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Awareness Ribbons - How It All Started

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Awareness Ribbons - How It All Started
Awareness Ribbons - How It All Started
© Dixie Allan

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” That statement was made by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, so it shouldn't seem strange that awareness ribbons have a modern history that begins in the recognition of a soldier.

America had it's first instance of using awareness ribbons to commemorate the thoughts and prayers that were going out for our troops stationed in harm’s way in the 1970s. The yellow ribbon symbol quickly became associated with our troops and hostages. On a January 28 CBS broadcast, Penelope Laingen, wife of the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in Tehran, Bruce Laingen, was interviewed outside her home in Bethesda, Maryland. "It just came to me, to give people something to do, rather than throw dog food at Iranians. I said, 'Why don't they tie a yellow ribbon around an old oak tree.' That's how it started." 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 trees or any kind of tree. This evolved to include more elegant interpretations of the ritual and has even become subtle yet powerful testimony, worn and shared by way of the sophisticated ribbon pins that double as fashion statements.

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 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.

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 popularity of ribbons and ribbon-related merchandise, such as key chains, lapel pins, bracelets, necklaces, bumper stickers, T-shirts, tattoos and other accents 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. 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 their lives or were injured in the terrorist attacks. The aftermath of 9-11 brought about the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq war. The ribbon of choice this time was again the yellow ribbon as millions of Americans looked for ways to support the troops.

The current interest in awareness ribbons has brought about an industry of awareness products designed and used for more than just awareness. Look around today and you can see these items being used for fund raising, promotional campaigns, posters, brochures and as donor thank you gifts. Now when you see someone wearing a ribbon if you think back to how it all began, you will have a whole new perspective on the simple awareness ribbon.

For information on what the colors of the ribbons stand for, read the article Awareness Ribbons - The Colors and What They Represent.

For links to the ribbon clip art image files, visit Awareness Ribbons

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