Why blue ballpoint ink?

In junior high, our school supply lists always specified that we were to have at least two blue ballpoint pens. In high school it was actually in the student handbook: unless the teacher specified otherwise, all assignments were to be written with blue ballpoint pens. At the bank and the post office and other places where they have ballpoint pens on ridiculously short chains for your convenience, they are at least as likely to be blue as black. How did blue ballpoint ink become such a common, almost standard, color? Why not black?

We were allowed to write in blue or black. You could occasionally get away with writing in green, but hte one thing that they wouldn’t mark was red ink, since they marked in red & couldn’t see their marking clearly to total up. Maybe your head teacher preferred blue as a colour?

If an item is to be copied a lot, the form usually states black ink, even though, these days, photocopiers can reproduce red ink darkly enough to be reasonably legible. Banks in the UK now accept cheques written with red pen and some of the supermarkets use them at tills - probably because they think people won’t walk off with red pens as much.

This question did not do too well when I asked it here. Good luck.

I would agree with one of the responses to Izzy’s thread: so that they can tell if its a copy or not. Most of the policies in school are there to prevent things. So if blue is required, its because they have had (or foresee) problems with copying.

Same thing with contracts and banks and other official things. Blue tells people that you really signed this piece of paper.

I have a friend who’s office has one official blue pen, used for signing letters and such.

Like everyone’s said already: blue ink photocopies black, black ink copies black and other colors don’t copy well. I think most legal documents are (or were) written in black ink, then signed in blue to prevent forgery. High schools sometimes make strange requirements based on what they think their students may face after graduation. This requirement may be somebody’s brilliant adaptation of this color code.

FWIW, at a former job, we were supposed to use ball point pens whenever we wrote on the work tickets. We never had enough pens on the production floor, so I started bringing pens from home. They were the same brand as what we got from the company store, but mine were green or red. I never gave it any thought, but at some point saw a copy of a worked ticket I had partly filled out. Everyone else’s writing was clear, but my writing was almost completely invsible. Sometimes, I wonder if I kept myself out of any trouble with that one…

I prefer blue when I’m filling out a pre-printed form, or when making notes on a printed document. In both of these cases, and similar ones, my writing will stand out in blue, but get lost if I used black.

Yeah, red would be even better, but red pens are less socially acceptable when writing on blank paper. And green is too light. For general, all-round use, blue is best.

Writing in green ballpoint is considered to be most appropriate for hate mail or complaining.
Seems odd to me but there you have it.

maybe because it is relatively hard to read? QED

[SUDDEN NAVY FLASHBACK]Only the captain can use a red pen.[/SUDDEN NAVY FLASHBACK]

What? Where am I? I’ve fallen out my chair…

Contrast against white paper with black ink is the only way to go.

Bic medium pens, black ink. Only way to go.

NEVER use a red pen in Asia. It is considered the worst of the worst of forms.

You know, the photocopy story has a lot of plausibility behind it. Unfortunately, some of us are actually old enough to remember a time before the very first fuzzy gray photocopies. (I was using blue ink fountain pens before Haloid renamed themselves Xerox.)

I’m not sure what the exact answer is to the OP, but I’m pretty sure blue was not selected as an anti-copy technique. (It has been used as an anti-copy technique, but blue ink was in common use prior to that develpment.)

Well, I seem to recall that Miss Manners prefers that letters to her be written in black or dark blue ink, so perhaps there is some etiquette rule there somewhere (which I guess would predate photocopiers).

At my school, it always depended upon the teacher. Blue and black were always accepted, though. Some teachers didn’t care at all, and some specifically didn’t want you to use red because that’s the color they used for correcting (I remember one teacher who liked to use green for correcting–to be different, I guess.) Math teachers preferred pencil so that you could erase mistakes rather than scribble them out.

Of course, that was mostly in the days of the purple-inked “ditto” machine, so either black or blue would stand out on a worksheet. Perhaps things are different where the worksheets feature black printing.

It’s probably some silly rule base upon some teacher’s preference/pet peeve/weird quirk. I had a teacher once who would get pissed if the staple on your paper wasn’t at a 45 degree angle. And, no, this wasn’t math class, either.

