history, travel

Color Me Intrigued: Color in History

One of the more recent trips I took was to St. Petersburg, Florida for the Historical Novel Society‘s yearly conference. The fact that it was held in June kept me inside the hotel 95% of the time, due to the humidity and heat. When I did step out of the hotel to take a few pictures, my camera immediately fogged up and it was almost a week before it worked correctly. (note to self: keep camera in a plastic bag when traveling to such destinations in the future!).

RGB color wheel 36
The most interesting session I attended at the conference was Colour in Historical Novels by British member Jay Dixon. Below, I’ve jotted down some notes from the session, and at the end I included some interesting links if you wish to explore further. Dixon opened the session by saying that she entered an Italian restaurant on a rainy English day and the site of the ochre-colored paintings transported her back to Rome, where she lived for some time. Color, she asserted, can be very evocative of a place. Some examples:

  • Rome – ochre or gray stone
  • London – gray skies; green grass
  • Greece – blue skies; white clouds

Authors should keep in mind the following facts about color:

  • Mauve – first named 1856 – before that it did not exist
  • Purple – a royal color, called such because in antiquity the purple dye was so expensive that only royalty could afford it.
  • Scarlet – connected to the Catholic Church (or a disgraced woman – The Scarlet Letter)
  • White – never used for weddings until the reign of Queen Victoria; women simply wore their best dresses.
  • Black – Puritans (although they only wore this color when they went to have their pictures taken; ie when they were in their “good” clothes. Most times they dressed like everyone else at that time. Little black dress – came about in the 1920s; before that black was worn for mourning.
  • Green – color for wallpaper; it was dangerous because the process that created it involved arsenic, which poisoned people.
  • Indigo – it was produced in India; it also grew wild in America. In addition to its beautiful color, it repelled mosquitoes, which was important in preventing disease.
  • Red (synthetic) – did not become available until the mid-1870s. Before that, red would have consisted of russets and orange-reds – natural colors. Why did armies use red in uniforms? To disguise blood.
  • Blue – true blue came from lapis lazuli, and is a pale color. Rich blue became synonymous with wealth in the 1400s. Early blues had more gray and violet. Clear blue signified divinity.

In the past you would not be surrounded by today’s vibrant colors – colors would look drab to us because the majority of the people only had access to natural colors. The wealthy, however, wore purer colors. For example, the Greeks only had natural colors: black, white, ochre, brown, and red. Where did the “wine-dark sea” of Homer come from? The color of red wine at the time.

Ottheinrich Folio288r Rev6A
1530-1532; The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Revelation 6:1-8
The symbolism of color has been different depending on the culture and time period.

  • To the Aztecs’ blue turquoise signified fire; while green turquoise signified fertility.
  • Pseudo Dionysus of the early Middle Ages equated darkness with God, not light.
  • In Europe, turquoise and sapphire equaled good luck.
  • In 14th century Europe colors had religious meanings: gold (God, the Father), scarlet (Jesus’s blood), green (the Holy Spirit). White represented faith, red clarity, and green hope.
  • In the Middle Ages the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were equated with colors:
    • White – illness or Pestilence
    • Red – war
    • Pale Green – death (the color of a corpse)
    • Black – famine
  • In the Red Badge of Courage, author Stephen Crane used color at the end of each chapter to symbolize different things: red – blood; yellow – vivacity and excitement; blue – how the soldiers saw one another. Therefore, the reader was left with the vivid afterimage of color.
  • By 1918 the color red became associated with blood and death because of World War I.
  • Today, we consider red and green a strong juxtaposition of colors. In the Middle Ages, yellow and green were considered strong colors playing off one another.

And, a couple of notes about fashion:

  • In the 1780s, in Europe, it was fashionable to wear an indigo coat and yellow trousers, as evidenced by The Sorrows of Young Werther.
  • In the 1880s the aristocracy considered yellow a vulgar color.

One of the more interesting things Dixon spoke about was the medical condition Synesthesia, in which one can actually taste different colors. I had never heard of it, but this article by NPR talks a bit about it, as does this editorial and the associated TED video. Most of us have heard of Color Blindness, a genetic condition that occurs more frequently in men than women, and usually affects perception of the colors red and green. However, it can also affect blue-yellow color vision. It can even result in an absence of color vision entirely. The NOAA’s National Weather Service website includes an interesting visual simulation of the different color blind conditions:

Four photos of a little boy with sunflowers display what people with different color blind conditions can see.

Further Reading:

  • Jay Dixon handed out a document on the color wheel, primary colors, and other color related information: Colour by Jay Dixon (right click and choose “save link as” to download).
  • The Web Exhibit site called Pigments through the Ages provides a wealth of information on colors, including their history, how colors were made and used, and, especially for historical writers, an easy to read chart about color through the ages. In addition, Causes of Color and Color Vision and Art are but two of the informative exhibits at the same site: http://www.webexhibits.org/ (where you can also find out about the history of butter … bet you didn’t know you were curious about that, did you?)
humor, travel memories

Deserts, Forests, and Memory: Arizona and Pennsylvania in the 70s

If this is a travel blog why are you blathering about kittens, ziggurats, and palm trees?

This being my first post, I feel I should declare my intentions with this blog. If you choose to spend your precious life’s moments with me, what can you expect to find here?

Travel stuff, definitely, but perhaps not in the way you are used to reading it. Photos, notes about destinations, impressions, memories, histories, various place-related details, all these are fair game.

