History in Color

Based on an examination of historical objects, many from the museum’s collection, History in Color explores the spectrum of colors that shaped 19th century cultural attitudes and influenced trends in fashion and décor, the technological innovations that drove the production of brilliant new colorfast dyes and pigments, and the ways early Americans used color to enliven their homes.

It’s easy to understand why many of us believe the historical world was a less colorful place than the present: vivid colors fade, layers of paint flake off, varnish darkens over time, and textiles can become dull from wear. Sepia-toned photographs of the past may fool us into thinking 19th-century Americans either preferred drab colors, or else had limited access to bright pigments and dyes. While it’s true that many pre-industrial colors were not especially permanent, and some were even toxic, a wide range of saturated hues were available for use in the creation of textiles, ceramics, decorative applications, and the fine arts.