Colour facts for Kids

Hello, AQUILAnauts and Happy New Year! This month’s issue is all about the Science of Colour. So, are you ready to GET BRIGHT? Come on, yes you are! Let’s dump those duvets and prepare to perk up, with these amazingly vibrant colour facts. 

Robin’s no sap!

Legendary folk hero and outlaw Robin Hood was famous for wearing the colour Lincoln green. This shade was produced in the English city of Lincoln by first dying cloth blue with the locally grown woad, and then overdying it with yellow. The city of Lincoln was actually famous for the production of two different coloured cloths. The second, ‘Lincoln scarlet’, was definitely just as fetching but it was pricier than the green, and didn’t provide Robin with quite the same level of forest camouflage.

Louis Rhead, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sage advice

The colour green might have kept Robin safe in the woods, but did you know it could be very dangerous indeed? The colour Scheele’s green was invented in 1775 by a Swedish chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Scheele combined sodium carbonate, arsenious oxide and copper sulphate to make a vivid yellow-green pigment derivative. It was brighter than other greens that were available, and cheaper to produce. It became a hugely popular shade for wallpapers and interiors – gracing the walls of all the most exclusive residences. Little did they know they’d invited a deadly toxin into their homes. Arsenic-related poisoning was a common cause of death throughout 19th-century Europe. A month before the exiled French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte died, he wrote in his will, ‘My death is premature. I have been assassinated by the English oligopoly and their hired murderer…’

It’s true that, at 51, Napoleon was facing an untimely demise. But perhaps the culprit was not the English oligopoly (whatever that was), but his highly poisonous bathroom wallpaper? Oh, and also his bathtub was lined with lead, which would hardly have helped. In fact, given how chock-full of toxins Napoleon’s home on St. Helena actually was, maybe he was lucky to have survived as long as he did!

An example of 'Scheele's Green' - Georg Friedrich Kersting, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Purple reign

Everyone knows the real colour of kings and emperors is not Scheele’s green, but deep PURPLE. The oldest known natural purple dye was once three times more expensive than gold and could be worn only by phenomenally rich people. The name of this colour was Tyrian purple or Phoenician red, because it was first produced by the Phoenicians around the ancient Lebanese city of Tyre. And sure, it sounds super fancy, but the process by which it was made was actually DISGUSTING, frankly. Producing a single swatch of cloth required tens of thousands of dried out mucus glands pulled from spiky murex sea snails. These were then dried and boiled to produce a small amount of dye. And the process also STANK so badly that it could only be made in certain parts of town, where it would not offend any of the wealthy people that lived there – even though they were the only people who could ever hope to wear it! The manufacture of murex dyes vanished with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE, when the people finally realised how gross it was the colour lost its imperial status.

Fabrics dyed from different species of sea snail , via Wikimedia Commons

A matter of semantics

Did you know that pink was once yellow. Eh? Yep! The name ‘pink’ once referred to a murky shade of yellowy-green that was made from the bark of an oak tree. Pink wasn’t associated with a light red shade until the 17th or 18th centuries.

Spreading the love

And what is now yellow, was once pink! When margarine arrived in North America from Europe in the 1870s, dairy farmers were absolutely horror-struck. They thought that this brand-new invention, which was made from beef tallow and far cheaper than butter, would drive them all out of business. To make matters worse, naturally pale margarine was being artificially coloured yellow to make it look more appetising to ordinary families.

So what did these MOO-dy dairy farmers do to combat the impact of all this new technology? They pushed back. HARD. By 1898 – thanks to lobbying from Big Butter (LOL) – 26 states had introduced laws ruling that margarine must not be dyed yellow and instead had to be either pink, red, brown or black! Why? So that buyers could tell which spread was the real deal and which was the slightly weird looking random-coloured imposter. These laws remained in place across many parts of the United States right up until the late 1960s (Wisconsin was the last state to repeal all margarine laws in 1967), when opposition to the margarine industry seemed to melt away.

Did you enjoy this terrific technicolour tour? Then you’re sure to adore our Science of Colour issue of AQUILA. Make sure you click here, to subscribe immediately!

Written by Freya Hardy