Blue is for boys and pink is for girls, we’re told. But do these gender norms reflect some inherent biological difference between the sexes, or are they culturally constructed? It depends on whom you ask.
Decades of research by University of Maryland historian Jo Paoletti suggests that up until the 1950s, chaos reigned when it came to the colors of baby paraphernalia. “There was no gender-color symbolism that held true everywhere,” Paoletti told Life’s Little Mysteries. Because the pink-for-a-girl, blue-for-a-boy social norms only set in during the 20th century in the United States, they cannot possibly stem from any evolved differences between boys’ and girls’ favorite colors,
Baby books, new baby announcements and cards, gift lists and newspaper articles from the early 1900s indicate that pink was just as likely to be associated with boy babies as with girl babies. For example, the June 1918 issue of the Infant’s Department, a trade magazine for baby clothes manufacturers, said: “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.”
“There was a 1927 chart in Time Magazine where department stores in various cities were contacted and asked what colors they used for boys and girls. And it was all over the map,” Paoletti said. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the modern convention (pink for girls, blue for boys) started to dominate, and even so, it didn’t “gel” until the 1980s, she said.
As for why today’s strict color-gender norms set in at all, Philip Cohen, a sociologist also at the University of Maryland, thinks they are, essentially, the outcome of a marketing ploy.
“This happened during a time when mass marketing was appearing,” Cohen told Life’s Little Mysteries. “Being ‘gender normal’ is very important to us, and as a marketing technique, if retailers can convince you that being gender normal means you need to buy a certain product — cosmetics, plastic surgery, blue or pink clothing, etc. — it just makes sense from a production or mass marketing perspective,” Cohen wrote in an email.
However, a new letter published July 21 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior questions this widely accepted pink-for-girls, blue-for-boys origin story. Marco Del Guidice, a sociologist at the University of Turin in Italy, says a simple search of all the books published in the United States between 1880 and 1980, which have been scanned by Google, suggests that pink was associated with girls and blue with boys during that entire time. Using the program Google Ngram, he searched for the phrases “blue for boys,” “pink for girls,” “blue for girls, “pink for boys,” as well as the singular versions “blue for a boy,” and so on. The rules we abide by (blue for boys and pink for girls) appeared in books from 1880 onward, becoming more common over time, but the opposite rules (pink for boys and blue for girls) didn’t turn up in the book search at all.
“Pink seems to have been a feminine color at least since the late 19th century,” Del Guidice wrote in an email. If pink has always been feminine and blue masculine, this allows for the possibility that these gender-color associations have some basis in human biology. Do girls inherently prefer pink, and do boys inherently prefer blue? No one knows, Del Guidice said.