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The word "Shell" first appeared in 1891, as the trade mark for kerosene being shipped to the Far East by Marcus Samuel and Company. This small London business dealt originally in antiques, curios and oriental seashells. These became so popular – the Victorians used them to decorate trinket boxes in particular – that soon they formed the basis of the company’s profitable import and export trade with the Far East.

The word was elevated to corporate status in 1897, when Samuel formed The “Shell” Transport and Trading Company. The first logo (1901) was a mussel shell, but by 1904 a scallop shell or ‘Pecten” emblem had been introduced to give a visual manifestation to the corporate and brand name.

Exploring the origins

The history of the Shell logo

The choice of a shell as an emblem was not surprising, as it was the company name. Also, each of Samuel’s tankers carrying kerosene to the Far East had been named after a different seashell. But why specifically was the scallop or Pecten chosen as the company’s symbol in 1904? It was certainly not the simplest shape to reproduce in printed form.

Both the word “Shell” and the Pecten symbol may have been suggested to Samuel and Co. by another interested party. A Mr Graham, who imported Samuel’s kerosene into India and sold it as ‘Graham’s Oil’, subscribed capital to, and became a director of, The “Shell” Transport and Trading Company.

There is some evidence that the Shell emblem was taken from his family coat of arms. The ‘St James’s Shell’ had been adopted by the Graham family after their ancestors made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Whatever its origins, the original design was a reasonably faithful reproduction of the Pecten or scallop shell.

When the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company and “Shell” Transport and Trading merged in 1907 it was the latter’s brand name and symbol which then became the short form name (“Shell”) and the visible emblem (the “Pecten”) of the new Royal Dutch/Shell Group. And so it has remained ever since.

The form of the Shell emblem has changed gradually over the years in line with trends in graphic design. The current emblem was created by the great designer Raymond Loewy and introduced in 1971. Thirty years on it stands the test of time as one of the world’s most recognised symbols.

Why red and yellow?

The history of the Shell logo

The exact origins of the Shell red and yellow are hard to define. True, Samuel and Company first shipped kerosene to the Far East in tin containers painted red. But the link, once again, could be with Spain.

In 1915, when the Shell Company of California first built service stations, they had to compete against other companies. Bright colours were the solution, but colours that would not offend the Californians. Because of the state’s strong Spanish connections, the red and yellow of Spain were chosen.

As with the Pecten, the actual colours have been modified over the years, most notably in 1995 when a bright, fresh and very consumer friendly new Shell Red and Shell Yellow were introduced to launch Shell’s new retail visual identity. The Shell emblem - or Pecten - remains one of the greatest brand symbols in the 21st Century.