Indeed, teachers’ quirks can be annoying. I once had a teacher who was left-handed and forced us to staple our assignments in the upper-right hand corner (so that she could turn the page easily while holding a red pen in her left hand).

As to blue/black… I almost always use black. Blue ink being used for official signatures was probably useful until about five years ago, at which point color photocopy quality and color inkjet printing quality really started to catch up to visual quality. Now a blue signature could just as easily be printed as a black one.

Incidentally, on some checks that have a stamped signature, I’ve seen the stamping done in multicolor ink–sort of a rainbow from left to right. Weird stuff.


When I was in high school, back in the days of mimeographs (from which copies were cold and blue) and real carbon-copies (blue or very dark blue), a teacher told me that the only true, official and legally binding way to sign something was in black ink. Since blue was the color of a copy, black ink would signify the original document.

Enter the black toner cartidge and the modern photocopier. The worm has turned…

Sorry, but I’m going to rain on everyone’s “so you can tell it’s not a copy” theory.

I went to school in the 60s and 70s when blue ballpoint ink was firmly entrenched as the color of choice among elementary and HS students. (There were no “rules” against black, but blue was certainly the most commonly used color; other “hippy” colors were usually prohibited, but it depended on the teacher and the situation. Anyway…)

In that era of primative copy machines you had to be LEGALLY BLIND (no offense, Handy) if you could not tell a copy from the original. Most copy machines were the “wet toner” variety, using special, chalky-feeling paper. Copies were curly, blurry and gray. Before around 1975, high quality plain paper copiers were rare, expensive and inaccessable to most grade school and high school kids.

So, I say, it wasn’t the “no copy” rationale that made blue the ink of choice. Here’s my WAG:

A few years back I did some original historical research. I had to read through a couple of hundred century-old letters, most of which were hand-written with, of course, fountain/dip pens. Invariably the ink used was black.

I suspect that ballpoint pen makers latched on to blue ink as a way to set themselves apart from the fountain pen market. A blue signature would be the sign of a BPP user. Furthermore, maybe students in the 50s and 60s embraced this nonconformist difference too, as students often will.

One more point: when I was a kid, those Bic pens with the clear plastic hexagonal shafts and the “Dyomite (???) balls” seemed to have a iron-fisted lock on the school supply market. Maybe some guy in the Bic marketing dept. is responsible for the blue ink trend; maybe blue ink is $0.05/gallon cheaper than black, and he decided to ship 10 blue pens for every 1 black. Just another WAG.

I admit this is a WAG with no evidence to back it up, but it is inconcievable to me that blue ink arrived with ballpoint pens. Blue ink is made with Indigo which was a very common crop in the US even in colonial times. The ballpoint pen was invented in the late 1800s (I don’t know when it became a commonplace item).

Slight hijack: my HS teachers always stated: “blue, black or blue/black” and I always wondered about blue/black – until I decided to take all my class notes with a fountain pen (long story, but a habit I continued through college), whereupon I decided that Schaeffer blue/black ink is the best ink of all! (Black dries on the nib too fast & blue is too bright)

tomndebb and stuyguy, thank you for dashing the theories of the photocopiers’ camp. I’m a young guy, but hell, I still remember mimeographs. Those awful blueish-purplish hues, that weird alcohol smell of the machine… ugrhh

I have a strong feeling that blue ink is around for the same reason black is; you want a dark, easily readible color to contrast with the white or yellow paper. Chemicals for blue ink are probably just as easy to procure/manufacture as the black dyes. My vote is that it’s been with us as long as black ink. maybe a little bit less.


jb: sorry, but your post contains one nit I need to pick.

The alcoholly, purpleish-bluish copies you’re fondly reminiscing about came out of a “spirit duplicator” (a.k.a. Rexograph or Ditto machine), not a mimeograph machine. Mimeo uses real liquid ink that seeps through a stencil onto the paper. Said ink comes in a variety of colors including, of course, black and dark blue.

(They called me Mimeo Mike in HS, so this is a subject close to my heart.)

One thing I always wanted to know is… how did those spirit duplicators work?

Btw - thanks for clearning that up. I also thought it must have been a mimeograph machine.