The tender pinks and blues of sunset nearly compensate for how early dusk falls at this time of year. Some days end with more drama, bright red and orange shouting for attention. Instead, this recent sunset appears to whisper, “Don’t wake the baby.” Baby girls in pink, baby boys in blue, hush-a-bye, sweet dreams.
Pink seems the most feminine of colors. I have friends who love it or hate it for that reason. But parents in the 1800s dressed little boys and girls alike, often in white dresses. By about 1900, marketing for mass production boosted sales by promoting new expectations for domestic life, from vacuum cleaners to differentiated infant wear. Boys crawled in knickers instead of the dresses, laces, and frills of an earlier era. Advertisers tried linking color to gender, with no consensus about which hue went with whom.
According to Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department in 1918, “the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls.” Most Nativity paintings showed Mary in blue, considered a gentler color. Time Magazine in 1927 found six of ten major American department stores promoted pink for boys and blue for girls, while four recommended the opposite. As soldiers returned from World War II, their brides left factory work to devote their days to family. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s love of pink made it a symbol of domesticity. A department store buyer told The New York Times in 1959, “A mother will allow her girl to wear blue, but daddy will never permit his son to wear pink.”
Isn’t it odd that today’s era of questioning gender identity and binary thinking also features gala “gender reveal parties,” begun in 2008 by a blogger who now regrets it? Half a century ago, we rarely knew the baby’s sex before birth. Expectant parents might paint the nursery a unisex green to be safe. Now retailers are blending toy aisles formerly labeled for girls or boys. Men wear pink shirts without exciting comment. Will pink and blue fade away as markers of gender, while we still pause to savor them in a winter sunset sky?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.