- The Color Revolution by Regina Blaszczyk
Historians of technology are not especially known for their great sense of style. Regina Blaszczyk’s The Color Revolution may change that, not through fashion advice for the twenty-first-century scholar, but by providing an original and well-researched account of how color came to play a central role in twentieth-century American consumer culture. Contrary to intellectual histories tracing the evolution of scientific and philosophical ideas about color, or more anthropologically inspired studies of color symbolism, Blaszczyk focuses on the everyday business of color, more specifically, the wide-ranging if underappreciated role of color experts in American manufacturing, retailing, and advertising from the 1890s to the 1960s. The color revolution, she demonstrates, was not the result of chemical innovations alone. Obviously, synthetic dyes and car paints, not to mention awe-inspiring light displays, contributed to making everyday life more colorful than ever before. Yet, according to Blaszczyk, what was most revolutionary was less color per se than the new technologies—color wheels and cards—and [End Page 261] new forms of knowledge—color streamlining, forecasting, and psychology—developed by a coterie of innovative individuals to manage this chromatic cornucopia.
Contrary to the notion that all things pertaining to fashion, color trends in particular, are wholly irrational and therefore unsuited for the detailed historical analysis afforded other aspects of industry, “the color revolution,” Blaszczyk insists, “grew out of American industry’s drive for efficiency in design, production, and distribution” (5). Moreover, she argues, it was American businesses’ commitment to scientific management that anchored the color revolution in the United States, as opposed to Europe, where several of the new color technologies and related commercial practices originated.
The book begins with two chapters tracing the beginnings of the color revolution, focusing on the dramatic development of synthetic dyes starting in the late 1850s and the cross-Atlantic efforts of Michel-Eugène Chevreul and Albert Munsell to develop a universal system for identifying colors and, through the promotion of certain colors or color combinations, improve public taste. However, as Blaszczyk convincingly demonstrates, it was only after the First World War that American businesses began paying serious attention to the market value of color. Indeed, the book’s central arguments are primarily developed in the subsequent five chapters, wherein the author describes in fascinating detail the expanding reach of color and color experts during the interwar period. By the mid-1920s, for example, the Textile Color Card Association of the United States, building off the success of the color card system it developed during the war, firmly established itself as a leader of color standardization and forecasting. Around the same time, producers of durable goods also embraced the rainbow as a lucrative sales strategy. H. Ledyard Towle, originally at DuPont, became one of America’s top automotive colorists by transferring the camouflage techniques he had learned during the war to the design of cars. Towle, together with successor Howard Ketcham, increased the connection between the automotive and fashion industries through the strategic application of visual streamlining techniques and the perfection of color forecasting tools. Around the Second World War, experts began shifting their attention to color’s ability to influence people’s moods and behaviors. Faber Birren, the leading color expert of the time, specialized in advising companies on how best to use color to reduce accidents and keep up workers’ morale, highlighting how ties between color and scientific management remained strong well into the 1960s.
The Color Revolution makes an original and important contribution to the history of American business and design. Yet, scholars of American commercial culture likely have most to gain from Blaszczyk’s work. The breadth and depth of the author’s research illuminates surprising connections between Europe and the United States, fashion trends and the automotive [End Page 262] industry, and artistic creativity and scientific management, providing readers with a more nuanced picture of how aesthetics, commerce, and culture intersect than that generally provided in studies relying on “cultural representations” alone. However, this same historical richness occasionally detracts from the...