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Believe Me When I Tell You These Little-Known Facts About Color Are Fascinating

Who knew the Dutch were responsible for the prevalence of orange carrots?

In The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair asks readers to look at color in a new way: through history.

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Organized into 75 shades, St. Clair's book delves into the origin stories, trivia items, cultural connotations, and little-known facts behind specific colors — from the pink that became synonymous with punk to the brown that changed military strategy — which, all together, make up a collection that's surprisingly hard to put down. Below are some of our favorites.

1.

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In 1979, after a decade during which US cities experienced spikes in drug use and violence, Professor Alexander Schauss announced he found a cure for aggressiveness: the color pink. Schauss based this theory on a year of experiments which showed that young men who stared at the color pink for a minute were demonstrably weaker than men who spent a minute staring at deep blue.

When two commanding officers at the US Naval Correctional Center in Seattle decided to paint one of their holding cells Schauss's pink — but only after adding some semigloss red to get, according to St. Clair, "the perfect Pepto-Bismol shade" — the violence that had been plaguing their institution stopped for a full 156 days. Baker and Miller went on a media tour to talk about their discovery, but their finding was the subject of controversy in the academic world. Today, Baker-Miller pink is pretty rare.

2.

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Believe it or not, there is actually a woman credited as the first person to be called a "dumb blonde." Her name was Rosalie Duthé, she was "famously beautiful," and she was born in 18th-century France. Because of her precocious beauty, her parents sent her to a convent as a young girl to keep her away from leering men, but she ended up leaving to be with a rich British financier. After running his wallet dry, Duthé became a dancer, courtesan, nude model, and general woman of interest — though this lifestyle came with a reputation of stupidity.

Her reputation was so well known that she found herself satirized in a 1775 one-act play in Paris, Les Curiosités de la Foire. Duthé was apparently mortified, though tbh she shouldn't have been — get that money, girl.

3.

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Though what was once the principality of Orange is now part of the southern France, the House of Orange — and specifically William I, Prince of Orange — was fundamental to the birth of the Netherlands. The Dutch loyalty to William I (the descendants of whom still make up the Dutch royal family) was so strong that the color orange became a key marker of their national brand.

This meant portraits showed members of the family wrapped in orange clothes. An early version of the Dutch flag was blue, white, and orange, until they came to terms with the fact that they couldn't find an orange dye that wouldn't run. (Today, it is blue, white, and red.) Most interesting, though, is the effect on carrots. According to St. Clair: "Originally a tough and rather bitter tuber from South America, prior to the seventeenth century [the carrot] was usually purple or yellow. Over the next 100 years, however, Dutch farmers selectively bred carrots to produce orange varieties."

4.

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People have been describing shades of blue as "electric" since the late 19th century, right as Thomas Edison was working to use electricity to produce light. In an 1874 issue of a British drapers' trade publication, one velvet piece was described as "dark electric blue," ditto a "walking dress" in an 1883 issue of Young Ladies' Journal.

The connection consistently signaled modernity — and it still does. See: the electric blue light transmitted from futuristic technology in Minority Report and both Tron films, the electric blue-tinted stills from Inception, and, of course, Wall-E.

5.

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Emeralds are relatively rare, fragile, and valuable gemstones usually sourced in Pakistan, India, Zambia, and parts of South America. One specific emerald called the Bahia, though, has been the source of recent controversy. Mined from Brazil in 2001, the Bahia weighs in at a gargantuan 840 pounds ("roughly the same as a male polar bear," St. Clair writes) and is estimated to contain 180,000 carats.

Since its discovery, the stone has been at the center of multiple frauds. At one point it was listed on eBay for a buy-it-now price of $75 million; today, it's the subject of a major California lawsuit in which a dozen people claim to have purchased it fair and square. In the meantime, Brazil is fighting for its return. It's no wonder the Bahia is so popular: It's currently valued at $400 million.

6.

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Obsidian, also known as volcanic glass, has long been used in mystical and occult circles. One specific piece — a thick, glossy disk with a small handle, currently at the British Museum in London — has been tracked since it was first created by the Aztecs, in honor of their god Tezcatlipoca (or, "smoking mirror"). The mirror was brought into Europe after Cortés invaded what is now Mexico, and eventually made its way into the hands of an Elizabethan astrologer and philosopher named Dr. John Dee.

Dr. Dee was said to have used the mirror to "call his spirits," but such an activity wasn't the slightest bit unusual at the time. Dee was not only a believer in the occult, he was also the queen's adviser, and he received insight by "talking to angels" through the mirror and mediums. When Christianity became paranoid and obsessive about the devil and witchcraft in the late 16th century, though, all things black became associated with evil. That the mirror wasn't destroyed wasn't just good luck — on the advice of one of the angels Dee communed with, Dee burned all 28 volumes of his records of communication with mediums, and it's surprising any record of his mysticism exists at all.

7.

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Silver isn't just valuable, it has a long history of association with superstition and myth. In Scottish lore, a silver branch bearing silver apples were said to give access to a fairy otherworld. It was also said to be able to change color when in contact with poison, hence the prominence of silver tableware. When the town of Greifswald, Germany, announced it was overrun by werewolves in the mid-17th century, citizens fought back with musket balls made of precious metal. This myth continues, of course, in the universal use of silver to kill all sorts of monsters, from werewolves to vampires.

8.

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Taupe has been troublesome for over a century. In the 1880s, American artist and teacher Albert Henry Munsell set out to create a standardized way of mapping color. In 1930, after some tweaking and the incorporation of common color names, A. Maerz and M.R. Paul published the Dictionary of Color — a resource still used today.

Defining color was an incredibly difficult task, and the color taupe was especially vexing. Technically a French word meaning "mole," the shade associated with the color was kind of all over the place. But Maerz and Paul were dedicated to the cause. They traveled zoological museums of the US and France to examine specimens from the genus Talpa and found multiple variations. The color they included was, in their own words, "a correct match for the average color of the French mole." According to St. Clair, "taupe has since continued to run wild."

9.

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In 1870s Paris, the old, academic art establishments were obsessed with the color violet — and they frickin' hated it. When Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Camille Pissarro — aka the impressionists — founded the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., their first exhibition was, according to St. Clair, a "mission statement, rallying call, and, most importantly, a snub to the Académie des Beaux-Arts."

Critics of the Anonymous Society were scathing, but especially focused on the prominence of the color violet in their works. It became the fixation of those who believed the artists were dangerously troubled, evidence that they might suffer from a disease they called "violettomania." One critic compared Pissarro's depiction of violet trees to a psych ward resident's delusions. Still others hypothesized that the artists did see the world in violet, as a result of their many hours staring at sunny landscapes. Who knew one color could be such a disrupter?

For more information about The Secret Lives of Color, click here.

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