15 Fascinating Explanations for How Things Got Their Colors

istock
istock

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.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

The 10 Best Holiday Gifts $25 and Under

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Whether you're shopping on a budget or looking for gifts for the person in your life who's halfway between acquaintance and friend, this list of great presents for small prices should do the trick. Fun and silly, thoughtful and serious, useful and frivolous, this group of gifts is filled with old favorites and new delights. Fair warning: You may end up buying two of whatever you pick.

1. Anker Power Bank; $22

Amazon

Need a little extra boost? Tired of looking down at the Low Power Mode warning? This incredibly light on-the-go charger is a tiny powerhouse that will keep your phone at 100 percent and keep you from scrambling to find a wall outlet at the airport. It also comes with its own travel pouch and an 18-month warranty, but the cable is sold separately. It's a solid one-for-me-one-for-them gift.

Buy it: Amazon

2. FYC Wool Socks; $13

Amazon

For the friend in your life with feet, consider these thick, stylish socks that evoke a vintage design while keeping toes toasty (and sweat-free). They're made of a blend of cotton, wool, and polyester, so you get the best of all worlds: comfortable, warm, and breathable. Plus, they're versatile enough to go with pajamas, your hiking gear, or Zoom-ready business casual.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Zulay Kitchen Stovetop Espresso Maker; $17

Amazon

This sturdy, classic brewer is perfect for the person in your life who is interested in upping their cup game. It's simple and sleek, but it also comes with a pressure valve (couldn't we all use one?) to boost caffeine extraction, and the design allows for espresso, crema, foam emulsions, and more. Best of all, clean up is easy, so you don't have to worry about grimy boiled bean build-up.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Meriwool Beanie; $21

Amazon

Need a great gift that everyone can appreciate? No sweat! Meriwool's wool beanie comes in nine different colors and will look great on anyone hoping for something soft to hug their cranium. Made with 100 percent all natural superfine 18.5-micron Merino wool, it's not a head-scratcher, and the material is naturally moisture-wicking.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Bob Ross Coloring Book; $7

Amazon

No one is going to judge you for using paintbrushes on this coloring book. Or crayons, markers, pencils, or your fingers. The beauty of this official coloring book celebrating the art of American icon Bob Ross is that it gives you a rough image to project your own designs on. It's far from paint-by-numbers, and it'll be a welcomed gift for anyone in your life who needs to destress with a little creativity.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Jim from The Office Funko; $9

Amazon

Six days since our last nonsense seems ambitious, but fans of the hit workplace comedy will appreciate having an adorable version of Jim Halpert to sardonically stare at them from behind their keyboard. Naturally, there's also figures of Michael, Pam, Dwight, and the whole Office gang in case you've got someone with a growing collection on your list. Plus, there's always the rabbit hole of Funkos that should satisfy fans of everything from Anime to Zombie flicks.

Buy it: Amazon

7. The Godfather Family Album; $25

Amazon

It's almost criminal that this book is so inexpensive. This 512-page hardcover gem showcases Steve Shapiro's iconic on-set photography of the immortalized mob film. Striking, unique images of Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, and the rest of the cast of The Godfather sit alongside the sharp film writing of historian Paul Duncan, making this a definitive tome that belongs on every fan's coffee table.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Star wars The Child Monopoly; $20

Amazon

There are hundreds of different versions of the classic game about buying rectangles and charging outrageous prices for landing on the wrong ones, but for those who are loving The Mandalorian, this version drops you right into the series' adventures. The only problem is that everyone will call dibs on the Hoverpram piece. This is the way.

Buy it: Amazon

9. British Chocolate Bar Selection; $20

Amazon

Give someone the ability to travel to Britain from the comfort of wherever they can unwrap a wrapper. Crunchie, Bounty, and Fry's Peppermint Cream are just a few of the offerings in this Global Treats pack that can remind someone of home or share a piece of the UK with your favorite anglophile. Don't worry—no fun size here. They're all full size and delicious.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Stanley travel mug; $25

Amazon

Stanley has over a hundred years of quality craftsmanship under its toolbelt. This sturdy, cup-holder-ready mug benefits from that experience and boasts double-wall vacuum insulation to keep piping coffee hot for seven hours and chilly lemonade cold for up to 10. Toss in some ice cubes, and whatever you're sipping stays cold for up to 30! It comes with a trigger action lid for one-handed, leak-proof use, making it perfect for the exercise bike or the office. Everyone could use another way of transporting their drink of choice, and this might just replace what they've already got.

Buy it: Amazon