What colors do you see in history?

By Carol / December 11, 2012 /

The colors of a century ago

I’ve begun hand quilting a quilt my grandmother began over 100 years ago. This quilt is a riot of colors and designs in floral shapes and it has me thinking about how I think about color. And how those thoughts may be shaping my writing.

My novel in progress is set pre-World War I. For inspiration, I’ve looked at photos from that time. Photos of people and buildings and cars and landscapes. Of course, these photos are all in black and white. I’ve toured exhibits of period clothing from that time. The vast majority of these clothes are blue, black, gray and the cream of muslin.

As I look at the colors in this quilt created during that very same era, I realize I’ve made assumptions about what fabrics people had available to them. That their clothing was more drab or uninteresting or plain. 

I’m not the only one to jump to conclusions about color. Take a look at the Greek and Roman statues. We see them as white marble. But, there are folks who make a convincing case that when these statues were new, the sculptors painted them in vivid colors. We’ve come to expect to see white; adding color is jarring.

Same thing with dinosaurs. Since all we’ve had are the bones, no one knew what color these ancient creatures really were. But research suggests they were anything but the drab reptile gray-green-brown we see in movies and museums, particularly those dinosaurs with feathers.

There may have been practical reasons for most people to stick with navy, black, brown, gray and cream for their clothes 100 years ago. Keeping them clean, for instance. Or having them appear to be clean when you can’t throw everything in a washing machine every few days. The basic colors could find more uses across gender and age and time, so economics may have come into play. But that doesn’t mean their color palette didn’t include all the colors of the rainbow.

I don’t know exactly what all the colors in this quilt will mean to how I write my novel. Perhaps nothing at all. But with my grandmother’s quilt added to the artifacts from which I draw inspiration, I trust I’ll think of the time as more brilliant.

How do you think about color when you think about history?  Authors, have you been caught thinking in black and white? Readers, what do you expect from authors when they show you another time?

Subscribe below for blog updates

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Posted in ,



  1. Carol McGrath on December 11, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Lovely post and so interesting. I do think of colour as my novel is 1066-1068 and the Bayeux Tapestry inspired it. I have a friend who is an expert on this period and had a team in York make a tapestry telling the Battle of Fulford. They made the dyes as close to the time as possible with natural things and mordants. I think my period was actually full of lovely colours and even the browns and greys were interesting.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 11, 2012 at 10:53 am

      How wonderful to have the Bayeux Tapestry for your inspiration, Carol. I believe I let my mind be overly shaped by the black and white photographs of the WWI era. I need to go find paintings from that time. And keep my grandmother’s quilt close at hand. The colors are beautiful. Just like the flower gardens that inspired the quilt pattern – Grandma’s Garden.

      • Linda Austin on December 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm

        I do think of bright colors as in the Victorian era or the silks of Asia. I suspect the upper classes wore colors while working class wore drab colors as plain colors were cheaper (and didn’t show dirt). Although, Roma gypsies managed to wear colors. But, I know even the poor used colors in quilts, mainly scraps from when they could afford to splurge?

        • Carol Bodensteiner on December 11, 2012 at 4:08 pm

          You’re right about Asia being colorful. Particularly red. I hadn’t thought about it being a class thing, but you could be right. Easier to have all the pretty colors when someone else has to do the laundry! I wondered about whether the fabrics for the quilt were new. They sure look like it. I’m going to put the word out on quilting sites and see if anyone has seen anything about that.

          • Teramis on December 27, 2012 at 2:27 pm

            My mom (born 1914) always kept a rag bag for sewing/mending needs, and for if/when she ever got around to quilting. I remember many of the fabric scraps in it looked brand new. And I remember why, from helping her dismember used garments to go in the bag. For instance, with pants: they tend to wear out/wear thin at the knees, the seat, and between the thighs. But the cloth between knee and ankle would usually hold up really well and be virtually good as new even when the rest of the garment had to go. So we’d keep that bottom-pants-leg part and it would go into the ragbag. Ditto with other garment scraps–there was a pile for *really* “raggy* rags, worn out cloth that would be used for cleaning pr polishing cloths or such later; and then there was the bag of “good” cloth to be used for mending other garments or, as I said, saved against the eventuality of quilting.
            This is a practice she had from her mother and peers, so it makes sense to me that scraps used in quilting would look new. They were very close to it, if they came from a garment parted out in this manner. Or, I imagine some cloth with a very appealing pattern might have been bought and used specifically for the purpose of quilting, because the quilter liked how it looked.

          • Carol Bodensteiner on December 28, 2012 at 9:48 am

            My mom (born 1916) had a rag drawer like your mother’s rag bag, Teramis. Good points about how even old fabric could appear new. As I grew up on the farm, my mother and grandmother quilted every winter. Always using recycled fabrics. It wasn’t in my head that someone would actually buy new fabric to make a quilt. But it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. These days, quilters do it all the time. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Constance Wallace on December 11, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Love the quilt. I’ve got some “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” quilt blocks stored upstairs. You’ve inspired me to dig them out and work on them. 🙂

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 11, 2012 at 8:59 pm

      Good luck with your flower garden, Constance. I was lucky to have my sister in law to put the top together. My job is the hand quilting. My fingers are really sore!

Leave a Comment