The School Colors: The History of Carolina Blue

2015 University of North Carolina commencement; Photo by The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

2015 University of North Carolina commencement; Photo by The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The school colors for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are some of the most recognizable in higher education. Carolina Blue is a symbolic and beloved shade that, for many alums and Carolina fans, immediately conjures up images of the school, the Carolina sports teams and a sense of community. Carolina Blue has a long history tied to the culture of this university.

Dialectic Society membership certificate with blue ribbon, 1807. Southern Historical Collection.

Dialectic Society membership certificate with blue ribbon, 1807. Southern Historical Collection.

The use of a distinctive light blue in association with UNC began not long after the first students arrived on campus in 1795. The Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies were a huge part of student life at the time. Through the nineteenth century, students were required to be members of either the Di or the Phi. These two literary and debate societies were both an academic and a social way of life at the time. It was traditional for students from the west of Chapel Hill to affiliate with the Di and students from the east to join the Phi. The Di’s color was light blue and the Phi’s was white.

At major university events, such as commencements, balls and social events all of the student officials and marshals wore the color of their chosen society. The Chief Marshal or Chief Ball Manager would wear both colors because he was a representative of the whole student body and not just his society. Ribbons of the appropriate societal color were also attached to the diplomas of graduates, as emblems of their time with the Di or Phi.

In 1888, UNC started its first intercollegiate athletic teams. By this time, light blue and white were recognizable parts of the university’s student life and culture and the decision was made to carry those colors over (in combination) to athletic life as well.

A UNC Diploma from 1793 with blue ribbon indicating membership in Di Society; Southern Historical Collection

A UNC Diploma from the 1840s with a blue ribbon indicating membership in Dialectic Society. Southern Historical Collection

A UNC Diploma from 1800 with a white ribbon, indicating membership in Phi; Southern Historical Collection

A Philanthropic Society membership certificate with a white ribbon, ca. 1850s. Southern Historical Collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the beginning of the 20th century, the school colors had been established as light blue and white and these colors began to appear on a variety of ephemera associated with the university. This went beyond sports uniforms and diplomas. Shades of Carolina Blue began to appear on many official documents as a signature of the university. At the turn of the century, blue appeared on the commencement programs and was especially highlighted in the University seal. The exact shade of blue deemed official had not yet been established and different years saw slightly different shades. Between 1900 and 1901, for instance, the blue used on the seal became a great deal brighter and lighter.

Seal from the 1900 graduation program. North Carolina Collection.

Seal from the 1900 graduation program. North Carolina Collection.

Seal from the 1901 graduation program. North Carolina Collection.

Seal from the 1901 graduation program. North Carolina Collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue was accepted for use by organizations all across campus, from clubs to academics to research. A 1908 pamphlet created by the Campus Y featured the color.

A pamphlet from the campus YMCA from 1908, using Carolina Blue; Wilson Library Carolina Collection

A pamphlet from the campus YMCA from 1908, using Carolina Blue; Wilson Library Carolina Collection

A question soon developed—exactly what shade of light blue was the correct shade? While many Carolina fans will purport to recognize Carolina Blue when they see it, there has been quite a bit of difference between the shades of blue used by official University departments and teams. No one shade of blue has been the True Blue because things have developed over time. For instance, in the 1960s Carolina basketball games began to be broadcast on television in color for the first time. On a television set, the blue then in use looked washed out and extremely light. It was almost grey. The shade of blue was thus darkened for many athletic uniforms, but kept the same on University logos, merchandise and documents. Over time, there grew a disparity between the shades of Carolina Blue used across campus.

Consider these pantone color swatches. Which one is the real Carolina Blue?

A spectrum of Carolina Blue pantone swatches; Courtesy David C. Smith

A spectrum of Carolina Blue pantone swatches; Image by David C. Smith

The correct answer? All of them. Each one of these shades has been used officially by the University as representative of Carolina. UNC Hospitals often used Pantone 543 (on the far right). The athletics departments often favored bolder, sharper blues such as Pantone 297 and 298 (which look more teal, but show up strongly on uniforms and merchandise).

The July/August 2002 issue of Carolina Alumni Review

The July/August 2002 issue of Carolina Alumni Review

For many years, the University’s official stance was that Pantone 278 (far left) be used to represent the University but different shades were still used across campus. In 2002, the Carolina Alumni Review ran a cover story discussing the disparity between blues across campus.

In 2015, UNC worked with Nike on a project to revise and standardize Carolina’s athletic uniforms and logos. The decision was made to make Carolina Blue officially Pantone 542 (second from the right). This shade was noticeably darker and greener with a warmer tone than Pantone 278 (Old Carolina Blue). These days if you purchase Carolina merchandise, the blue should be in this tone. For more information on the regulations for the look of official Carolina products, see the UNC Branding & Visual Identity Guidelines here: identity.unc.edu/colors

 

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