The History of the Color Red: Drawing the Attention of Mankind for Millennia

Combat helmet with a red mane from ancient warrior on wooden boards

Different colors have a way of evoking different emotions in people. One of the most powerful colors is red. Few would argue that the color red is capable of stirring a wide range of emotions, not to mention getting people’s attention. However, one might be surprised to learn about the history of the color itself. It goes back much further than most people would ever likely believe. In virtually every culture, it has been used to convey important messages or to denote crucial cultural beliefs.

Dive in to learn more about this mesmerizing color and how it has been used for millennia all over the world.

Leading the Way

Leaders all over the world have traditionally worn the color red. Just think about English monarchs being ceremonially placed into their respective offices while clad in red. Women often wore red dresses along with hats of the same color. This was designed to convey power, authority and moral upstanding. By the same token, horses were often decorated with red garments in order to project a feeling of power or victory in battle. As such, red has long been known as a color associated with the power of victory in battle.

The Moral Compass

Red carpeted church aisle between pews

It is also worth noting that Catholic Cardinals wear red robes. Many churches feature red carpets somewhere within the building. If not, the pews or some other important facet of the building is typically red. This is designed to represent the blood of Christ as well as to denote the moral goodness of the church as a whole. As a result, many individuals who work closely with the church may wear garments that are either wholly or partially red in color.

Red Is Used in Battle

The color red was not only used to send a message of moral upstanding or authority. It was also used by many individuals in battle to signify that an attack was imminent or that danger was present. In some cases, individuals throughout history have led battles while utilizing the color red. This is essentially where the saying “raise a red flag” comes from. It was a tradition to raise red flags (in the literal sense) when danger of an attack was imminent. On the flip side of the coin, some people would be able to look out across the fields and see people riding on horseback, carrying red flags as they were moving in for the attack. One of the reasons this was done is very practical. Red is a color that is very easy to see, even from vast distances. It also has a tendency to grab the attention of anyone who does see it. Therefore, it is not easily overlooked. As a direct result, it became very popular for use in battle. That said, many people also chose the color because of its association with power, dignity and good moral standing.

The Color Red in Trade

Dried and crushed cochineal insects used to make red pigment dye

As early as the 1500s, the Spaniards were shocked to arrive in Mexico and find textiles that were colored in bright red. The reason for their shock was simple. They themselves had tried to create a similar color for years but were never able to achieve such a vivid color of red. In fact, they had reportedly never even seen anything quite like the textiles that were created by the Aztec Indians living in Mexico. They were so taken aback by what they had seen that they set up trade agreements in order to purchase and export cochineal, the small bug found on cactuses which they dried and then crushed to create the bright red dye.

Philosophy 101

Anyone that has spent much time in a college philosophy class and has studied Eastern philosophy knows that red is a very important color in Chinese culture. In fact, it is so important that the most highly valued individuals within that culture are almost always clad in red. This was not a color that was used by common individuals. Instead, it was reserved for those who had achieved a certain financial, cultural or religious status in life.

Red in Rome

Cinnabar used to create the color pigment Vermilion isolated on white background

People who lived in ancient Rome were so fond of the color red that they sent prisoners to their death in order to achieve it. At the time, the only way they could decorate their homes with a brilliant color of red was to use vermilion, a pigment that comes directly from a mineral called cinnabar. The problem with cinnabar is that it contains a toxic amount of mercury. Simply being around it while mining it is almost certain to cause death. Despite this fact, the richest people in Rome would send prisoners to go and mine the mineral in order to obtain the pigment necessary to achieve this color. It is not fully known how many people died because of this, but it was a common practice in ancient Rome that lasted for a number of years.

The Color of Love

Almost everyone associates the color red with feelings of love. This is not something that has merely been invented by people who want to sell red tins of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. In fact, quite the opposite is true. As far back as the 13th century BCE, necklaces made with red pigments have been found. More importantly, they and other red colored trinkets have been found in almost every corner of the globe. It is believed that these types of gifts were given to individuals in order to announce one person’s love for another. Believe it or not, some cultures even participated in utilizing the color red at weddings. For example, red head scarves were very popular in ancient Rome. To this day, many people in China consider red a lucky color which they’ll wear on their wedding day.

