Color Shift

The house painting mentioned in my previous post got me to thinking about house colors. When we moved to our present neighborhood in 1980, most of the houses that were not brick were painted white, including ours. Ours is still white, but it is in a distinct minority. As I was walking yesterday, I took an informal survey and realized how few white houses there are left; most are now grey or cream or some pastel earth tone (ranging down to a light brown), with a few pale blue or yellow and a few dark green, grey, or brown. (Of course, it’s also true that a lot of the formerly white houses are themselves gone, demolished to make way for larger, more colorful replacements.)

The first time we had our house painted, I tentatively suggested a color, with white trim, to accentuate the modest ornamentation of the trim. My husband balked. The painter declined to express an opinion, saying it was our house and our decision, but after my husband put his foot down, the painter expressed relief, saying that, as far as he was concerned, “That’s a white house.”

Meanwhile, our neighbors on one side painted their house a deep barn red. The neighbors on the other side went with royal blue. New owners with saner heads have since prevailed, and both houses are now grey. When we give directions to our house, we say, “It’s the third house on the left, a two-story white house with a red mailbox on the house.” In those days, though, it was even easier: “We’re the two-story white house between the red house and the blue house.”

So what is it with all this color? There was a time when one might have green shutters on a white house. More daringly, one might have a red front door, like the bright-red tie setting off a man’s conventional starched white shirt. Which brings back memories of a time when all dress shirts were white. When, in fact, all linens (sheets, tablecloths, even towels) were white, a time when the term “White Sale” was literal. Women’s clothes were colorful, men’s drab. Carpet colors were bland and “neutral.” The preferred interior wall paint color was “Antique White” or “Eggshell.”

Have we become a more colorful people? Or are we more desirous of distinguishing ourselves from our neighbors? Or perhaps paints have improved? Or air conditioning? Many of the original houses in our neighborhood were built as vacation cottages, used only in the summer. Since they were cooled only by natural ventilation, it would have been practical to paint them white to reflect as much sun as possible (perhaps no one noticed that the dark roofs were defeating the purpose). It might also have made sense not to waste thought or money on a color when white paint was perhaps less expensive and certainly easier to match for touch-ups.

Rumination on the whole idea of color, though, suggests other lines of exploration. A few points:

  • Our remote ancestors dressed very colorfully, or at least as colorfully as they could with existing technologies. In a time when vegetable dyes produced mostly “earth tones” that faded quickly, the most prized colorant was “Tyrian purple,” derived from the glands of the Murex (a marine mollusk). This deep-red color was so valuable that it was reserved for royalty, nobility, or elected officials in ancient civilizations.
  • Color continued to be used lavishly throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but during the period of the French Empire, when fashions harked back to the classical era (ancient Greeks and Romans), most clothing was white. The reason for this was that most of the models of classical garb were statues that, though once colorfully painted, had faded to their natural marble color, giving the impression that the ancients had worn only white.
  • The discovery of aniline dyes, which were more permanent than vegetable dyes, allowed even common people to wear brightly-colored garments, including printed calico.
  • The paintings of the Old Masters depicted people in richly colored garments. With the advent of photography, the colors of clothing were reduced to black and white. I suspect that this creates an effect similar to the faded marble statues: surely our grandparents and great-grandparents wore colors other than black and white and grey, but who can tell?
  • Color photography returned color to our lives, but many early color prints are now faded and yellowed, giving us, again, a false sense of the colors we wore.
  • Black-and-white TV again reduced us to grayscale: when I first met my husband, he wore nothing but black pants, white shirts, and black ties. Ironically, TV news anchors were wearing pale-blue shirts because these looked better on black-and-white TV. Color bloomed again in the 1970s when color TVs became more common.
  • HD TV is taking color appreciation to new highs. Will this result in more color or less? I would be inclined to think it might actually be less. When color TVs first came out, they were such a novelty that we turned the color dial up high and enjoyed the richness. Later we realized that faces didn’t need to be orange and dialed the color back to a more reasonable level. As HD allows us to appreciate subtler colors, these may rebound. Time will tell.
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