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What is the origin/history of Red and Blue as juxtaposed colors?
November 8, 2007 10:35 AM   Subscribe

What is the origin/history of Red and Blue as juxtaposed colors to denote entities in conflict?

From battles to politics, from video games and normal ones to sports (Olympic boxing, at least) and allusion to itself, red and blue are the standard for colors of conflict.

Of all the fucked up colors in this world, why'd it have to be these two?

They're not even complements.
posted by pokermonk to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Some people can't see green?
posted by notsnot at 10:41 AM on November 8, 2007


They're primary colors.

But I'm guessing that blue came into use much more recently, since the dyes needed to make the color blue were a lot harder to develop than those for red.
posted by The World Famous at 10:51 AM on November 8, 2007


If you look at common color connotations throughout time and nations, red is almost universally seen as danger/death/passion/agression, commonly stemming from the color of blood. Blue on the other hand represents protection/safety/relaxation/calming, which is why many police agencies throughout the world use blue. So the meanings of the colors are pratically opposites, thus it would be logical to use them to represent opposing teams.
Of course, every culture has different color connotations, so this might not apply to each and every country/time period.
posted by Meagan at 10:51 AM on November 8, 2007


Isn't the fact that they're not complementary colours kind of the point? :)
posted by Solomon at 10:51 AM on November 8, 2007


Not a complete answer, but for many many examples see Colour Coded For Your Convenience over at TV tropes. (The page also makes the point that red vs. blue is one of many such standards, not "the" standard.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:56 AM on November 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


red is almost universally seen as danger/death/passion/agression

This is totally false. That's what it means in the contemporary West, but in China it represents happiness/good luck, and in medieval Europe brides wore red wedding gowns. Other examples abound.

The red/blue distinction goes back at least to ancient Rome, where the chariot races were divided between Red, Blue, Green, and White factions.
posted by nasreddin at 10:56 AM on November 8, 2007


I think it all stems from hot and cold.

I imagine video games (and I'm really only familiar with Sauerbraten, maybe other games reverse it) make enemies red to imply danger and aggression and teammates blue to indicate safety. Red also blends less with most surroundings.
posted by Plug Dub In at 11:00 AM on November 8, 2007


Hornets objected to them using Yellow and Black?

Honestly, I think it is a case of primary colors and convenience.
posted by misha at 11:02 AM on November 8, 2007


Its modern iconographic use might be traced back to this, although I wouldn't be surprised by older European heraldic or classical origins in addition.
posted by dyoneo at 11:03 AM on November 8, 2007


It took a while to develop dyes in a variety of colours and red and blue were some of the earliest dyes discovered. It simply wasn't possible to be mauve versus lilac until relatively revently.
posted by GuyZero at 11:10 AM on November 8, 2007


I think of black and white as more popular colors of conflict than red and blue (like in Westerns where the good guy has the white hat and the baddies wear black).
posted by srah at 11:14 AM on November 8, 2007


Just my uninformed 2 cents, but I always thought that in the western world, it stemmed from the warring of the English and the French throughout history. The English have been using the St. George cross (red) since at least the middle ages, and the French have been using the fleur de lis on the blue background for at least as long.

Do red and blue carry the same connotations of conflict in non-western cultures?
posted by LN at 11:28 AM on November 8, 2007


The US military has always used red and blue, with blue designating "friendlies". Interestingly enough, during the Cold War the Soviets also used red and blue, and blue designated "hostiles".

The reason the military uses those colors is that they're distinguishable by people who are red-green color blind. More than 10% of adult males in the US suffer from that kind of color blindness, so it makes a difference.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:33 AM on November 8, 2007


The US military's usage is almost certainly an artifact of the German use of it. Whether that's descended from something even older is another matter.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:34 AM on November 8, 2007


Water and Sky vs. Blood and Fire. Must be an ancient, ancient origin. I know the Mayans used these colors, but I'm no anthropologist, but probably they were symbolic well before their era.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:37 AM on November 8, 2007


Blood is red in arteries, blue in veins. Rich in oxygen, poor in oxygen. Alive, dead. Warm, cool.

I can't find any online references, nor do I remember where I heard this -- probably in one of the linguistics classes I took in college -- but I've been told that color words didn't all come about at once (just like numbering systems, they developed gradually). Red was apparently one of the earliest colors to be named; either something was red, or it wasn't. I'd expect that blue would be too.

