Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Primary Colors

From the late 1870s through the mid-1890s, the official colors of the University of Kansas were sky blue and corn yellow. The derivation of these original choices remains uncertain. One account indicates KU’s first graduating class made the selection. Another explanation suggests that KU’s first Board of Regents, which had modeled its charter on the one used by the University of Michigan, adopted that school’s colors as well. Wherever these first colors came from, little use was made of them prior to the inception of intercollegiate athletics at Kansas in 1890. When KU athletic teams started facing off against rival squads from other universities, however, greater attention was turned to the color question.

By the fall of 1891, the University’s athletic board was debating changing the yellow and blue to a less delicate palette that would show fewer stains of the sort so frequently acquired in games of football and baseball. The board sought a single, distinguished, and somewhat darker color. Since certain elements at KU were then imbued with the belief that the school could become the “Harvard of the West,” it is perhaps not surprising that crimson was selected in October 1891.

When word leaked that a change in KU’s athletic colors was imminent, some students began to object. An open letter to the University Weekly Courier argued against the new colors, noting that crimson represented nothing in Kansas, while sky blue symbolized the skies of the state’s open prairie and the yellow stood for its abundant production of grain. Such objections did not last long. Shortly after the announcement of the switch, the University Weekly Courier proposed a showdown between the advocates of the yellow and blue and those of the crimson at the annual Thanksgiving Day football game between Kansas and Missouri in Kansas City. Proponents of each choice were invited to show up wearing their preferred color combination. Crimson adherents turned out in greater numbers than their rivals. (KU, incidentally, won the game, scoring a 22-8 victory.)

The matter was put to rest, at least temporarily. For nearly five years, KU athletes sported crimson uniforms. Sometime in 1895, however, a rumor swept through campus that people back East believed Kansas’ choice of crimson belied a larger tendency of the University to imitate Harvard. A series of defiant editorials in KU publications revealed the degree to which these accusations touched a nerve. One commentary, for example, contended Kansas owed “nothing to Harvard.” Nonetheless, it added, “Why not be original?” when choosing the school’s athletic colors.

Some members of the University administration turned to prominent New York attorney John J. McCook, who had given money to build the school’s first full-fledged athletic field after delivering KU’s 1890 commencement address. (The fact that McCook had received his law degree from Harvard may actually have played a role in KU’s choice of crimson in 1891, since his donation was made at the same time the color issue was first being debated.)

McCook proved willing enough to offer advice concerning the adoption of new colors and suggested KU adopt either crimson and blue or crimson and black. Though his first proposal was ultimately chosen, it was by no means the only one offered. One suggestion called for simply changing the crimson to red, while another correspondent advocated the adoption of the “brown and yellow of the sunflower.” (The person who offered this idea added the caveat that “care should of course be taken to select pleasing and harmonious shades of these often ugly colors.”)

By late May 1896, KU’s athletic board had settled on crimson and blue. This selection scuttled any lingering concerns about imitating Harvard, but it did open KU to the charge that it had merely adopted the colors of another Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, the University Weekly Courier praised the new combination as “a striking one,” and disingenuously maintained that “so far as we know [the combination is] not used by any other university.”

The selection of crimson and blue was not unanimously popular. In a letter to the Graduate Magazine, one disgruntled alumnus asserted the “change was made in a misguided effort to flatter our patron saint, Colonel McCook.” He was joined in his objections by a reasonably large contingent of students. In a letter to the editor of the University Weekly Courier, one student praised the class of 1896 for refusing to decorate the chapel for its graduation with anything other than crimson and lamented the “high-handed proceeding” that had resulted in the introduction of crimson and blue. Like the disgruntled alumnus, he argued that the athletic board had sought only to “curry favor with a certain Yale man [by which presumably he meant McCook].” The writer then maintained that the colors had not legally been changed since the student body had not been consulted and proceeded to launch a call to boycott the new colors at future athletic events.

Interestingly, the editor responded to this complaint by agreeing that KU’s official colors had not been changed and technically remained sky blue and corn yellow, but acknowledged that the athletic board had acted within its powers in changing the athletic colors. By the end of fall semester of 1896, which as fate would have it turned out to be an excellent one for KU’s football squad, the matter was firmly settled as students ceased objecting to the new colors. Indeed, Innes’, a Lawrence department store, could advertise that it carried the “Kansas colors adopted by the Athletic Asociastion [sic]” in “shades peculiar to [the] University of Kansas [and] very different from Harvard and Yale colors.” Thus by the end of the autumn of 1896, crimson and blue had become the University’s official athletic colors. Since they happened to be the combined colors of Harvard and Yale, a myth arose that crimson and blue were chosen to assuage the Yale alums among KU’s faculty who had endured a difficult time embracing the hues of their alma mater’s chief rival.

The alteration in the colors wrought changes beyond those affecting the tones of the uniforms in which KU athletic teams took the field. It also made necessary an alteration in the university’s Alma Mater, which prior to 1896 had been Yellow and Blue. The tune, of course, remained the same, but then the tune had not originated in Lawrence. An absent-minded KU music professor and Dean of the School of Music named George B. Penny, a former Cornell man, had “borrowed” it from Cornell’s Alma Mater, Far Above Cayuga’s Waters. (Penny was reputed to have once boarded a train and completely forgotten that he had left his horse tied up at a train station. Only a telegraph to a friend enabled him to rescue “the beast from a death by starvation.”)

By itself, crimson did not fit the tune, and thus Yellow and Blue continued to be sung at KU gatherings after the transition to crimson uniforms in 1891, which explains the University Weekly Courier ‘s assertion in 1896 that KU’s official colors were still yellow and blue. Because crimson has two syllables like yellow, however, when it was paired with blue, the song could remain essentially the same by substituting crimson for yellow. This was done within a few years and so it remains today.

Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread (Lawrence, KS, 1955), 49-50; The Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas 9 (Dec. 1910), 135-8; The Kansas University Weekly 3 (October 17, 1896), 109; Kansas Alumni 75 (June, 1977), 6; The Kansas University Weekly 2 (May 1, 1896), 260; The Kansas University Weekly 3 (October 10, 1896), 81; The Kansas University Weekly 2 (May 29, 1896), 353, 362; The Kansas University Weekly 3 (Nov. 14, 1896), 202; The Kansas University Weekly 2 (Feb. 21, 1896), 36; The Kansas University Weekly 2 (Feb 14, 1896), 20; University Courier (October 23, 1891).]