Myth # 97: The British soldiers wore red coats because it wouldn’t show the blood.

Ben Swenson, former history teacher and reenactor, said he often heard the myth that the British wore red because it wouldn’t show blood if they were shot. “Considering that the rest of their uniforms were usually white, this made no sense. . .  I seem to recall something about red being the cheapest dye for a country that had a substantial military budget.  Not 100% sure on that one.”

You’re on the mark, Ben. For more than a century, inexpensive synthetic dyes have been able to create any color on the color wheel, so the world has forgotten the message of power and wealth that intense color once conveyed. People from the past craved bright colors, but only the rich and royal could afford expensive dyes and the fabrics that showed them off. So tight was the link between the aristocracy and color that in many societies, laws restricted strong colors like scarlet or purple to the nobility, just in case some nouveau riche lout was tempted to dress above his station. Renaissance Europeans would have considered today’s dress-for-success colors—black, beige, grey, and other subdued shades—fit only for paupers.

Red and its close cousin purple were the most coveted of colors because they were the most difficult to make and the most expensive. Down the centuries, reds and reddish purples became the acknowledged color of royalty throughout the world. Chinese and Persian rulers preferred red. The togas of Roman senators bore a reddish-purple band. The Catholic Church took red as a symbol of its authority, using a red cross on a white shield as its emblem and dressing its cardinals in scarlet robes. The British were not alone in dressing their military officers in red uniforms. Its rarity and its link to status made good red dye almost priceless.

Max Hamrick, Colonial Williamsburg’s master weaver and dyer, says that both cochineal and madder were used to put the red in Redcoats. The British government supplied their soldiers with uniforms that were dyed with madder because it was cheaper. Officers, who supplied their own uniforms, preferred the brighter red of cochineal for their jackets. Red was the symbol of power and prestige, not some cover up for blood.

Even Wikipedia says,  “There is no known basis for the myth that red coats were favoured because they did not show blood stains. Blood does in fact show on red clothing as a black stain.”

My article on cochineal and the color red appears in the current issue of Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine. I found the topic fascinating–hope you will too.

http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/summer12/dye.cfm

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15 Responses to Myth # 97: The British soldiers wore red coats because it wouldn’t show the blood.

  1. I also suspect that once the artillery started firing, and smoke hazed over the battlefields, red was simply VISIBLE, making it less likely a soldier would be killed by friendly fire. Once the hand to hand fighting began, the downside of increased visibility (to the enemy) would have been moot since national affiliation would have been obvious up close.

  2. PJ Curran says:

    In a conversation with a young “Redcoat” at Old North Bridge this summer I was informed that the reason for red was to identify the lines when the muskets began to generate smoke, an explanation similar to the previous response.

  3. Caitlin McRae says:

    When you say inexpensive synthetic dyes have been available for more than a century, do you mean aniline (sp?) dyes from the turn of the century…? Would love to know more of that kind of history.

    Caitlin McRae cnmcrae@gmail.com

    • Mary Miley says:

      So would I, but I’m afraid I know very little about the chemistry of modern synthetic dyes. The first were created in the mid-1800s and soon crowded out the old plant-based and insect-based dyes that had been used for centuries.

      • William Henry Perkin discovered Mauve in 1856 in August Von Hofmann’s Laboratory at the Royal College of Chemistry in London. After Prince Albert died Hofmann went to Berlin in 1863 where Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter was Crown Princess of Prussia. By the 1877′s dye industry in England was dead and became a German monopoly. At the end of the 19th century it was these same synthetic dye companies who had the skill to make synthetic drugs with the dye firm later known by the name of the founder Fredrick Bayer synthesizing Aspirin in 1897. The rest is, as we say, history. The giant firm I G Farben means “Common Interest in Dye Colors” and was at height the 4th largest company in the world.

  4. [...] from. Hiding your sucking chest wound had nothing to do with it. A fellow WordPress blogger has a good summary of why this claim is bogus. It points out that blood is in fact quite visible against red fabric, something I can vouch for [...]

