History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Great misconception

Published: March 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

“Baby girls were traditionally dressed in pink”


Dress a baby in pink today and it will be almost universally identified as a girl. Yet this is actually the opposite of the system that prevailed until quite recently. Until well into the 20th century, toddlers who were not dressed in a non-gender-specific white, were put in pink for boys and blue for girls. The Sunday Sentinel noted in March 1914: “Use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.”

Four years later, in June 1918, the US magazine Ladies’ Home Journal registered that there was some confusion but added: “… the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

Even as late as November 1927 the rule seemed to hold, at least among the upper classes, as Time magazine reported that Princess Astrid of Belgium had optimistically decked out the cradle for her unborn child in pink – “the colour for boys” – only to then give birth to a girl. The correspondent thought this odd and decided to run a straw poll among US department stores, but found they could not agree which way round it should be either.

Nor have boys always even been called boys. Until the late 15th century the word ‘girl’ simply means a child of either sex. Boys, where they had to be differentiated, were referred to as ‘knave girls’ and girls in the female sense were called ‘gay girls’. Equally a boy could be a ‘knave child’ and a girl a ‘maiden child’.


The term ‘boy’ was reserved for servants or ‘churls’, the meaning ‘young man’ probably deriving from the latter as a pejorative term but not occurring before 1440.


Sponsored content