Talking about Colors: Language, Perception, and American Modernity

Lunchtime Lectures
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
1:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m.

This talk by historian Michael Rossi is part of Science, Incorporated: Constructing the Natures of American Modernization, a series of six lectures that unpick the diverse ways in which nature—and the study of nature—became entangled with the modernization of America, from the early origins of laboratory pedagogy to mineral prospecting by satellite.

How should people name colors so as to accurately describe them? For a broad array of industrialists, educators, and scientists between the 1880s and 1920s, this question was serious business. For manufacturers devoted to making multicolored goods, the ability to transmit color names over telegraph lines with complete fidelity was a matter of great economic importance. For educators intent on honing young minds, the proper nomenclature of color was a matter of training accuracy in visual perception and linguistic expression. And for scientists the “Color Question” (as board-game magnate and sometimes-color-scientist Milton Bradley called it) was a matter of understanding the precise nature of color in order to correctly denote it. For all of these groups (and others), however, the problem of color names was more than simply a technical one. It was, rather, a moral one, where definiteness in nomenclature reflected definiteness and stability in a fast-moving, modern society.

This talk focuses on efforts to devise morally and scientifically sound names for colors, examining systems devised by Bradley and his associate, J. H. Pillsbury; Smithsonian Institution ornithologist Robert Ridgway; and art professor Albert H. Munsell. In these attempts one finds not only a drive toward efficiency and standardization but a great deal of anxiety about the mutability of human beings in modern society: a society in which even basic, shared measures of reality—such as the color of objects—could no longer be communicated reliably between observers.

About the Speaker

Michael Rossi is a historian of science and medicine at the University of Chicago. His work focuses on the historical metaphysics of the body: how different people at different times understood questions of beauty, truth, falsehood, pain, pleasure, goodness, and reality vis-à-vis their bodily selves and those of others. The former Ullyot Scholar and Allington Fellow is the author of The Republic of Color: Science, Perception and the Making of Modern America (University of Chicago, 2019)which deals with color theory, politics, and aesthetics at the turn of the century. His newest project examines ways in which linguistics, physiology, and philosophy came together to make new forms of medicine in the 20th century. He has written for the London Review of BooksIsis, and Cabinet, among other publications.

About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.