Where Do These Names Come From?
Not too long ago a friend told me that she was going to paint a few rooms in her house and that she needed to pick appropriate colors for the task. Of course, with the advent of the Internet, all colors imaginable, and many that aren't, are online. You can mix and match, paint virtual walls with various shades of pink or cerulean and generally make all your decisions from the comfort of your computer screen. Being the impractical person that I am, however, I never imagined looking at the Sherwin-Williams color charts for something as useful as painting a room. Rather, I found myself lost in the names of the colors and trying to figure out why anyone would call them what they are actually called.
Then, while looking at the S-W collection, my mind wandered to consider the history of Crayola crayons. This essay, then, is my attempt to "marry" my newfound knowledge of the 80 colors in S-W's "historic collection" with the 64 colors in the Crayola 1958 crayon set (the first crayon set, by the way, with a crayon sharpener). Let's begin by talking about crayons.
In 1903 Binney & Smith put out a set of 8 waxed crayons under the name "Crayola" (a name suggested by Mrs. Binney--taking the French word for chalk--craie-- and combining it with "ola" from the word oleaginous, meaning oily). The original colors were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violent, brown and black. Here we have the unadorned basics in life--the three primary colors combined with five other useful hues-- which allowed kids for 46 years to color whatever they wanted.
However, in 1949 Crayola added 40 more colors, bringing the set to 48 colors. Many of these colors were "mixed" colors, such as "green yellow, green blue, orange red, red orange (huh?), red violet, orange yellow"; many of them were single-word colors, such as "silver, melon, gold (my favorite as a child), marroon, white, maize, periwinkle, magenta, tan" and, ultimately most controversial "flesh"; many were now supported by adjectives, such as "spring green" or "pine green or "lemon yellow" or "sea green" (how come green gets all the attention?) or "Prussian blue" (the only capitalized adjective).
My first set of Crayola crayons was this set of 48, which I received as a Christmas present in 1957, when I was five years old. But in 1958 they added yet 16 more colors, to bring us to 64, a number that stood until 1972, long after Puff the Magic Dragon and my crayons had ceased their fearless roars. The 1958 set added more blues to the mix, with "aquamarine, cadet blue, sky blue, blue gray and navy blue" topping the list, while other colors such as "forest green" or "burnt orange" or "Indian red" gave the set almost a sparkling array of hues. Colors such as "raw sienna" and "raw umber" (who was into raw at the company in the late 1960s?) were added, along with "sepia, goldenrod, copper, lavender, and mulberry."
Ah, but a few of the colors ended up being dropped along the way. Well, you can probably see one or two that would. "Prussian blue" was the first to go--in 1958--only a decade after it had been introduced. Apparently teachers were complaining that their six-year old charges didn't know enough about the history of the Prussian empire to know what "Prussian blue" was. I think it was probably named in the late 1940s by someone at the firm who had been in WWI or WWII and had Germany "on the brain," as much of American culture did in those years. So, Prussian blue went the way of the Prussian army, and it became "midnight blue" in 1958. It is almost midnight as I am penning this essay, and I don't believe I see one streak of blue in the sky.
The other two also went out because of cultural sensitivities. "Flesh" disappeared in 1962 and became "peach," probably because people were becoming aware, in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, that not everyone's skin color was identical. Peter, Paul & Mary penned their song "If I Had a Hammer" that year, and even though there was no reference to racial equality in that song, the message about "the love between my brothers and my sisters all over this world" might have helped the Crayola folk change that "flesh" word.
Just think about the assumption for a moment, however, that would have led a company to name a "peach-colored" crayon "flesh" in 1948. Truman may have ordered the integration of the armed forces around that time, but the reality in mainstream America, reinforced by the media, was that America was a land for White people. African-Americans, called Negroes (or worse) at the time, were relegated to certain predictable and very circumscribed roles.
The other change that I want to mention here (there are others, but they are beyond the scope of this essay) had to do with the dropping of "Indian Red" in 1999 in favor of "chestnut." The color "Indian Red" was first introduced in 1958, and the adoption probably had nothing to do with Native Americans. Indeed, "Indian" in the name was supposed to refer to the country of India, and the red was the shade of a popular color in that land. So the story goes. Nevertheless, by 1999 many hallowed institutions (such as Stanford University) had dropped any reference to Indians as mascots or in mottos, even if Jane Fonda and Ted Turner were still doing Tomahawk chops in Atlanta.
Well, this trip down memory lane took me longer than I anticipated. Let's now turn to S-W's "Historic Collection" and see where it leads us.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long