Why Do We Call Manual Laborers Blue Collar?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 1 2012 7:22 PM

Working Man's Blues

Why do we call manual laborers blue collar?

A blue collar worker.
When did white collar or blue collar start denoting the class of worker?

Paul Taggart/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Labor unions and other protesters marched in cities around the world Tuesday, to mark the annual May Day celebration of workers’ rights. In France, presidential front-runner Francois Hollande took the opportunity to call out the “suffering electorate of office workers, artisans and blue-collar workers who are really feeling abandoned.” When did people start referring to workers by the color of their collar?

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. Email him at Forrest.Wickman@slate.com.

In the 1910s and 1920s. The turned-down collar as we know it today has been around since at least the 1800s, but it wasn’t commonly used to discriminate by occupation and social status until around the early 20th century. Uppity white collars came first: In 1910, the Norfolk, Nebraska Weekly News-Journal extolled the wisdom of the homesteader who “had the good sense to leave a cheap, white-collar job, deny himself fleeting luxuries, take up the cross, and follow—the plow.” The use of blue to mean “working class” soon followed. The etymologist Barry Popik suggests that “blue collar workers” were mentioned in contrast to “white collar workers” as early as 1924, when the Alden, Iowa newspaper the Times proposed, “If we may call professions and office positions white collar jobs, we may call the trades blue collar jobs.” The phrase “blue collar” came into its own in the 1930s, and appeared in the New York Times (in quotation marks) for the first time in 1945. The popularity of both blue collar and white collar rose together in popularity after World War II.*

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At the time when blue collar was coined, most blue-collar workers weren’t required to wear any particular uniform or shirt color to work. While office workers could wear white-collared shirts without much fear of soiling them, and could also afford to launder their shirts regularly, manual laborers preferred darker colors. The German immigrant and frontier salesman Levi Strauss began to make denim in the 1870s, and the fabric quickly became popular with coal miners and other rugged Westerners. (Blue jeans wouldn’t become a middle-class institution until The Wild One, Rebel without a Cause, and the student protesters of the 1960s.) Chambray shirts, coveralls, boiler suits, and clothes made of dungaree also tend to come in blue, and these have been popular with manual laborers since the early 20th century. Office workers, for their part, moved away from wearing white in the 1960s. By 1970 about 80 percent of the shirts sold by Arrow, the country’s largest shirt manufacturer, were colored.

While the terms white-collar and blue-collar seem to derive from the actual color of workers’ clothes, there are some more recent spin-off phrases that lack any non-figurative meaning. In the late 1970s, the writer and social critic Louise Kappe Howe popularized pink collar workers as a term for those women consigned to work as nurses, secretaries and elementary school teachers. Meanwhile the environmental movement gave rise to “green-collar workers” (who work in conservation and sustainability), and the 1980s yielded a class of “gold-collar workers” (who work in specialized fields like law, engineering, and finance, or, according to a different definition, in the service industry). As the population ages, we may see more “grey-collar workers” (who work into their 60s). And the latest entrants are the “no-collar workers”—tech-industry professionals who eschew collars altogether.

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Explainer thanks Mary Thomasine Harkins of Emerson College and Barry Popik.

Correction, May 4, 2012: The original version incorrectly stated that collar colors weren’t used to discriminate by occupation until the 1930s. The phrase white-collar was used as early as 1910, and blue-collar had been coined by 1924 at the latest.