I've also heard that in Old Russian (think Old English, but in Russia), the word for "red" and the word for "beautiful" were once the same word -- I think it was something like "krasny". Can anyone verify this? I think my Russian teacher was interested in older forms of her language.
posted by amtho at 12:02 PM on November 8, 2007


primary colors

The simple challenge to this idea is, "Why not yellow?"

black and white

I agree, but I'll technically stand by my emphasis on "the".

hot and cold

I wonder about this, but the association of red and blue with hot and cold -I think- is more cultural than physical... Orange and blue would make more sense from the natural world - and even then, it's a little shady. (they're also the central colors in the warm and cool areas of the color wheel)

red and blue were some of the earliest dyes

I was under the impression that purple is an older textile dye (part of why it designated royalty) and orange an older "surface" dye. If I'm wrong or you have any details, I'd love to know.
posted by pokermonk at 12:05 PM on November 8, 2007


I'd expect that blue would be too.

I've also heard that in Old Russian (think Old English, but in Russia), the word for "red" and the word for "beautiful" were once the same word


Yep, "Red Square" is not named Red Square 'cause it's red--it's because it's "krasnaya," or beautiful.

But in Russian, there is no word for "blue"--there's "goluboy," light blue, and "siniy," dark blue. So the example sorta breaks down.
posted by nasreddin at 12:10 PM on November 8, 2007


I have to agree with LN, to me it seems far more likely to be a holdover from British-French wars than any of the other answers I've seen. But while it is fun to speculate I would love to see some evidence brought forward.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:12 PM on November 8, 2007


Seems to me that 1, they aren't the only colors used, and 2, they're a pretty obvious set to use, so it's not surprising they're commonly the choice.

I mean, black vs white is pretty common (chess, eg) or black vs red (checkers) or there was blue vs grey in our civil war... There have been all sorts of different color codes, really. But red and blue are both primary colors, and both strong, bright colors (yellow is hard to see against sky or white walls, not to mention it would look silly; green isn't primary and gets lost in the trees, literally - of course both of these are sort of used in modern camouflage, forest or desert...). I dunno - what else would you choose?

Basically I think you're choosing all the cases that use red vs blue and then asking why there are so many of them when it really just comes down to strong straightforward colors that seem to be fair enough in that neither is obviously the "bad" guy (red could be warm, passionate, powerful or angry; blue could be peaceful, calm, strong, or menacing) and they seem almost reasonably matched.

(Though honestly red kind of has an advantage, but it's either that or match it against black, and then it seems like a much more high stakes fight.. It feels like red can be played down to be just another color like blue, or played up to be hard-core, an absolute, like black...)
posted by mdn at 12:13 PM on November 8, 2007


I'd agree with nasredden that the earliest reference I can think of goes back to chariot racing.
Incidentally, Robert Graves goes into extensive detail about chariot racing and the rivalries between the red and blue factions in his book, Count Belasarius. If you've only read the I, Claudius series, I highly recommend it.
posted by Eddie Mars at 12:30 PM on November 8, 2007


I was under the impression that purple is an older textile dye (part of why it designated royalty) and orange an older "surface" dye. If I'm wrong or you have any details, I'd love to know.

Purple comes from the murex which is indeed an old dye but is expensive, which is why it was traditionally reserved for royalty.

The book I read on the history of colours was Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay. She goes through how many different dyes were made historically. I don't remember all the details, but red and blue were some of the earliest fixable dyes. Black dye was actually really hard as it tended to either grey or blue as it faded on washing - the fashion for Puritans to dress in black was actually rather novel as a decent black dye didn't come along until a few hundred years ago. White was easier to do but of course no army would march in white for very long before they were marching in dirty grey.

Blue was traditionally derived from indigo or woad. Red was from sources like cochineal or brazilin (both new world dyes) or kermes or madder (old world dyes from way back). (yes, ok, I just looked most of that up on wikipedia). Look under the "traditional dyes" reference off the Wikipedia dyeing page. There are historical yellow dyes, but these would not have been as vibrant as red or blue and probably either dirtied quickly or faded after washing.
posted by GuyZero at 12:35 PM on November 8, 2007


One minor nit - the brazilin dye came not only from Brazil after the 1500's but also from a different tree in Sri Lanka and apparently was imported to Europe from there as fast back as the Middle Ages. So it's also sort of an old world dye. Like spices, many of these dyes were used quite far back in European history but were imported from points east.
posted by GuyZero at 12:39 PM on November 8, 2007


Oh and as for orange being an older surface dye, maybe, but I don't think anybody is going to bother dying military garments in something that's going to wash out. The red and blue dyes I mentioned were all fixed so they didn't wash out, in so far as anybody washed anything very often way back when.
posted by GuyZero at 12:42 PM on November 8, 2007


Until recent years I hadn't seen the red-blue political code that the US is now stuck with. When did it start?

