We see them on auto magnets and bumper stickers, pinned onto shirts or lapels and tied around trees and light posts in towns all over the world. There is no denying awareness ribbons’ major role as symbols of important causes, concerns or movements, conveying the strong feelings of individuals and groups who wish to show support and spread awareness. One thing that is a little less clear, however, is where and when the concept of the colored awareness ribbon came from. Allow us at Health Promotions Now to shed some light on the subject and reveal the surprisingly long history of colored awareness ribbons.
An in depth look into the history of awareness ribbons points to the battlefield as the first place from where they were borrowed and inspired by. The practice of decorating soldiers with colored ribbons as a symbol of their ranks and achievements is a very old one. Even Napoleon Bonaparte is recorded to have said in 1815 to the Captain of his ship, the HMS Bellerophon, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon”; but this does not actually indicate any use of the colored ribbon as a mechanism of widespread awareness or support. In fact, the earliest evidence of the awareness ribbon is even farther back in history than the Napoleonic wars.
During the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651, the Puritan Army wore yellow ribbons and sashes to battle. It is from this imagery that a song, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” which is rumored to have been brought to America by early English settlers was inspired. It, like a similar song that was copyrighted by George A. Norton called “Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon” tells a story or a woman who wears a yellow ribbon as a symbol of her loyalty and support for the soldier that she loves who is far away at war. By these two examples we can gather that the earliest of awareness ribbons was the yellow ribbon that remains as a symbol of support for modern troops at war today.
In the 1970s, another song written by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown about the powerful yellow ribbon, titled, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree” inspired the wife of a soldier who was held hostage in Iran from from 1979 to 1981 to do just that. Penelope (or Penney) Laingen tied yellow ribbons around the trees near her home, not to indicate to her husband that he would once again be welcomed into her arms if he returned home, as the song indicated – because of course he would be – but to show her support for his military efforts and share her hopes for his safe return home as well for his fellow troops. Eventually close family and friends followed suit and a sacred American tradition was born.
Moving forward, a new powerful symbol in the form of another colored ribbon emerged in London in 1986 when a rainbow colored ribbon was distributed to the attendants of an open conference held by the AIDS Faith Alliance. The purpose of the alliance, now known as the Christian Action on AIDS, was to rally worldwide Christian churches to help take action in the AIDS crisis. In 1991 a red ribbon was chosen by an American based activist group in New York and eventually became the official symbol for AIDS awareness. The red ribbon symbolizes the wearer’s compassion for people living with HIV and AIDS as well as for their caregivers. As one of the more identifiable ribbon colors, the red ribbon was never copyrighted in order to allow everyone and anyone to wear it.
During the same year, the use of perhaps the most widely recognized colored awareness ribbon of all first appeared. In the fall of 1991, The Susan G. Komen foundation handed out pink ribbons to the participants of the New York City race for breast cancer survivors. In the following months, the pink ribbon was chosen as the official symbol for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The widespread popularity of both the red ribbon for AIDS and the pink ribbon for breast cancer eventually led to the New York Times declaring 1992 as the “The year if the Ribbon.”
It is safe to assume that the unparalleled popularity of the yellow, red and pink ribbons have inspired other organizations and charities to adopt a colored ribbon as a symbol of their noble causes. Over the years we have seen many more colored ribbons being taken up as important representations of awareness, education and support for people and groups affected by or suffering from illnesses, disorders, social, societal and environmental issues, violence and terrorism. These ribbons are able to speak loudly for each individual cause and concern and will continue to embody the call for awareness and education, understanding, compassion and support for every important issue they symbolize for years to come.
So What Do All the Ribbon Colors Represent?
Here are some well-known ribbon colors and the important awareness campaigns that they represent:
White – Lung Cancer
Blue – Peace, Colon Cancer
Navy – Bullying
Orange – Leukemia, Multiple Sclerosis, Kidney Cancer, ADHD
Yellow – Military Forces
Light Blue/Sky Blue – Prostate Cancer
Purple – LGBT Bullying and Suicide Prevention, Testicular Cancer, Domestic Violence, Lupis, Cystic Fibrosis, Pancreatic Cancer
Red – HIV/AIDS, Drug Abuse, Heart Disease
Gray – Diabetes, Brain Cancer
Black – Mourning (specifically for the 9/11 attack and Virginia Tech massacre), Sleep Disorders, Melanoma
Pink – Breast Cancer
Green – Mental Health, Cerebral Palsy, Celiac Disease, Lyme Disease, Environmental Protection
Teal – Cervical, Ovarian and Uterine Cancers, Sexual Assault and Violence
Gold – Childhood Cancer
Silver – Parkinson’s Disease, Brain Disorders/Disabilities
Puzzle – Autism
Red, White and Blue – Patriotism, 09/11