When Did the Red Carpet Tradition Begin?

Sandra Bullock on the Oscar red carpet

Walking the red carpet used to be a really big deal. Lately, it's become so watered-down that any jabroni on a reality show or seventh-billed actor on a mediocre sitcom gets to walk the carpet for fans and paparazzi.

Yes, the red carpet has certainly lost some of its mojo from its more stately origins as a way to honor gods and dignitaries. But before it became co-opted by Hollywood as self-aggrandizing promotion, the red carpet was actually something special.

The first known mention of a red carpet being rolled out goes all the way back to the 5th Century BC, and Aeschylus' play Agamemnon. In the play, the Greek king's wife, Clytemnestra, prepared the carpet as a way to set up her philandering husband to be murdered, by her own hands. Agamemnon walks the carpet laid out for his triumphant welcome...and promptly gets wacked. The following text comes from the play:

"I am a mortal, a man; I cannot trample upon these tinted splendors without fear thrown in my path."

Agamemnon, aware of the tradition of laying out the carpet to honor the gods, was wary of disrespecting Zeus and his fellow deities. The King of Argos should have followed his first instinct.

Incidentally, the Greeks (and the Romans) were several thousand years ahead of Prince when it came to loving purple. For the upper-echelon of Ancient Greece, purple was a measure of their Royalness. Scholars believe the carpet mentioned in Agamemnon was actually purple, but that the color has become confused over the centuries.

In modern times, President James Monroe in 1821 was honored at Prospect Hill (which is now known as Arcadia) on Waccamaw in South Carolina with a red carpet laid out to the river.

But what really cemented the red carpet tradition were the railroads. Passengers in New York and Chicago who rode the 20th Century Limited train walked on and off the train via a plush carpet, adding to the luxury and uniqueness of each trip.

That's no longer the case. Every D-Lister and their DVD release gets the red carpet these days. Too bad Agamemnon's fears didn't survive the passage of time, like his story.