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Graphic Gallery: Blue

Earth is often known as the ‘blue planet’, and blue is used to represent the air we breathe and the water we drink. Blue is the colour of loyalty, holiness and virtue, but it’s also linked to deadly diseases and depression. And blue is the colour of uniforms, adopted by both the Navy and generations of denim-clad teenagers.

By Lalita Kaplish

  • Story

Fresh air

Poster for modern housing
Your Britain, Abram Games. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Your Britain: fight for it now. A series of three posters produced by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, 1942.

In the days of heavy urban smogs, clean, fresh air was a major health issue. As this campaign for modern housing shows, the promise of blue skies was as much about what you left behind as having a shiny new house to live in.

Breathing easy

Advertisement for a Burroughs Wellcome inhaler.
Advertisement for a Burroughs Wellcome inhaler, Burroughs Wellcome & Co.. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Advertisement for a Burroughs Wellcome inhaler.

Not surprisingly, blue is the preferred colour for adverts about asthma and bronchitis and lung diseases. "Use my product and it’ll be like breathing clean, fresh air" is the message they convey.


AIDS poster about water based lubricants
Goed Fout. Source: Wellcome Collection. © V.U. Gart Zeebregis, AIDS Team Productions, Antwerpen. CC BY-NC.

AIDS public health poster for water based lubricants. Netherlands, 1995.

From swimming pools to water-based lubricants, blue says water. Like the rivers and lakes, water-based products are natural and good for your health.


Player's cigarettes advertisement with sailor's head
Players Navy Cut Cigarettes, John Player & Sons. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY-NC.

Advert for John Player Navy Cut cigarettes. [193?]

As well as linking cigarettes with blue skies and seas, this advert also features a sailor in a traditional navy blue uniform. The British Navy adopted a blue uniform for officers - then called marine blue – in 1748. By the 18th century blue military uniforms were everywhere. 'True Blue' is the colour of officialdom, associated with loyalty, calm and harmony. The flags of the United Nations and the European Commission are both blue.


Poster of a woman breastfeeding a baby
Nature's Food is Best. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY-NC.

Poster for breast feeding. Date unknown.

In the 12th century the Catholic Church decreed that the robes of the Virgin Mary should be painted with ultramarine - a blue pigment based on semi-precious lapis lazuli and imported from the mines of Afghanistan. By the Renaissance, blue was established as the colour of holiness, humility, virtue – and wealth! Good ultramarine was more expensive than gold. These associations persist, even in modern depictions of the mother and child.

Blue disease

Drawing of a small child with cyanosis and measles
Child with measles and cyanosis, 1884, Thomas Godart. Source: Wellcome Collection. © St Bartholomew's Hospital Archives & Museum. CC BY.

Child with measles and cyanosis by Thomas Godart, 1884.

Cyanosis literally means the blue disease or the blue condition. The obvious symptom of cyanosis is bluish skin due to deoxygenation of the blood. Acute cyanosis can be as a result of asphyxiation or choking. In heart conditions, it’s also a sign that the heart is not pumping blood effectively, and this is the cause of 'blue baby syndrome'. Cholera was called the Blue Death because acute dehydration in the later stages gave victims' skin a bluish tinge.

Blue devils

Caricature of a depressed man surrounded by 'blue devils'
Spooner's Magic No. 7, W Spooner. Source: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

Caraicature for Spooner's Magic No. 7. [183?]

Feeling blue and having ‘the blues’ are familiar terms for depression and melancholy. They probably derive from the term ‘blue devils’, which was in use as far back as the 18th century. “I feel a fit o them cursed blue devils coming across me” says the dejected looking man in this 19th century print. Another print suggests a link between the unhealthy bluish palour of illness and low spirits. Whatever the origin, it’s another association that persists. After the suicide of his friend, Picasso literally entered a Blue Period (1901–1904) when he used blue tones almost exclusively to create a melancholy mood.


AIDS Public Health Poster
Gotcha Keys? Gotcha Cash? Gotcha Condoms. Source: Wellcome Collection. © Public Health Commission Rangapu Hauora Tumatanui [Wellington, New Zealand]. CC BY-NC.

AIDS public health poster from New Zealand [199?]

The deep blue shade of indigo has its own band in the rainbow. It’s also the name of a plant that sparked several international trade disputes. The European clothing industry used woad to make a blue dye called pastel, but by the 17th century, it was superceded by a superior dye based on the indigo plant, exported from colonial India. Natural indigo dyes were themselves replaced in the early 20th century by the synthetic dye indanthrone blue. Around the same time, Levi Strauss produced his indigo denim work trousers. In 1935, blue jeans were raised to the level of high fashion by Vogue magazine and rapidly became the uniform of the young (and young at heart) everywhere.

<em>Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? is at Wellcome Collection until 14 January 2018.

About the contributors

Photograph of Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish


Lalita is a web editor at Wellcome Collection.