  5. James "Jake" Pontillo says:

    There is an interesting correlation with the development of chemical dyes, which led to progress in industrial chemistry in general, which caused competitions and conflict between England and Germany and that, among other things,
    led to the the tensions that blossomed into WW I – The idea of red not showing blood, may have had some origins in the painting of the deck of the Shipboard surgery in the days of Wooden ships and sail ( or is that a myth , too?!)

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’ve read about that relationship between chemical dyes and WWI–fascinating. BUt I’ve not heard that statement about red decks, so don’t know if it is a myth or not. Sounds myth-like . . .

      • James "Jake" Pontillo says:

        I was aboard USS Constitution a few years ago when it was dis-masted in dry-dock having preventative maintenance performed. I inquired of a sailor if they were going to paint the decks red and he said they only did that in the sick bay. I do not know if we can rely on this ( I am tempted to just call the commander of USS Constitution and just ask him!)
        Anyway I came up with some info:

        “The insides of the gun decks and the scupper ways were painted red so that blood stains should not be so noticeable.”

        From http://www.exeterflotilla.org/history_misc/nav_customs/nc_customs.html

        “In the artillery decks, the bulkwarks and the carriages of the cannons were often painted in red, to dissimulate the presence of the blood during combat.”
        From http://shippictures.byethost22.com/anatomy%2004.htm

        “The deck above the holds in the old ships, what would now be called the platform deck, was known as the orlop deck, a contraction of ‘overlap’, a word of Dutch origin meaning ‘that which runs over the hold’. In H.M.S. Victory this deck is painted red; the wounded were taken there to be tended by the ship’s surgeon. On this first deck below the waterline they were safer and their blood was not so noticeable against the red paint of the deck.”
        From http://www.readyayeready.com/tradition/customs-of-the-navy/1-shipboard-terms.htm

        BUT this one is not in agreement.

        “Interior bulkheads were often painted red, not to cover up blood and gore during battle (most of which wound up on the deck anyway) but rather for decorative purposes and because red ocher pigment was relatively cheap.”
        From http://www.steelnavy.com/MeteorFrigateDianaJL.htm

        What do you think?

      • Mary Miley says:

        Hmmm. Interesting. I do know this: reddish-brown paint (iron oxide or sometimes called Spanish brown) was cheap and easy to make yourself, like whitewash. Neither is real paint, which was expensive, tricky to make, and rather a trade secret. (Painters made their own concoctions and kept formulas in the family.) If that’s the “red” paint used on the floors, as suggested in the final quotation which mentions red ocher (which is iron oxide), then I side with the final quotation.

  6. Having been personally injured accidentally by a bayonet at a reenactment, in which I bled onto a red British regimental coat I was wearing, I can assure you, red does not cover up blood stains. Blood looks almost black in comparison when on period-dyed red woolen cloth.

  7. Jan says:

    Actually, what I’ve read suggests that *black* was the most difficult and expensive dye to produce consistently in a way that would not fade or run.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_dye#The_rise_of_formal_black

  8. James "Jake" Pontillo says:

    Well I went and called USS Constitution and the man there just called me back- Mr. Brecher I think it was, and we discussed the painting of the deck red- he said that almost all the decks are natural pine, which are ‘holy stoned ” ( sanded with a piece of sandstone)so they would be the natural pine color, with the bulkheads whitewashed- BUT that the deck of the cock pit, – where the wounded were treated – IS CURRENTLY painted red, BUT he has no historical reference for why this is done, and does not know why it has been done nowadays. I asked if the sailors who are assigned to the ship as guides tell the people that was because the red would not show the blood, and he laughed and said that they do have a training period for the sailors and expected that that was not done.

    That is where the thing is now. Unfortunately I am not entirely convinced of whether or not the decks were or were not painted red because of the blood. Until I do more research and stumble upon some CONTEMPORARY source, . I could put forth a theory- which is that since the deck in the cockpit would have blood on it and since the decks were holy stoned pine the blood would soak in and so that deck was painted and since the Spanish brown was cheap the deck was therefore painted that reddish brown.

  9. Jeff Neice says:

    the old red barn, milk paint, was very thick and solid. Perhaps, they used something like that to seal and preserve the floors better in the sick bay.

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