Written by Todd DePastino

Folks old enough to remember Desert Shield and Storm will recall that when the war started, yellow ribbons sprouted like daffodils on front doors and mailboxes, lamp posts and traffic signs. They became a symbol of support for troops sent into harm’s way and an expression of hope that they would all return home soon.

Where did this custom originate? And why did it go viral in 1990-91?

Yellow ribbon hangs between two cranes during a parade

A yellow ribbon hangs between two cranes on the parade route during the National Victory Celebration parade in Washington, DC, August 6, 1991 (Cw02 Bailey/DoD)

I asked those questions on one of our VBC Happy Hours last year and got some intriguing theories in response. Puritan Roundheads wore yellow sashes during the English Revolution of the 1640s, someone said. Maybe there’s a connection? The US Cavalry wore yellow scarves, remarked another. Could that be the source?

The more I looked into it, the stranger and less-straightforward the history of the yellow ribbon appeared. The story, you might say, is deeply twisted.

Displaying a special item to remember a loved one far away goes back hundreds of years, but the first copyrighted song to specify a yellow ribbon was George A. Norton’s “Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon (For Her Lover Who Is Far, Far Away)” published in 1917.

Norton’s song was a good fit for World War I, when 2 million American men shipped overseas for war. The song features a soldier named Silas whose girl, named Susie, is left back home:

‘Round her neck she wears a yeller ribbon,

She wears it in winter and the summer so they say, 

If you ask her “Why the decoration?”

She’ll say “It’s fur my lover who is fur, fur away.”

The song drew on a folk tradition that included such older ballads as “All Round My Hat” from 1838, which itself was a variation on a still older British canon. In “All Round My Hat,” it’s the man who longs for an absent woman. And he wears “a green villow” (sung for some reason, in a strange Germanic dialect) round his hat in remembrance.

College students sang off-color versions with lyrics that substituted a garter round the leg for ribbon round the neck. Some of these bawdy tunes featured a pregnant woman and her shotgun-toting father in search of the missing man.

Hollywood director John Ford revived this folklore for RKO Pictures in 1949 with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a hugely popular Western starring John Wayne. The Andrew Sisters recorded an updated version of the 1917 song for the movie.

That movie really should have been the high water mark of yellow ribbon imagery in American culture. But, somehow, through the mysterious alchemy of folklore, an item of song morphed into an actual real-life practice.

A key ingredient to this transformation was a fictional story told in a gruesome 1959 novel about a boy who kills a girl and eats her . . . yes, cannibalism. Star Wormwood by (former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice) Curtis Bok contains this anecdote recalled third-hand about two men on a train:

A convict returning from five years’ imprisonment in a distant prison . . . had written to [his family] to make a sign for him when he was released and came home. If they wanted him, they should put a white ribbon in the big apple tree which stood close to the railroad track at the bottom of the garden, and he would get off the train, but if they did not want him, they were to do nothing and he would stay on the train and seek a new life elsewhere. He said that they were nearing his home town and that he couldn’t bear to look. His [train companion] said that he would look and took his place by the window to watch for the apple tree which the other had described to him.
In a minute he put a hand on his companion’s arm. “There it is,” he cried. “It’s all right! The whole tree is white with ribbons.”

This story got around—or, perhaps, had already been circulating by word of mouth before the novel was published—and was then told and re-told with slightly differing details.

Vintage Yellow Ribbon Pin

Vintage Desert Storm lapel pin

In 1971, Pete Hamill crafted a new version of it for the New York Post. In it, he substituted a yellow handkerchief for the white ribbon and an oak tree for the apple tree. Reader’s Digest reprinted Hamill’s story in 1972, and ABC-TV rushed out a feature starring James Earl Jones as the ex-con.

The following year, Tony Orlando and Dawn released a smash hit with “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” It’s hard to exaggerate just how popular this song was. Radio stations played it several times a day, every day, for months. It topped the charts in eight countries. And it hit with multiple generations, not just youth. I distinctly remember older aunts and uncles singing it when I was kid.

Pete Hamill sued the songwriters, Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown, for copyright infringement. To no avail. The story wasn’t Hamill’s. It belonged to our collective folkloric imagination.

It’s one thing to sing about tying a yellow ribbon around a tree. It’s another to actually do it.

This is where, in perfect 1970s fashion, Tony Orlando and Dawn collided with Watergate.

Inspired by the song, Gail Magruder decorated her front porch to celebrate her husband’s return from prison. Some of you might remember her husband, Jeb Stuart Magruder, the Nixon campaign operative who helped to plan, execute, and cover up the Watergate break-in in 1972. News cameras captured the scene of Magruder’s homecoming amidst a festoon of yellow ribbons on January 8, 1975.

One person watching the news that night was Penne Laingen, whose husband Bruce was a diplomat in the US Foreign Service. Four years later, President Jimmy Carter would appoint Bruce Laingen to be U.S. chargé d’affaires in Iran. Five months after his appointment, on November 4, 1979, student revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took fifty-two American hostages, including ranking diplomat Bruce Laingen.

Back in Washington, Bruce’s wife Penne tied a yellow ribbon around an old oak tree in her front yard. “So I’m standing and waiting and praying,” she told the Washington Post, “and one of these days Bruce is going to untie that yellow ribbon. It’s going to be out there until he does.”

Yellow Ribbon Ceremony

Yellow Ribbon Ceremony for the 3rd Infantry Division’s deployment at Victory Park in Hinesville, Georgia, 2009 (Spc. Michael Adams/US Army)

Families of the fifty-two hostages formed an organization called FLAG (Family Liaison Action Group) to keep the crisis in public awareness. In cooperation with allies, including the AFL-CIO, Chambers of Commerce, Boy Scouts troops, and churches, FLAG chose the yellow ribbon as the symbol of their campaign. They distributed 10,000 yellow ribbon pins to prominent Americans around the country, including TV weather reporters. In 1981, the hostages were released after 444 days, and the yellow ribbon was cemented as the symbol of a nation’s fidelity to those in harm’s way far from home.

Ten years later, with the launch of Operation Desert Storm, Americans turned to the established folklore to express their support for those fighting the war. Yellow ribbons emerged in even greater numbers than they had during the Hostage Crisis.

An interesting thing about these yellow ribbons of 1991, however. They were tied in a traditional Christmas-bow style with a knot, two loops, and two hanging tails. These are not the ribbons we know of today.

Two more steps were needed for the ribbons to achieve their current, iconic single-loop profile.

The first came on June 7, 1991, at the Tony Awards on Broadway. Presenters and guests appeared wearing red, single-looped, inverted V ribbons to signify AIDS awareness. Fifteen members of the group Visual AIDS had handmade them, and the top of the inverted V was more knot than loop.

The final step came in 1992—which the New York Times declared “The Year of the Ribbon.” Self magazine and the cosmetics company Estee Lauder teamed to publicize the pink ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness. Estee Lauder gave away 1.5 million ribbons at their cosmetics counters that year. The ribbon was in the style of the inverted V, but with the top knot loosened into a loop.

That elegant single-loop design is now a staple of all sorts of awareness campaigns. You can find ribbons in dozens of colors for all sorts of illnesses, conditions, and causes, from Appendicitis (amber) to Zika (red) and from Anti-bullying (blue) to Worker Safety (green).

The yellow ribbon, however, will always remind me of Desert Storm, when the nation was eager to atone for the ignominious reception it gave to returning service members thirty years earlier.