The History of Pink — A Changing Perception

The Assumption of Mary; photo by Alec Marchant via Wikimedia Commons

Few colors are glazed in as much cultural controversy as pink, and yet its distinction as an individual shade is relatively new. It first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 17th century, described as a pale red, and was more closely associated with men (and blue with women) until the mid-1900s. 

An 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department read, “The generally accepted rule is pink for boys, and blue for girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and strong color, is suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty (is) prettier for the girl.”

The cultural stitching of blue as a color appropriate for women was likely derived from 15th-century paintings of the Virgin Mary, often depicted in a swath of rich blue known as ultramarine, a luxurious and expensive pigment reserved for only the most deserving of subjects. 

The perception of pink and blue, according to Smithsonian magazine, shifted in the mid-1940s “as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers.” Even still, according to the article, gender-neutral clothing and infant accoutrements remained the norm until around the ’80s, when ultrasound imaging became more widely used in American maternity clinics.

Visiting team’s locker room at the University of Iowa; Photo by Alan Light

Annmarie Adams, an architectural historian, suggested to Fast Company that pink was stripped of its perceived strength during World War II, when people labeled as gay were forced by Nazi Germany to wear a pink triangle, branding them as subhuman, and therefore, making pink a feminine hue. Around the same period, many feminists were at war with pink as a symbol of the sexism against and sexualization of women.

Individual shades of pink have their own notable history, and there’s one in particular we found fascinating. In 1979, two commanding officers — Gene Baker and Ron Miller — at the U.S. Naval Correctional Center in Seattle painted one of their holding cells a ghastly shade of pale pink after professor Alexander G. Schauss announced his research “proving” pink had a way of making people less aggressive. 

According to Secret Lives of Color, penned by Kassia St. Clair, the color seemed to quiet the violence that often happened at the prison. The color was named Baker-Miller after the two officers, and the color became a staple shade in drunk tanks, detention centers, and the visitors’ locker rooms in college football stadiums. 

Baker-Miller is pretty rare today, and it’s still uncertain how effective it was as a mood stabilizer.  

is an assistant editor at 425 magazine. Email her.
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