How did the Republicans happen to appropriate the "alarming" red color, which should properly belong to those dangerous communistic leftists, the Democrats?
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:47 PM on November 8, 2007


Oh and to completely beat a dead horse, after more wikipedia browsing, there's a Polish cochineal red dye which dates back to "the middle ages" which could be as far as the 5th century. Who knew? Anyway, to sum up, red and blue are among the earliest known dyes and were probably cheaper than purple dye.
posted by GuyZero at 12:53 PM on November 8, 2007


Until recent years I hadn't seen the red-blue political code that the US is now stuck with. When did it start?

2000, if Wikipedia is to be believed.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:59 PM on November 8, 2007


amtho: Blood is red in arteries, blue in veins.

Surely you jest.
posted by cmiller at 1:01 PM on November 8, 2007


JimN2TAW: I understand the Democrats didn't want to be red precisely because of the Communist/radical associations (and, I suppose, residual anti-Communist hysteria).
posted by pompomtom at 1:01 PM on November 8, 2007


If I had to guess, I'd say the English/French thing is the most likely. Red and blue are also colours that aren't dominant in areas where most Westerners live (versus green or white) and provide a good degree of contrast.

How did the Republicans happen to appropriate the "alarming" red color, which should properly belong to those dangerous communistic leftists, the Democrats?

This is dangerously close to tangential, but in Canada, the Conservatives are emblematically blue and the Liberals are emblematically red.
posted by Nelsormensch at 1:19 PM on November 8, 2007


Blue and red are probably used in the United States because they're both in the American flag.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:55 PM on November 8, 2007


the napoleonic wars were fought between the british (red uniforms) and the french (blue uniforms). its the first thing that sprung to mind with me - there was probably conflicts before then with uniform, but it was a relatively new system around that time.
posted by dnc at 2:32 PM on November 8, 2007


Thanks, GuyZero, that info is really helpful in figuring this out.

I don't know if it alters your explanation, but a bit of clarification... My particular interest is not in the military textile use but in the paper representation.

For instance: As has been pointed out, in the American Civil War, the uniforms were largely blue and grey. However, the paper representation (as a standard) is red and blue even in this case. (Here's one of Gettysburg from 1863.)

That the two sides are represented by colors which do not necessarily correspond with their army colors is part of why the question interests me so much.
posted by pokermonk at 2:33 PM on November 8, 2007


pokermonk, I really do suspect that this wacky Teutonic version of Risk is responsible, at least in part, for the standardization of red and blue as the colors generically indicating opposing military forces. The game itself (or variants of it) seems to have been used for military training by a large number of armies well into the twentieth century, and you can see how those color conventions might linger in contemporary maps representing merely political factions.

You can also see how these colors would make their way into board games and even video games. Kriegsspiel wasn't only a 19th century Risk - with all the dice-rolling and scratch paper and "an umpire who would determine results based on the situation and his own combat experience" it was a Victorian D&D.

Still, I have no clue why the designer chose red and blue to begin with.
posted by dyoneo at 3:20 PM on November 8, 2007


My first thought was also the red and blue of the Napoleonic wars, but the dyes explanation also makes sense.

For a similar use in politics, in Washington D.C. people often talk about "red team" "blue team" in distinguishing how government officials generally feel about the China (red) vs. Taiwan (blue) issue. That's been common since before 2000. Of course, the red=communist probably played a role there.
posted by gemmy at 3:50 PM on November 8, 2007


In the book of Esther (the greek version - with additions - available in most apocryphas) Mordecai and Haman are represented by blue and red dragons in Mordecai's dream. The authorship probably dates to approx. the 4th century bce.
posted by janelikes at 4:25 PM on November 8, 2007


Use of blue and red for political charts in American politics goes back a lot further than 2000. Up until recently, however, there was a consensus in the media to swap the colors every four years. However, for a number of reasons we're probably now stuck with Democrats=blue Republicans=red, probably because of the "Demos = commies" association no one wants to be responsible for implying.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:08 PM on November 8, 2007


My particular interest is not in the military textile use but in the paper representation.

Textile dyeing far pre-dates the use of the printing press. Flags, standards, pennants and uniforms would have been originally made of cloth, dyed and sewn together.

England and France were red and blue and after that hundred years war, it probably got pretty ingrained in everyone's mind. A hundred years is a pretty long friggin' war.
posted by GuyZero at 8:01 AM on November 9, 2007


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