Harvard Explained

Why is crimson Harvard’s official color? At a Boston City Regatta on June 19, 1858, tutor Charles W. Eliot, Class
By Gillian L. Warmflash

Why is crimson Harvard’s official color?

At a Boston City Regatta on June 19, 1858, tutor Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, and later a Harvard president, hurried with another member of the crew team to buy six Chinese silk handkerchiefs of a red hue. The impulsive purchase proved to have enormous repercussions for the color of the uniforms of football players, diplomas and “future Harvard graduate” T-shirts worn by toddlers for years to come. It would start Harvard down a rocky red road that left magenta and garnet by the wayside before settling on the now-ubiquitous crimson as the school’s official color.

On that fateful morn in 1858, Eliot and the other graduate students who were on the crew team “agreed that on account of the large number of entries they must have some distinguishing mark other than the underclothes in which they customarily rowed,” according to historian Samuel E. Morison, Class of 1908, in Three Centuries of Harvard. Hence, Eliot’s hasty run to buy the kerchiefs, which the athletes wore “to keep sweat out of their eyes when participating in sporting events,” according to Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes, who teaches Religion 1513, “Harvard: Five Centuries and Eight Presidents,” a course on Harvard history. When these particular handkerchiefs were drenched in sweat, they took on the color of blood. “The color of blood is true crimson,” Gomes says.

But by the early 1860s, Bostonians were painting the town magenta and the city was stricken with a shortage of all things crimson. “Owing to the prevalence of the fashion for magenta between the years 1860 and 1864 and the inability of the members of the various athletic teams to procure crimson for their insignia, magenta was, of necessity, accepted as a poor substitute,” wrote John Blanchard, Class of 1891, in The H Book of Harvard Athletics. Frederic C. Crowninshield, Class of 1866, who was a cousin of the rower who bought the original kerchiefs with Eliot, wrote in 1865 that students could not find crimson because magenta was so in vogue, and thus had to buy the more popular color, “though abhorring it.” The baseball team went magenta in 1863 and the football team soon followed suit, as did a school newspaper that dubbed itself The Harvard Magenta in 1873. “Magenta was Harvard’s color in the popular mind in the early [eighteen-] seventies,” Blanchard wrote.

Though the University archives bear no trace of Union College’s involvement in Harvard’s return to crimson, the small school in Schenectady, N.Y., insists its role in the color change was central. For Union, too, had a similar love affair with magenta in the mid-19th century. In 1866 a committee of Union undergraduates chose magenta as the school’s official color, according to Union archivist Ellen Fladger. Fladger says that when Union and Harvard faced off in an 1875 Rowing Association Regatta, “a crisis ensued when each team claimed priority to the color.” Though Union lore holds that the New York college forced Harvard to abandon the magenta, Fladger says the truth is that Harvard alums precipitated the shift back to crimson.

Faculty, students and alumni met in Holden Chapel on May 6, 1875, to end the color war once and for all. Though the group was temporarily deadlocked between magenta and crimson, The Magenta reported that the tide of public opinion turned after a speech by “the man who caused all the trouble.” The unnamed speaker said that a decade earlier he had bought magenta handkerchiefs for the crew team only because of a lack of the crimson variety. He “completely silenced the skeptics,” The Magenta reported. A large majority of those at the Holden Chapel meeting voted for the original color, and on May 27 The Magenta renamed itself The Harvard Crimson. On May 23, 1910, the Corporation officially decreed crimson the University’s color. Union College, thinking that Harvard was keeping magenta, had long since changed its color to garnet, a brownish shade of red.

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