Prehistoric Splashes of Color

Cave of the Hands rock paintings with red ochre and carbon black colors

As far back as 40,000 years ago, people were finding ways to create red pigment in order to paint the walls of caves. They have been found in many parts of the world and exist as primitive cave paintings. They typically depict certain aspects of life at the time. The interesting thing is that various types of items in nature were used to create the red pigment. For instance, the Aztecs, as mentioned earlier, used certain bugs that produced a red pigment when crushed. Other individuals mixed water and clay pigmented by hematite (called ochre) together in order to create the right shade of red. In almost every culture across the globe, the color red has been used for thousands of years. It even dates back to prehistoric times.

A Color of Power and Prestige

Many people associate the use of the color red in today’s society with power or prestige. For example, think about people walking the red carpet during film premieres or when someone is about to receive an Oscar. Many individuals assume that the idea for the red carpet was created by movie moguls decades ago, but that is an incorrect assumption. In truth, this concept dates all the way back to 458 BC. That was when Clytemnestra insisted that a red carpet be laid for her husband Agamemnon as he returned home from battle. By all accounts, he was a war hero associated with the battle of Troy. She wanted to do something special for him and insisted that he have a red carpet to walk upon when he returned home so that his feet would not touch the soil of the Earth. It is believed that this practice of walking the red carpet came from this instance and has since gained popularity in a variety of different settings.

Psychology and History Come Together

Modern megaphone calls for attention on red colored background

People have been studying the psychology of the color red for many years. After all, there is a reason that stop lights and stop signs are colored red. This is a color that is virtually impossible to ignore. It isn’t just because it can be overbearing when compared to other colors. People are hardwired to pay attention to the color red. That is precisely why it has been used for the various purposes that have been discussed throughout history. Whether one is trying to convey a sense of power and authority or signal someone that danger is ahead, the color red is often chosen because it is virtually impossible for people to miss it and not pay attention to it.

Different Perceptions Within the Same Culture

The truly interesting thing about the color red is that different individuals do indeed perceive it differently. Some people immediately think of passion when they see anything red. It can even fill their hearts with joy as they think about a loved one or a special romantic holiday. For some individuals, it is a color that brings about a sense of peace and for others, it signals danger. Of course, this color can be used in all of these contexts and more. Therefore, it is imperative to understand something about the history and the culture involved with its use in order to better disseminate the message that is being conveyed by the use of the color red.

Creating History for Future Generations

Red attention banner with pointing finger of David statue

History isn’t something that should only be studied as an event or series of events that has already taken place. History is being created on a daily basis. The things that were commonplace twenty or thirty years ago may very well have fallen by the wayside in accordance with today’s standards. As a result, the history of the color red is always changing.

The Color Red in Modern History

These days, the color is used in a number of different cultures to denote either love or danger. While some may think it interesting that it can signify either one, it is important to understand why it is such a popular color chosen by so many governments and individuals alike.

The Use of the Color Red in Modern Society

Red traffic light on a busy city street

How is the color red utilized in modern society? This is important to understand because it is a matter that will become of historical significance in only a few short years. In some cases, it is used merely to get people’s attention. That is the reason behind the red light or the red stop sign drivers are expected to pay attention to as opposed to simply coasting through an intersection. The use of the red color is believed to help them know that there is something there, signifying that they need to stop right away.

Red Is Still Used to Keep People Safe

By the same token, public transportation buses in London are almost always bright red. This is done for a rather simple reason. It helps individuals who need to access those buses see them from a greater distance and it provides high visibility for those individuals who are trying to commute from one location to another. This is the same reason that many fire engines also utilize the color red. It’s highly visible so it makes it easier for other motorists to see the fire engine as it makes its way down the street. The idea is to allow it to be seen from as far away as possible since it is traveling at a higher rate of speed than most of the other traffic. In reality, it’s done as a safety measure.

The Color Red in Everyday Life

Finger pushing red emergency stop switch on a powered machine

The color red is present almost everywhere. One only has to look for it for a few minutes or even seconds in order to find it. Many power shut-off switches are red in color, as are emergency fuel pump switches. Ejection seat switches and power supply switches on aircrafts are colored red. Much of this ties in with the history of the color, as the mental psychology associated with it remains unchanged. When people see something that is red, they know that they need to pay attention because danger may be present.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the color red has always been very important for a number of different reasons. It very well may signify power. It could also be telling someone that something is dangerous. The truth is, different cultures have used it for different reasons throughout history. The thing that remains largely unchanged is the fact that it has been a very important color for almost every culture across the board. This has been the case for as long as recorded history has existed. That fact alone makes it stand out, as it is essentially the only color that has proven so popular all over the world for so many years.