Blue for Boys, Pink for Girls? (Paoletti in Search Context)

I’ve been reading and enjoying Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. In the book, University of Maryland American Studies Associate Professor Jo B. Paoletti uses catalogs, sewing patterns, historical portraits, newspaper advertisements and similar media to document the emergence of pink as a color for girls’ clothing and blue as a color for boys’ clothing. Paoletti traces color preferences to changes in textile and cleansing technology, connection of local media outlets into national media networks, feedback between consumers and marketers, social mobility, changes in psychological theories of development and the reaction of new generations against the generations before.

Paoletti not only makes a case that the emergence of pink for girls and blue for boys in clothing is relatively new, but more strongly asserts that pink was often seen as a boy’s color and blue as a girl’s color in many areas of the United States early in the 20th Century. Paoletti’s “favorite primary source” for this claim in the book comes from a 1918 issue of the Chicago clothing trade magazine The Infants’ Department:

“Pink or Blue? Which is intended for boys and which for girls? This question comes from one of our readers this month, and the discussion may be of interest to others. There has been a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. 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. In later years the shade of pink has been much improved. Perhaps if we had the delicate flesh tints when baby layettes were first sold, the rule might have been reversed.

“The nursery rhyme of ‘Little Boy Blue’ is responsible for the thought that blue is for boys. Stationers, too, reverse the colors, but as they sell only announcement cards and baby books, they can not be considered authorities.

“If a customer is too fussy on this subject, suggest that she blend the two colors, an effective and pretty custom which originated on the other side, and which after all is the only way of getting the laugh on the stork.”

Paoletti finds additional text sources that seem to display an inconsistent set of color choices around the turn of the century: for instance, Paoletti pairs a pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys quote of the novel Little Women with a blue-for-girls and pink-for-boys recommendation by the 1890 Ladies Home Journal (Paoletti, p. 87).

In a July 2012 letter to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Assistant Professor of Psychology Marco Del Guidice counters Paoletti’s historical claim by using a search of the millions of books scanned in by Google for the phrases like “blue for boys,” “pink for girls,” “blue for girls” and “pink for boys.” You can perform just such a search for yourself right here, showing these results:

Pink for Girls, Blue for Boys, Blue for Girls, Pink for Boys Google Ngrams Book Search from 1820-2008

Del Guidice interprets these results as a systematic refutation of Paoletti’s “anecdotal” claims, even going so far as to term them “A Scientific Urban Legend”:

“Gender-coded references to pink and blue begin to appear around 1890 and intensify after World War II. However, all the gender-color associations found in the database conform to the familiar convention of pink for girls and blue for boys. An equivalent search of the British English corpus revealed exactly the same pattern. In other words, this massive book database contains no trace of the alleged pink-blue reversal; on the contrary, the results show remarkable consistency in gender coding over time in both the U.S. and the UK, starting from the late nineteenth century and continuing throughout the twentieth century.

“If one considers the totality of the evidence, the most parsimonious conclusion is that the Pink-Blue Reversal (PBR) as usually described never happened, and that the magainze excerpts cited in support of the PBR are anomalous or unrepresentative of the broader cultural context. Not only do the present findings run counter to the standard PBR account; they also fail to support Paoletti’s claim that pink and blue were inconsistently associated with gender until the 1950s.

The replication of Del Guidice’s Google Books search shown above show that his contention may be slightly too strong:.the phrase “blue for girls” is not absent entirely from the corpus of books Google has scanned, but rather is present at a low level throughout the 20th Century. Indeed, around the turn of the 20th Century, there appears to have been a period in which the appearance of “blue for girls” rivaled the appearance of “pink for girls” in books. One such source is a 1920 skit in the Chicago-published journal “Public Libraries,” performed by the staff of the Pomona Public Library for the Pomona, California City Council and library board of trustees to illustrate librarians’ daily activities:

Pink for Boys and Blue for Girls in 1920 Library Skit

“Dear me! Someone wants to know what colored ribbons to use for a boy baby and what for a girl. I can never remember! But thank goodness it’s catalogued here somewhere … (Paws through catalog drawer) Oh, here it is: “Infants: Colors for boy and girl” (Returns to phone) Hello, Pink is used for boys and blue for girls … Yes … That’s right. You’re welcome.”

But while Paoletti’s claim that blue for boys and pink for girls is not dominant before World War II appears to be supported, and while some mention of “blue for girls” appears in early scanned books, Del Guidice’s more general point appears to be borne out: there is no point at which pink for girls and blue for boys is swamped by contrary mentions.

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