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Monkey Skin, Elephant’s Breath, and Kitten’s Ear: History of Color Naming

There is scarcely any subject that has so many practical and scientific aspects as the subject of color (Henry LeFavour, Elementary Color, 1895: p 1).

Robert Ridgway, 1873. Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collections, 1850s- , Smithsonian Institution Archives. Neg. no. SIA2008-4347.

Robert Ridgway, 1873. Record Unit 95 – Photograph Collections, 1850s- , Smithsonian Institution Archives. Neg. no. SIA2008-4347.

There are many ways to study color*. We can trace the history of color pigments, the development of color chemistry, the effect of color on our psyche, and the perception of color. We can also trace how we have come to name (nomenclature) and standardize colors.

The language of color often derives its names from aspects of nature, flora/fauna, geology (e.g., minerals), geography, food, and uses fanciful descriptions such as mother goose or rendez-vous. No doubt, color naming can be descriptive of the color, but it also plays on our emotions – it seems fair to say that we would be more likely to buy something sold as pink champagne rather than beige.

Milton Bradley, who is best known as a board game manufacturer, was a strong supporter for the study of color and standardization. He developed a system of color instruction for early childhood education which he published in his books Color in the School-Room: A Manual for Teachers (1890), Elementary Color (1895), and Water Colors in the Schoolroom (1900).

Bradley was not alone in his campaign to increase awareness for the study and categorization of color. Robert Ridgway, Smithsonian’s Curator of the Division of Birds from 1869-1929, was also interested in the standardization and naming of colors. As a scientist (and artist) he needed a way to properly illustrate, write and speak about the variety of colors observed in nature. He was an avid student of color science (he read Bradley’s Elementary Color, 1895) and carefully arranged and provided names to 1,115 colors in his book Color Standards and Color Nomenclature (1912). Ridgway also published Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists in 1886, which included 186 named colors.

Industry was also concerned with color standards and naming since they needed a way to communicate with each other when placing orders, etc. Businesses and manufacturers needed to employ a ‘universal’ vocabulary for colors so when they wanted a product to have the color of eggplant they didn’t just get purple. Color naming also became a vital component for marketing and sales.

Wireless, Hydro, and Radio ribbons from the TCCA color card, Fall 1921.

Wireless, Hydro, and Radio ribbons from the TCCA color card, Fall 1921.

Researchers wanting to trace the nomenclature, naming practices of colors and the use of color standards in fashion during the early 20th century will find the Textile Color Card Association (TCCA) color cards of great interest. The TCCA set up color standardization in the United States for the textile and allied industries (e.g., shoes, hosiery, and leather), publishing the first edition of its Standard Color Card of America in 1915 that consisted of 106 colored ribbons. By the eighth edition (1928) there were 192 staple colors. The TCCA also introduced season color cards for the fall and spring which mainly focused on novelty colors (e.g., Ether and Zenith), as well as popular colors. The TCCA also published fall season woolen color cards.  Thumbing through the 1921 fall season color card, I discovered two novelty colors whose names seem very apropos for the times- Wireless and Radio. Makes sense right?  This is the time when radios were in every U.S. household.

The TCCA color cards would include a number (e.g., Turquoise is S. 6153) that could be used to order by telegram or telephone; the numbers also expressed the character of the color – the first three numbers indicated the parts of color and last number described the strength of the color. To get an idea of all the color names listed in the TCCA color cards, you can use the Index to Color Names and Color Numbers of the Standard and Season Color Cards of America; some of these indexes also include the United States Army Color Card. Preceding the work of the TCCA is The Color Association of the United States. Its Standard Color Reference of America, 10th edition (1981) is still used today.

Another important resource on the naming and standardization of colors is the Dictionary of Color by A. Maerz and M. Rea Paul, which was first published in 1930 and contained 7,056 color samples. A second edition of the dictionary came out in 1950. There is a wealth of information listed in these dictionaries, including a history of color standardization, sources of names, common errors, and a bibliography.

The Inter-Society Color Council (ISCC) began to focus its attention on designating and standardizing colors to assist the U.S. Pharmacopeia in the 1930s and that morphed into something much larger. The ISCC and the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (today’s NIST) decided to take color nomenclature to a whole new level – working with scientists, businesses, and artists they published 7,500 color names in the ISCC-NBS Method of Designating Colors and a Dictionary of Color Names in 1955 (NBS Circular 553), with a revision in 1976- Color: Universal Language and Dictionary of Names (NBS special publication; 440).

Probably the most well-known modern company that has contributed to the standardization of color is Pantone. This company has been developing color systems since the 1960s, and since 2007 has been giving the world its Color of the Year. The Library of Congress recently acquired the Pantone Reference Library, which includes more than 10,000 market-ready colors. Designers, graphic artists, fashion designers, and anyone who loves color, you are welcome to come use this set located in the Library’s Science and Business Reading Room.

I will now leave you with some of the strangest color names I came across in my research. These gave me a good laugh: Monkey Skin, Elephant’s Breath, Kitten’s Ear, and Rodent.

*Those interested in color science might want to consult Color Ordered: A Survey of Color Order Systems from Antiquity to the Present by Rolf G. Kuehni and Andreas Schwarz (Oxford University Press, 2008) and Contributions to Color Science (Publications of Deane B. Judd). NBS special publication 545 (1979).


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