But here’s the thing. I love to travel and I’ve been blessed enough to do a fair amount of it in my life, so this blog will consist of what I hope will turn out to be interesting tidbits about the places I’ve seen and those that yet remain on my bucket list. But I’m also a writer, a thinker of sorts, and an idea factory. Because of that, I will at random times post about creativity, ancient history, cats, dogs, birds, rhinoceri, Tasmanian devils, my latest writing project, mosaics, sci fi television shows, bunions, pepperoni pizza, the zombie apocalypse, and ebola.

So, basically anything.

For the time being, however, I will try to restrain my wandering mind to the experience of travel.

Cowansville, Pennsylvania
Go East, Young Man? A home in Cowansville, Pennsylvania.

Back in the Day

Once upon a time, in the 1960s, a recently discharged Army veteran in his late twenties named Leon fled the frigid, economically depressed hamlet of his youth – Cowansville, Pennsylvania. He drove a Rambler across the country to  the sprawling desert metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona, where he promptly set up residence in a small apartment owned by an entrepreneurial Chinese man. Not only did he settle here because he wished to escape the brutal Pennsylvania winters, but he also because he desired to escape the eligible bachelorettes that would appear regularly on the sofa at precisely the time he returned from work, courtesy of his mother. Phoenix seemed a paradise to young Leon, who was welcomed by the clear, hot breeze, wide Western sky, and comely beer joints off 16th street.

“The summer heat didn’t bother me,” Leon proclaims, remembering.  “I would come home from work and cool down by taking a cold bath.” He then whiled away his evenings in the local bar, further cooling down with the aid of cheap beer.

One day Leon’s landlord stopped by his place and, wiping a glistening trail of sweat off the end of his nose, proclaimed, “Why don’t you turn the cooler on?”

“It is on! This is as cold as it gets in here,” Leon told him.

Whereupon the kindly Chinese landlord rushed off, looking embarrassed. Soon, the evaporated cooler was repaired and the thermostat dipped beneath triple digits for the first time since he had arrived in town.

“I just thought that’s how it was here,” he says. “I didn’t know any different.”

Aerial shot of the downtown Phoenix area in the 1960s.
Phoenix, Arizona in the 1960s.
Credit: Arizona100

Roma Avenue

Fast forward to the late 70s, when Leon’s family – wife, daughter (me!), and son – now lived in a brick ranch-style home off Roma avenue in central Phoenix. Here we children whiled away bucolic summer afternoons picking cholla cactus spears from our arms, lying limp with heat prostration in front of the television set, and splashing away in the cold, chlorine soaked waters of the neighborhood swimming pool. For some reason, my brother and I occasionally walked the three blocks to the pool without wearing shoes. This inevitably became a sort of exercise in agony as we skittered across sizzling hot asphalt streets and leaped upon whatever scraggly bit of grass was tough enough to survive the blast oven heat. There we would pause as the pain from our burning feet subsided and we steeled ourselves for the dash to the next tiny urban oasis until at last we reached the sparkling crystal waters of the city pool. It was those same sparkling crystal waters where I got my first look at an adult male penis. Granted, it was underwater, and for some bizarre reason the owner of said appendage had it wrapped up in an ace bandage, but still. One should mark such momentous occasions.

Now, where was I?

Saguaro in Sonoran desert of Arizona
Stately saguaro cacti in Arizona’s Sonoran desert.

Yes, life in Phoenix. It is very hot, and dry, and few green plants grow there. Scraggly bushes are called trees (manzanita). When you open the car door you are met with an explosion of face-singeing air. People who exercise at midday are routinely given psychiatric referrals. Adults terrorize children by reading histories of the time before air conditioning, when people sprayed down adobe walls and slept on the rooftops to cool off.  It is a place of fire ants and German cockroaches and water bugs, that most horrid of all creatures because they not only appear, in their three inch long dull brown glory, but they fly around at night like those demonic monkey men from the Wizard of Oz, only worse. The buzz of cicadas is a loud, ceaseless drone, and in July and August the oppressiveness of the heat splits apart under the onslaught of dust-laden monsoon winds. Temperatures drop, lightning splits the sky, and a torrent of hard rain dumps onto bare desert earth, filling arroyos with rushing brown water.


Summertime also brought an event of a different kind to our family. We put aside our popsicles, flip flops, and short shorts (it was the 70s, people), piled into our cab-over camper/Datsun pickup and rumbled across the country on that most American of activities – a road trip. I will rhapsodize about the joys of eating nothing but bologna sandwiches and drinking nothing but Carnation instant milk and staying in off the beaten path KOAs, and in some other post. Suffice it to say that after many miles, just when the camper smelled as ripe as a soccer player’s Dr. Scholl’s insert, we arrived in Cowansville, Pennsylvania, that most glorious abode of my father’s side of the family.

Flickr - Nicholas T - Coniferous
A rushing stream in the lush Pennsylvania countryside.

Here, I beheld a green-cloaked paradise unlike any I’d ever experienced. Plant life choked the forests – ferns and vines and leafy deciduous trees dozens of feet tall. Cool creek water tasted free of harsh-tasting minerals. Creaking wooden floors and the smell of mildew. Lightning bugs and deer bounding proud but frightened across grassy fields. Weenie roasts and distinctive eastern accents and wide steel gray rivers spanned by rusted, arched bridges. One lane country roads and sweet summer corn sold in carts. The sky peeked out through dappled leaves, and the air heavy and wet, clung to your skin like warm lotion. The houses here were multistory, with dark damp basements and bat-cluttered attics.

My cousins laughed at me for wearing a jacket in the evening cool, but that was all right, that was fine, because it was beautiful here, and our arrival was an event, and no one knew it, no one really understood it, but this became the definition of travel for me. Newness and wonder and sensory overload. Delight and open-heartedness, and the mountains in the distance, purple at the horizon but craggy, regal, and piercing the sky itself. Calling for elemental forces and creation, and me.