Color, as we know it, is a remarkably modern invention. This book takes in in-depth look into how the
nineteenth century forever changed the way that we look at the world.
Color, as we know it, is a remarkably modern invention. In a world before trains, reliable road networks, automobiles, or the lure of better jobs in an urban setting, most people lived local and rural lives. Color was seasonal and bound by natural light and the local environment.
Only with industrialization, the growth of commercial society, the development of synthetic chemistry, and the extension of global trade networks did color shift from something highly local to something universal. In 1856, the young chemist William Perkin accidentally discovered a way to derive colorants from coal tar, and his new creation, “mauve,” spawned a veritable mania throughout Europe.
At its inception, the dreamy new world created by color was, for many people, disorienting, chaotic, and uncomfortable. Even among those who reveled in the new brilliance, there was a sense that color (and its commerce) had somehow disrupted social order. Color threatened the very fabric of society, leaving no aspect untouched. Class, race, exploitation, freedom, opportunity, desire, sexuality, religion, war, and the innermost emotional self—nothing remained unaltered in the presence of modern color.
In light of color’s perceived dangers, people at all ends of the spectrum, from consumer to producer and every step in between, sought to control color, give it order, and contain it. Between 1740 and 1915, thousands of artists, naturalists, manufacturers, philosophers, interior decorators, chemists, educators, and printmakers were seized by a fervor for color organization. Throughout Europe and the United States, theorists developed hundreds of new color systems, color taxonomies, and scientific color measurement schemes.
Color standardization systems—made so possible by the economic, technological, and social shifts of the modern era—helped people embrace the power of color while maintaining their grip on purpose, clarity, and order. This is the story of that standardizing impulse.
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