Color Series: Iconic Yellow

An exploration of the meaning and connotations of the color yellow in culture and business.
yellow ribbon

Mellow yellow wasn’t always so: several hundred years ago in France, yellow was smeared onto the doors of felons and traitors, heretics in Spain were urged to wear a yellow cross as penance, and Judas is often portrayed in paintings clothed in a yellow garb. Today, the color generally connotes warm golden sunshine and happiness, we are reminded of happy singing men who live in submarines, yet yellow was once known as the color of betrayal.

In modern times, yellow roses indicate friendship (as opposed to the red roses of love), and yellow ribbons signify hope and loyalty during wartime. We also use the term “yellow” to indicate cowardice. This figure of speech may have originated from a species of timid yellow-bellied lizards, or may refer to yellow bile the four humors of Greek medicine.

Yellow pigment dates back to prehistoric times: specifically, traces of ochre used in paint have been found in a South African cave, dating back 100,000 years. Ochre is non-toxic and is produced from ochre clay. While yellow pigment is generally no longer derived from this clay, artists’ today still refer to specific hues as “yellow ochre” and “red ochre.”

A New York City icon, cabs painted yellow make spotting and hailing one an easier task, but brightly colored taxis actually had their start in Chicago in 1915. Founded by John Daniel Hertz, the Yellow Cab Company took to heart University of Chicago findings that stated that yellow was the most easily visible color at a distance. (Today, we may generally associate Hertz with his car rental service.) The decision to paint taxis this vivid color has been monumental: yellow cabs have since become an American tradition.

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