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Your wooden arms hold outstretched to shake with passers-by. The College Pump

Color us crimson, sure. But what constitutes crimson?

Harvard's struggles to establish its official hue inspired a colorful "Treasure" page in this magazine's November-December issue ("Crimson in Triumph Flashing"). But there's more to be said, submits one of our constant readers, William Tennsler, of Pensacola, Florida. He writes:

You omitted to mention that magenta, not crimson, was once the University's color. I suspect that one reason the "official" Harvard crimson has failed to catch on is that, while one may call it crimson, it leans toward magenta, a repellent color. You also say that in 1910 the Harvard Corporation sanctioned a color that "approximated" the shade of Eliot's and Crowninshield's 1858 bandanna-but you don't say how close the match was. How close was it?

As reported, future president Charles W. Eliot and Benjamin W. Crowninshield equipped fellow members of the Harvard crew with crimson bandannas in 1858. They might equally well have picked green bandannas to distinguish the crew. As Eliot later noted, "a color for each college had not then been thought of." But crimson it was.

In 1859 French and Piedmontese troops defeated Austrian forces in the battle of Magenta, brightening hopes for Italian independence. A new purple aniline dye, invented about that time, was marketed as magenta and was soon all the rage. In 1863, when one of the organizers of Harvard's first baseball team ordered a uniform with a crimson "H," a Boston seamstress substituted magenta because it was "much more fashionable and much prettier." Harvard rowers affected magenta kerchiefs, and when a new student newspaper made its debut in 1873, it was called The Magenta.

Dependably, some Harvardians objected to magenta, the color. In 1875 a meeting of students from all parts of the University, with a few alumni in attendance, considered what Harvard's color should be. Dr. Edwin Farnham of the class of 1866 was present and confessed that he had purchased magenta headwear for the 1864 crew-but only because he could find no nearer shade to crimson. The editors of the student paper straightaway changed its name to The Crimson and avowed that "magenta is not now, and...never has been, the right color of Harvard."

But getting the color right wasn't easy. In 1897 a faculty committee drew up a report codifying Harvard's academic regalia. Crimson was specified for the silk linings of hoods and the silk facings of gowns. University officials then sent to China for silk that would match the rowers' bandannas of 1858. The sample that came back was too blue. Again Harvard sent to China. The next sample was better, but still slightly too blue. The Harvard officials gave in and bought a substantial supply.

When the supply was used up, a dozen years later, A. Lawrence Lowell was beginning his presidency. Lowell resolved that Harvard should have the right color, and from a source closer than China. He went many times to Lewandos, a company of cleansers based in Watertown, Massachusetts, where dye masters mixed and matched until they achieved what Lowell called "arterial red." The Corporation considered a sample and gave its official approval in May 1910. Lewandos now held the secret of the formula for Harvard crimson.

How closely did the color of the 1910 sample match that of the 1858 bandanna? Based on how these articles-still preserved in the University Archives-look today, the match wasn't exact. The intensity is similar, but the hue of the 1858 bandanna is browner and less rose than the 1910 version, which is more magenta-like.

In later years, the hue of what innocent people might suppose was "Harvard crimson"-as, for example, the color of a Harvard doctoral gown-wandered uncertainly over the red part of the spectrum, becoming, in the case of the gown, "a shocking or psychedelic pink," in the words of Michael Shinagel, dean of continuing education and University Extension and Master of Quincy House. Dean Shinagel objected in letters dispatched to various officials in 1990. "If that color is crimson," he wrote, "then I'm Elizabeth Arden." Shinagel and others were appointed to designate a standard color resembling that of the 1910 bandanna. After much contemplation of swatches sent by two academic costumers, they made their selection.

In 1950, when an MIT professor made a spectrophotometric examination of the 1910 bandanna, he reported that its color closely matched "the dull side of Cable No. 70050 of the Textile Color Card Association." The color recently sanctified for academic gowns is simply called "Harvard crimson" by the costumers who administer it. One of the new gowns was pictured on this magazine's previous "Treasure" page. Its color-and here it's up to our printer to render it faithfully-looks like this....

~ Primus IV