before returning to Raleigh—hopefully for good.

13. THREE STATES DIDN'T RATIFY IT UNTIL 1939.

amendments
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To celebrate the Constitution's 150th anniversary, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia formally gave the Bill of Rights the approval they'd withheld for well over a century.

14. THE BILL OF RIGHTS'S LEAST-LITIGATED AMENDMENT IS THE THIRD.

1st amendment at Independence Hall
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Thanks to this one, soldiers cannot legally be quartered inside your home without your consent. Since colonial Americans had lived in fear of being suddenly forced to house and feed British troops, the amendment was warmly received during the late 1700s. Today, however, it's rarely invoked. As of this writing, the Supreme Court has never based a decision upon it, so the American Bar Association once called this amendment the "runt piglet" of the constitution.

15. BILL OF RIGHTS DAY DATES BACK TO 1941.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
Central Press/Getty Images

On November 27, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged America's citizenry to celebrate December 15 as "Bill of Rights Day" in honor of its anniversary:

"I call upon the officials of the Government, and upon the people of the United States, to observe the day by displaying the flag of the United States on public buildings and by meeting together for such prayers and such ceremonies as may seem to them appropriate."

"It is especially fitting," he added, "that this anniversary should be remembered and observed by those institutions of a democratic people which owe their very existence to the guarantees of the Bill of Rights: the free schools, the free churches, the labor unions, the religious and educational and civic organizations of all kinds which, without the guarantee of the Bill of Rights, could never have existed; which sicken and disappear whenever, in any country, these rights are curtailed or withdrawn."

This story first ran in 2015.

8 Proper Facts About Jane Austen

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 200 years after her death, English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) continues to be celebrated for her sharp, biting prose on love's various entanglements. The strong female characters in books like Pride and Prejudice and Emma are as resonant today as when Austen first pressed her pen to paper. Though her bibliography totals just six novels (alongside some unfinished novels and other works) in all, Austen's books and her insightful quotes have been subject to hundreds of years of analysis and—for the Austen die-hards—numerous re-readings. For more on the writer's life, influences, and curious editing habits, take a look at our compendium of all things Austen below.

1. Austen's dad did everything he could to help her succeed.

Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775 to George Austen, a rector, and Cassandra Austen. The second-youngest in a brood of eight kids, Austen developed a love for the written word partially as a result of George's vast home library. When she wasn't reading, Austen was supplied with writing tools by George to nurture her interests along. Later, George would send his daughters to a boarding school to further their education. When Austen penned First Impressions, the book that would become Pride and Prejudice, in 1797, a proud George took it to a London publisher named Thomas Cadell for review. Cadell rejected it unread. It's not clear if Jane was even aware that George approached Cadell on her behalf.

Much later, in 1810, her brother Henry would act as her literary agent, selling Sense and Sensibility to London publisher Thomas Egerton.

2. Her works were published anonymously.

From Sense and Sensibility through Emma, Austen's published works never bore her name. Sense and Sensibility carried the byline of "A Lady," while later works like Pride and Prejudice featured credits like, "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility." It's likely Austen chose anonymity because female novelists were frowned upon for having selected what was viewed at the time as a potentially lewd, male-dominated pursuit. If she was interrupted while writing, she would quickly conceal her papers to avoid being asked about her work. Austen was first identified in print following her death in 1817; her brother Henry wrote a eulogy to accompany the posthumous publications of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

3. She backed out of a marriage of convenience.

Many of Austen's characters carry great agency in their lives, and Austen scholars enjoy pointing to the fact that Austen herself bucked convention when it came to affairs of the heart. The year after her family's move to the city of Bath in 1801, Austen received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a financially prosperous childhood friend. Austen accepted but quickly had second thoughts. Though his money would have provided for her and her family (and, at the time, she was 27 and unpublished, meaning she had no outside income and was fast approaching Georgian-era spinster status), Austen decided that a union motivated on her part by economics wasn't worthwhile. She turned the proposal down the following day and later cautioned her niece about marrying for any reason other than love. "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection," she wrote.

4. She took a decade off.

Because so little of Austen's writing outside of her novels survives—her sister, Cassandra, purportedly destroyed much of her correspondence in an effort to keep some of Austen's scathing opinions away from polite society—it can be hard to assign motivations or emotions to some of her major milestones in life. But one thing appears clear: When her family moved to Bath and subsequently kept relocating following her father's death in 1805, Austen's writing habits were severely disrupted. Once prolific—she completed three of her novels by 1801—a lack of a routine kept her from producing work for roughly 10 years. It wasn't until she felt her home life was stable after moving into property owned by her brother, Edward, that Austen resumed her career.

5. She used straight pins to edit her manuscripts.

Austen had none of the advancements that would go on to make a writer's life easier, like typewriters, computers, or Starbucks. In at least one case, her manuscript edits were accomplished using the time-consuming and prickly method of straight pins. For an unfinished novel titled The Watsons, Austen took the pins and used them to fasten revisions to the pages of areas that were in need of correction or rewrites. The practice dates back to the 17th century.

6. She was an accomplished home brewer.

In Austen's time, beer was the drink of choice, and like the rest of her family, Austen could brew her own beer. Her specialty was spruce beer, which was made with molasses for a slightly sweeter taste.

Austen was also a fan of making mead—she once lamented to her sister, "there is no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out. I cannot comprehend how the fourteen gallons could last so long."

7. Some believe Austen's death was a result of being poisoned.

Austen lived to see only four of her six novels published. She died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41 following complaints of symptoms that medical historians have long felt pointed to Addison's disease or Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 2017, the British Library floated a different theory—that Austen was poisoned by arsenic in her drinking water due to a polluted supply or possibly accidental ingestion due to mismanaged medication. The Library put forth the idea based on Austen's notoriously poor eyesight (which they say may have been the result of cataracts) as well as her written complaint of skin discoloration. Both can be indicative of arsenic exposure. Critics of the theory say the evidence is scant and that there is equal reason to believe a disease was the cause of her death.

8. She's been cited in at least 27 written court decisions.

As Matthew Birkhold of Electric Lit points out, judges seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with the works of Austen. Birkhold found 27 instances of a judge's written ruling invoking the name or words of the author, joining a rather exclusive club of female writers who tend to pop up in judicial decisions. (Harper Lee and Mary Shelley round out the top three.) According to Birkhold, jurists often use Austen as a kind of shorthand to explain matters involving relationships or class distinctions. Half of the decisions used the opening line from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." The sentence is often rewritten to reflect the specifics of a case: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a recently widowed woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an estate planner," as one 2008 tax court case put it.

Others invoke characters like Fitzwilliam Darcy to compare or contrast the litigant's romantic situation. In most cases, the intent is clear, with authors realizing that their readers consider Austen's name synonymous with literary—and hopefully judicial—wisdom.

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