past & present

Past & Present: The Color Black

by Amy Azzarito


I think I have six cans of black paint under my sink. I’ve painted the back of my doors black, I’ve painted the weird kitchen counter in my apartment black, I’ve painted tables black and walls black. Just a few years ago, if you said that you were going to paint your entire bedroom black, you’d be met with raised eyebrows. Now, you’d get “ooohs” and “It’s going to look amazing!” The story of black could fill a entire book. And it has. This one.  My favorite part of the story of the color black is when the color became the in color. New Yorkers think they have cornered the market on black. I’d like to see them try to explain that to 14th century European princes. And after the jump are just a few of my favorite black things (This is just my little wish list. I know a clock isn’t necessarily on everyone’s must-have list. But let me say, those Nikes are already in my shopping cart). –Amy

(pssst: For some black home inspiration, check out the Best of Black)

Black Cats in Procession
We’re going to start our black journey in the Middle Ages when black became bad. Previously – for the Romans and in the high Middle Ages – black was more complex. A good black and a bad black coexisted in people’s mind. A good sort of black was associated with humility, temperance, authority and dignity. And the bad side of black evoked the world of darkness and dead, sin and the forces of evil. But in the 10th to 13th centuries, the virtues of the color black disappeared and in people’s minds black became a sinister, deathly color. It sounds like an exaggeration to say, but black was associated almost entirely with the devil – in fact, even the animals in Satan’s bestiary were black – black cats, the crow, the bear and the wild boar.

Image above: Black Cats in Procession. Miniature from an English bestiary, mid-13th century.

More about black after the jump!

So, what happened? Well, quite simply, the Middle Ages ended. But there was another factor. Black was an extremely expensive color to produce. In fact, most “black” fabric was actually more of a grayish or even bluish or brownish color than a true black. Black dyes were commonly taken from bark, roots or fruits. But the best way for a dyer to get a great black was to use the oak apple. An oak apple is a small, spherical growth found on the leaves of certain oaks – the leaves on which insects deposit their eggs. After the eggs are deposited, the tree’s sap exudes a material that gradually envelopes the larvae and encloses it in a kind of shell. This is an oak apple. The oak apple had to be collected before summer, then allowed to dry slowly. It took an enormous quantity of oak apples to produce a small amount of dye. And the very best oak apples came from eastern Europe, the Near East or Africa. As you can imagine, this dye was extremely expensive to produce and when things are so expensive, there’s usually someone out there who wants to possess it.

Image above: An oak apple (traces of ink derived from an oak apple have been found on the Dead Sea Scroll).

In the 14th century, that someone was the extremely wealthy merchant class. At the time, particularly in Italy, there was a plethora of sumptuary laws about what you could – or more often, what you couldn’t – wear. Money couldn’t buy you class – and by class, I mean rank. The extremely wealthy growing merchant class were unable to enter the nobility classes. In order to keep these wealthy individuals in their place, they were forbidden to wear certain types of clothing and certain colors were forbidden. For example, they couldn’t wear too lavish reds and were forbidden to wear the famous peacock blues of Florence. Almost out of necessity, they acquired the habit of dressing in a color not affected by these rules – black. But because they had money, they wanted the best black that dyers could make. It allowed them to obey the laws yet still climb the social ladder (and look good while doing it).

Image above: History of Antonio di Giuseppe Rinaldeschi, Anonymous Florentine painting, c. 1500-1501 showing black clothing in Florence. Musée Stibbert.

As the demand for the dye increased, so did the skill of the dyers. They became more skillful at developing beautiful, brilliant solid blacks. The dyers were able to create vibrant blacks even in wools and silks – rivaling the most beautiful furs worn by the nobility. The beautiful blacks did not go unnoticed by the rest of society. They were so beautiful and had become symbolic of virtue and political authority that even the nobility classes of Europe took to wearing black. By the end of the 14th century, the fashion for black extended from Italy to foreign kings and princes and black became the color of choice for princely young men for centuries.

Image above: Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy from 1419-1467. The most powerful prince in the West who definitively launched the fashion for black.
I find it fascinating that our love for all things black has a very long historical lineage. And there’s a good reason why that little black dress feels more luxurious than the little white one. When it comes to choosing clothes, I gravitate toward black more than any other color. It’s nice to know that I’m in the company of princes.  To finish up, here are some black wish list items. I’m seriously in love with the all-black Nikes and I think all-black flatware would definitely kick up my table game.

1. Mrs. Black Wall Clock $89  | 2.  leather hook $9.99 | 3. mid-century task lamp $149 | 4. nikes $100 | 5. chalk $6 | 6. Juke mug in black $8.40 | 7. 3-piece black flatware set $19.95  | 8. toc toc clock in black $79 | 9. trigger clip key fob $42


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  • Love, love, love! I really like the longer history post. And, while I’m a lover of gray, I LOVE seeing what people are doing with black. And, of course, hearing about its history. It’s nice to hear about where design trends come from.

  • Oak apple (or more commonly referred to as oak gall) ink was common throughout the medieval period in Western Europe. The best oak galls came from the elsewhere, but anywhere there were oak trees, people were able to make ink from oak galls.

    Incidentally, oak gall ink is a brown color and not black because of the presence of iron. True black ink was uncommon in Western Europe (with Italy as a notable exception).

  • Loved this post and would be really into more pieces on color history! Just want to say though, since D*S is home to a lot of animal lovers, that Nike’s sponsorship of Michael Vick has really turned a lot of people off. I would recommend finding another pair of black sneakers. My pup and I are both passing on Nike these days!

    • Hi Ash –
      I didn’t know that Nike was a sponsor of Michael Vick. That’s awful. Both Grace and I are huge supports of Best Friends (who took the Vick dogs) and so we followed that story very closely. Thanks so much for bringing that to our attention. xoAmy

  • This is so cool! It would be really neat to hear more short histories of other colors. Thanks!

  • I really enjoyed this post! Love the history lesson, and I’m already waiting for the rest of the colors :) Thanks Amy!

  • Love this post so much–it’s like my two worlds of work (scholarship, research) and fun (design blogs) are converging in this one post. I should add that although oak gall ink was dark brown, Pastoureau’s book also mentions that printers’ ink needed to be darker, denser, and more viscous, so they added linseed oil and soot to it. That ink was so black and sticky that printshop workers’ skins were coated in it and they were nicknamed “printers’ devils.” Printers’ ink was also much glossier than manuscript (iron gall) ink, which Shakespeare alludes to at the end of Sonnet 65:
    Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?

    “Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
    Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
    O, none, unless this miracle have might,
    That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” (11-14)

  • PS I would also love to read some more color trend histories. I recommend Pastoureau’s book on Blue, and Robert Chenciner’s book Madder Red. There’s also a lovely book on material histories of color by Victoria Finlay called Colour: A Natural History of the Palette.

  • This was a very interesting post. Coincidentally I just bought my second can of black paint last night. It’s going on furniture this time.

  • Beautiful text! Great historical research and I really love the way you put it to us, laypeople. We should have more of this!