Does Color of Have a History?

What can the history of color tell us about how we became modern? We usually assume that color is a constant, but we don’t always agree about what color means, and those meanings have changed dramatically over time. Indeed, color raises deeply philosophical questions: do we detect color or simply construct it in our minds? At a recent workshop held in preparation for a special issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies, historians, art historians, and literary scholars came together at Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library for a conversation about what was distinct about color in the eighteenth century and why this matters for the present. Their conversation revealed a wide range of economic and social developments that radically transformed the ways in which people all over the world understood color and its meanings.

In the eighteenth century, the growth of both capitalism and globalization led to changing perceptions of tints and hues. Seventeenth-century Europeans often thought of color as feminine and sentimental, associating it with both makeup and with luxury more broadly. But new developments in textile production—as well as innovations in how colors were produced—made it possible for people to consume a far more colorful array of goods than ever before. Cheap Indian calicoes flooded the European market and were then painted with patterns drawn from around the world in order to suit the tastes of people on both sides of the Atlantic. Artisans developed new techniques for creating dyes and pigments like Prussian blue that could be produced without natural colorings like indigo. These innovations led to new expectations for clothing and style. Color played a pivotal role in fashion, and constantly changing tastes meant that people sought out new articles of clothing well before old ones wore out. That contributed both to more consumption and even more innovation in manufacturing and in industry. New technologies and falling costs allowed working people in the eighteenth century to consume more colorful clothing than ever before—everything from blue and white checked workwear to military uniforms in standardized colors.

But there’s also a much more disturbing side to the globalization of color in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the vast expansion of race-based slavery. Although chromatically inaccurate, the use of “black” and “white” to describe skin color came into use in the sixteenth century, at the beginning of European expansion, and was joined by “red” and “yellow” two centuries later. Color increasingly became the basis not only for dividing and categorizing human beings but of legitimizing their enslavement. Still, eighteenth-century Europeans and European Americans were uncertain about what these differences in complexion meant—and they debated them fiercely. For many Europeans white was both the default color of human kind and the color of civilization. Such views were expressed both in Europe and the new United States and were offered by natural philosophers in order to explain how human beings could vary so much in physical appearance and color while still remaining human. Princeton’s president, Samuel Stanhope Smith, for example, argued that skin color was a product purely of environmental factors and that whiteness was a product of both refinement and a temperate climate. Although wrong and troubling today, Smith’s argument about color was actually an argument for people’s common humanity. For his contemporary Benjamin Franklin, white was not so much the color of mankind as the default color of the British Empire. He identified himself as white and advocated  “excluding all blacks and tawneys” from British North America and instead “increasing the lovely white and red.” Conceptions of color were thus at the heart of ideologies that legitimized slavery and empire, even though colors were themselves abstractions and their meanings far from conclusive. Indeed, color as a measure of racial identity has continued to prove contentious. In 1962, Crayola renamed its much-criticized “flesh” color crayon “peach,” and in 1999 it changed “Indian red” to “chestnut.” Even as the names and meanings of colors have changed, what hasn’t is their centrality to commerce and their crucial role in how we make sense of a complex and multi-ethnic world.

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