Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon,” so it shouldn’t seem strange that awareness ribbons have a modern history that begins in the recognition of a soldier.
In the 1970s, America had her first instance of using awareness ribbons to commemorate the thoughts and prayers that were going out for our troops stationed in harm’s way, far away. The tradition’s origins have been credited to one military wife, Penelope Laingen, who tied a yellow ribbon around an oak tree in her yard to symbolize hope for her husband, who was being held hostage in Iran. Inspired by the song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” Penelope launched her own American tradition that encouraged the use of literal and metaphorical yellow awareness ribbons tied around oak. This evolved to include more elegant interpretations of the ritual and has even become subtle yet powerful testimony, silently worn and shared by way of the sophisticated ribbon pins that double as fashion statements.
The military ties involved with the origins of awareness ribbons continued on into the 90s as a commemorative movement in the midst of the Gulf War in 1991. However, as the AIDS epidemic waged its way across the world, in 1992, activists adopted the power of awareness ribbons and introduced the Red Ribbon to signify the passion and zeal in the efforts and investment to find a cure for the deadly disease. In the same year, silk ribbons and decorative ribbon pins were introduced in an effort to build awareness and support of the breast cancer cause. Pink ribbons flooded the market and continue to do so today, all thanks to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and their use of the pink breast cancer ribbon.
1992 was so pivotal in the history and culture associated with awareness ribbons that the year was officially dubbed “The Year of the Ribbon” by the New York Times. This set the stage for the enormous popularity and prevalence of ribbons and ribbon-related merchandise, ranging from key chains to t-shirts to tattoos and other jewelry items and accessories.
The turn of the century brought about a new wave of awareness ribbons. 2001 saw the first use of the Red, White, and Blue ribbon first used in January to mark the shooting at Millard South High School; red, white, and blue are the school’s colors. The tragic events of September 11, 2001 pushed the red, white, and blue ribbon into the forefront as the ribbon was used extensively to show support for those who lost there lives in the days terrorist events. The aftermath of 9-11 brought about both the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq war, in 2003, as America responded to terrorist acts of 9-11. The ribbon of choice this time was again the yellow ribbon as millions of Americans looked for ways to “support our troops”.
The current appetite for awareness ribbons has spawned an entire industry of awareness products designed and used for more than just awareness. Look around today and you can see these items being used for fundraising means, promotional campaigns, and as donor thank you gifts. So, the next time you see someone wearing a ribbon think back to where it all started and you’ll have a whole new perspective on the simple awareness ribbon.