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The Boston Globe

Ideas

Munsell, the man who colored America

How a Boston argument over better crayons ended up repainting the world

In today’s industrialized world, we are surrounded by myriad natural and artificial hues, and yet our formal understanding of color remains more or less at kindergarten level. We learn that the rainbow is made up of Roy G. Biv; we can probably remember that yellow and blue make green, and see that that our “slate” pants match our “plum” shirt. Still, most people, even the highly educated, lack a sophisticated vocabulary for color identification, much less an understanding of how colors interact.

It is strange, then, to think that more than a century ago, a Boston artist was already leading a major effort to make color education more detailed and comprehensive. If his system failed to take hold in the classroom, it did end up revolutionizing the way we experience color, standardizing color across industry in ways that still deeply affect everyday life.

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