The Color Revolution

It took a perceptual and cultural revolution to create our colorful world.

Posted Oct 13, 2020

Wikimedia Commons / Louis Hayet (1886)
Source: Wikimedia Commons / Louis Hayet (1886)

History books have recorded a number of revolutions that rocked the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions. Yet there was another revolution underway at the same time that has gotten a lot less coverage.

I’m referring to a perceptual and cultural revolution surrounding color. It was less bloody than its political counterparts, but it was no less radical, and the people who lived through it felt its effects acutely.

In a previous post, I described how, for millennia, access to color was bound by geography, economics, and social status. The color revolution lifted those longstanding barriers and set color rampaging throughout society, filling the streets with vivid, jarring hues.

Today, we can wear clothes in virtually any color, line our walls with art, and fill our homes with objects in a range of hues that would have astounded anyone living in earlier historical periods. What made it possible for color to saturate our lives? What revolutionized color?

Scientific Revolutions

The seeds of the color revolution took root a century or so before the revolution was fully underway. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Scientific Revolution ushered in a fascination with optical experiments, and more importantly, with scientific classification.

Naturalists sought to give the natural world order through new naming conventions, taxonomies, and systems. In the eighteenth century, the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus developed binomial nomenclature, and intellectuals set out to compile the first great encyclopedias.

Color was not exempt from this classifying impulse, and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the birth of the first true color systems. In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton developed the concept of the seven-color spectrum. (Originally, he noted only five colors, but he added indigo and orange to reflect the sacredness of the number seven (Morrison, 36).)   

In 1708, Claude Boutet created the first documented color wheel, and other naturalists and artists began to debate the existence of so-called “primary” and “secondary colors.” This taxonomic framework set the stage for major changes in the ways people understood colors, the relationship between colors, and the norms surrounding color use.

During the nineteenth century, hundreds of color systems competed for prominence, and consensus began to form around the idea of colors as definitively warm and cool, complementary and contrasting, and a host of other categories we use today.

Economic Revolutions

In the premodern world, some of the most lucrative trade networks thrived because of color. Rare, expensive, and precious colors entered Europe by means of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America.

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, trade had, in many cases, been replaced by colonization, and Europeans had a firm hold on a global economic system that allowed them to build empires out of color. Colorful textiles and pigments like indigo and cochineal were among the most valuable products produced in these territories. While indigenous peoples and slaves toiled to produce brightly colored goods, a great quantity of pigments and dyes flooded European markets.

Meanwhile, more and more Europeans left their agricultural lifestyles for cities. The wealth of the bourgeois class increased, as did their desire to make their lives more splendid. Slowly but surely, the growing urban elite chipped away at sumptuary laws that prevented them from buying certain colored goods.

Governments recognized that there was economic benefit in turning a blind eye, and by the 1780s, most of the traditional barriers to consumption had disappeared. Sumptuous colors were available to anyone who could afford them, and because of the cruel dynamics of colonialism and slave labor, they could do so at a lower cost.

Soon, the lower classes sought “populuxe” goods, or cheap knock-offs of luxury items (Fairchilds, 228). Much like an imitation Louis Vuitton purse might satisfy some consumers today, the eighteenth-century urban poor carried inexpensive fans and sported fake gold watches.

Notoriously, though, colors were one of the hardest things to make “populuxe.” They had become potent symbols of power because they were so rare in the first place. During the eighteenth century, none of that changed. The Murex snails that produced purple were still rare, and ultramarine still had to be mined in Afghanistan’s mountains.

Legally, color was no longer tied to a particular social group, but practically, it still belonged to the wealthy.

Unsplash / Artiom Vallat
These flowers approximate the vividness of Perkin's color mauve.
Source: Unsplash / Artiom Vallat

The Creation of Synthetic Colors

The most radical revolution of all came in the mid-nineteenth century when a young chemist named William Henry Perkin managed to synthesize a brilliant purple dye, which he called “mauve.”

Perkin immediately saw the commercial potential in cheap, hyper-bright, and easily reproducible colorants. Soon, new chemical colors exploded onto the scene, and city streets became battlegrounds for visual intensity. Synthetic colors spawned a veritable mania throughout Europe, and color quickly became a multi-million dollar industry.  

Color flooded the mass-market, and color technologies boomed. Color printing, colorfast dyes, vivid paints, arresting advertisements, patterned textiles, and saturated window displays appeared everywhere. The first department stores were born, and consumers had access, for the first time, to ready-to-wear fashion and readily available home goods.

In an instant, the world was revolutionized, and the millennia-long social, economic, and cultural values attached to bright colors changed. Color was no longer the province of the noble or wealthy. It was attainable by people at all social levels.

A Bright World

It’s hard to imagine a world that doesn’t tempt us with color at every turn. Still, even if you prefer neutrals, it’s likely that almost every object in your home is tied, in some way, to the color revolution of the nineteenth century.

During the nineteenth century, color went from something local to something universal; pricey to cheap; and sacred to common. The history of modern color is steeped in chemistry, commerce, and colonization, and when it burst onto the scene, it was nothing short of revolutionary. Once we took hold of it, readily available color became such an integral part of our lives that, soon, we no longer noticed it.

The historian Laura Kalba has described how “mass-produced and -reproduced color gave rise to widespread and quotidian reappraisals of common modes of making meaning” (3-4). Those reappraisals—how people experienced and made sense of this color revolution—will be the subject of next week’s article.


Fairchilds, Cissie. “The Production and Marketing of Populuxe Goods in Eighteenth-Century Paris.” In Consumption and the World of Goods. Edited by John Brewer and Roy Porter. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Garfield, Simon. Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001.

Kalba, Laura Anne. Color in the Age of Impressionism: Commerce, Technology, Art. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017.

Kuehni, Rolf and Andreas Schwarz. Color Ordered: A Survey of Color Systems from Antiquity to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 

Morrison, Tessa. Isaac Newton’s Temple of Solomon and His Reconstruction of Sacred Architecture. Basel: Springer, 2011.

Parsons, Timothy H. The British Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A World History Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Taussig, Michael. What Color is the Sacred? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.