In 1858 the Harvard crew “were in the habit of rowing in their ordinary underclothing, wearing miscellaneous hats or caps,” wrote Charles W. Eliot ’53. Preparing for a big regatta in June, wanting onlookers to be able to distinguish the Harvard boat, crew members Eliot and Benjamin W. Crowninshield ’58 went to a Boston store and bought six Chinese silk bandannas for teammates to tie around their heads. “A color for each college had not then been thought of,” Eliot later explained. He and Crowninshield considered blue, orange, green, and yellow bandannas, but preferred the red ones.
In 1910, the record indicates, the Corporation approximated the color of those bandannas in a contemporary silk bandanna, and voted that Harvard’s official color would be that of the approximation.
In 1950 Harvard asked Professor A.C. Hardy of MIT to subject the Corporation’s bandanna to spectrophotometric analysis. He reported the wavelengths of light reflected from the bandanna and declared Harvard crimson “a slightly purplish color rather than a pure red color.” By defining the color scientifically, the University hoped to promote uniformity in the hue of things implicitly alleging to employ it, such as pennants, neckties, doctoral gowns, track singlets, and the covers of official publications.
The bandanna was resurrected recently from the Harvard Archives and photographed for this, its first appearance in print in color (left, in photo). No printed reproduction of the bandanna could be precisely faithful to its color. But anyone can see that Harvard’s attempt to promote conformity in crimson has been a conspicuous failure.