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Munsell, the man who colored America

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

A portion of Albert Munsell’s color atlas, which described colors by hue, value, and chroma.

A portion of Albert Munsell’s color atlas, which described colors by hue, value, and chroma.

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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The basic color education that most kids get in fact also originated in Massachusetts. By the 1890s, Milton Bradley, of board game fame, became interested in color as part of early childhood education. He began using his Springfield factory to make school supplies, including paper, watercolor sets, and crayons in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, plus black and white. We now take that iconic eight-pack for granted, but it was Bradley’s groundbreaking tools that brought Isaac Newton’s prismatic experiments to children in materials they could manipulate and enjoy. Over one hundred years later, it’s still how we learn about color.

As Regina Lee Blaszczyk chronicles in her recent book “The Color Revolution,” a Boston painter named Albert Munsell set out to change this in 1898. The colors in the Bradley system, he objected, had not been scientifically measured. Their brightness was a limitation: It gave children no way to learn about the subtle, in-between colors we encounter all the time. And learning with Bradley’s crude colors, Munsell felt, would encourage people to gravitate towards them later.

A 1957 advertisement for Du Pont auto paints.

A 1957 advertisement for Du Pont auto paints.

Hoping that a more refined teaching tool would result in a citizenry better attuned to the harmonies of color, the enterprising Munsell set out to develop a color system that would be scientifically accurate, and that would edify about not just bold primaries and secondaries, but a full range of colors. Over the next two decades, the ambitious Bostonian set out to replace unreliable colloquial terms for color—what is “sky blue,” exactly?—with a complex “atlas” that identified colors not only by hue (their place on the rainbow) but also by value (lightness and darkness) and chroma (saturation). He developed and patented a Photo­meter to measure brightness; he produced an impressive set of painstakingly matched materials—including watercolors, enamels, and crayons—along with a color sphere; and he published three books detailing his precise system. With materials he felt were truly instructional, Munsell set out to displace Bradley as the standard method of color instruction in the public schools.

But although the Munsell system gave rise to commercial products and was endorsed by leading authorities on physics, psychology, and education, it never took root in the schools. People argued that younger children couldn’t see the subtle middle tones, and that even Munsell’s brightest hues were duller that what could be found in nature. The School Arts Book’s appraisal was damning: “Everything has been reduced to the Dead Sea level.” When it came to teaching color, people preferred something bright and simple. The ambition of Munsell’s system was also its downfall: As far as school went, Milton Bradley won the color war.

But if Munsell’s system didn’t spur a pedagogical revolution, his quixotic attempt to “write colors” with a standardized chart turned out to have major ramifications in another area. Munsell’s scientifically measured colors eventually went on file at the government’s Bureau of Standards, and his atlas became a crucial lingua franca for modern printers. They could now communicate precisely about color with designers and clients.

Following suit, so to speak, the rapidly expanding fashion industries used Munsell’s work as a template for the Standard Color Card of America. First introduced in 1915, for $1, this amazingly useful chart allowed for clear color communication across companies and industries. Designers could speak the same language to wool dyers, silk manufacturers, and leather tanneries; even the department-store ad agency knew what “Pearl Grey” or “Old Rose” was supposed to look like. Shoppers could be confident that their accessories would match, even if they were of different materials, or from different brands. This industrial-scale color coordination allowed the various constituencies to begin to better plan color year to year and season to season, constantly studying, predicting, and shaping consumer taste.

It wasn’t long before other industries joined the revolution. Henry Ford had famously said customers could have their Model T any color “so long as it is black.” But in 1924, General Motors introduced its budget-model Oakland in True Blue (with orange accents), and by 1928, Dupont was marketing a line of automobile coatings that included Pewter Pot, Verdancia, Water Glo, Lei Orange, and my personal favorite, Red Shadow Red (described as “a yellow red, suitable for use with brown or beige”). At home, every surface—from bedding to the kitchen sink—became available in various bold and matching hues. The coordination was so great that, looking back, time itself seems to have been colorized: We identify the early ’60s with pastels, the ’70s with over-bright polyesters and earth tones, and the ’80s with neon.

Blaszczyk concludes her book by suggesting that we now live in a “chromo-utopia,” but chromo-
anarchy might be more like it. Sure, our clothes don’t fade and our replacement parts match, but the sheer accumulation and variety of manufactured color is as confusing as it is edenic. Increasingly, too, our era demands that we participate in choosing colors, whether through desktop publishing or DIY home decorating—and yet most of us remain radically unprepared to perceive, describe, and use color in any sophisticated way.

In the end, it turns out, the half-victory of Munsell’s system is very much our own. Instead of a robust educational program to learn about color, we have elaborate mechanisms that bring us a extraordinary rainbow of hues—in our clothes, in our homes, really everywhere—without very much understanding. More than a hundred years ago, Munsell feared that the development of artificial dyes would result in a horrible cacophony of badly deployed color. Today, it may be time for a Munsell revival.

Dushko Petrovich, a painter and critic, teaches at The Rhode Island School of Design and Yale School of Art, and is a founding editor of Paper Monument.
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