Thursday, 17 April 2014

Pink for a girl?

In Burke in the Land of Silver, I wrote that Burke, on arriving in Buenos Aires, was struck by the fact that the buildings are mostly in shades of red, so that the predominant colour of the city was pink. He turned to his travelling companion, O'Gorman, and said, ‘I see your painters have a feminine touch.’

I put the line in as a mildly amusing introduction to O'Gorman's explanation that the houses are that colour because the plaster is mixed using blood from the cattle slaughtered in the city, giving some indication of the scale of the cattle industry there.

When Accent came to edit it, I got a polite note asking me to check if pink was a feminine colour in 1807. It's another example of the joys and frustration of writing historical novels. Colours seem a particular problem for me – see my post on the colour of Nelson's flag at the Nile.

It seemed unlikely that Google was going to help, so I went instead to a couple of online groups of historical authors. Within hours, I knew more about gender and colour than I could ever have imagined.

It turns out that the idea of pink for a girl and blue for a boy is a comparatively recent one. In 1918, the advice given to American parents was:
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
My wonderful historical writers chipped in with personal recollections of the same period:
I inherited a box of baby clothes that belonged to my dad and my uncle when my uncle went into a nursing home. They were identical --my uncle and my dad were only 11 months apart--but one set was pink and the other blue-green. They were pretty girly--especially a couple of baby bonnets with satin rosettes and a couple of Spanky MacFarland tams, complete with pompons in blue green and rose pink. I thought they were my aunts but my aunt was eight years younger and her baby clothes were in another box--more Shirley Temple.
I was flabbergasted when dad told me the pink clothes were his. He laughed and showed me baby pictures of him and Uncle George. The pictures were black and white but I recognized the clothes. I had always assumed that the babies in the picture were girls but no.
Part of the thinking that pink was a suitable colour for a boy seems to go back to the time when soldiers wore red coats. Boys would wear pink coats as a (literally) pale imitation of Redcoat uniforms. Back in the late 18th century, pink could be a dashing colour for a man – there's a nice example HERE. Back then, though, girls often wore pink as well.

Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence 1794. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

They would even use cosmetics to heighten the pinkness of their skin, as detailed in an 1807 advertisement courtesy of the Two Nerdy History Girls blog
A. PEARS, Perfumer, No.55, Wells-street, Oxford-street, having, after a variety of experiments, brought to perfection his beautiful ALMONA BLOOM or LIQUID VEGETABLE ROUGE, respectfully presents it to universal attention, as an indispensible Companion to the Toilet, and for the introduction of which he has been so happy to meet with the concurrence of every Admirer of the Female Complection.    This Composition is infinitely superior to all other preparations for admitting a free perspiration, by softening the Skin, preventing Eruptions, and firmly adheres without the least tint being removed so as stain a cambric handkerchief. It is of the consistency of Cream and of a most beautiful light red hue ; but to expaciate on the whole of its excellencies in this contracted space is impossible.
So was pink a feminine colour or not? The answer, it seems, is that at the beginning of the 19th century the question would have appeared quite ridiculous. The idea of associating particular colours with gender is, as far as I can see, a distinctly 20th century preoccupation.

So after a few hours, Burke's remark changed to 'I see your painters favour a roseate hue.'

Many thanks to the eagle-eyed editors at Accent Press and to all those who piled in with links and comments when I asked for help.

1 comment:

  1. It turns out the Smithsonian has just done an article on this on their web site. Check it out: