Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Curious About Color?

The mid-19th century is a time of tremendous color… in everything except most photographic information. By the 1860s, photography had developed to the point that it was no longer just for artists and people with the cash to splash on a newfangled fancy thing; the ability to fix images on paper, glass, or metal led to an explosion in commercially-available photography for the everyday household.

So, we’re blessed with quite a lot of photographic documentation of the era we love!

But, we’re also working with images that are more often grey-toned than colored, and that can lead to a lot of speculation about what colors the Original Cast were actually wearing. One big flaw is to examine period images taken with wet-plate technology (find a discussion of the processes here, and you’ll see why modern historic photographers are not charging enough for ferros, dags, and ambros!) and “read” them according to a modern black-and-white-film gray-scale of tones. Because modern black-and-white film is not nearly so blue-sensitive as period photography technology, the “read” is wrong; we are not used to the grayscale a historic person would expect to see in photographs.

Years and years ago, I met a really neat woman named Kathleen Lowe, who took a short series of images with both modern and  historic processes. I do have her permission, granted all those years ago, to share these images for educational use, so I’m happy to do it, with this caveat: if you want to share them, link back to this article rather than re-hosting or re-publishing her images, so the her permissions and her copyrights are maintained. Court good cosmic karma, and click through for the images.

ColorWheel-KLowe1 ColorWheel-KLowe2-Gray

Modern color wheel with modern color film, compared to a modern color wheel photographed with modern black-and-white film, way back when film cameras still existed, in the 1990s. It’s vintage. I’m old.


The same modern color wheel compared to itself shot with wet-plate technology and a historically-accurate camera. I know. It’s a bit different than what we expect, isn’t it?

The wet-plate image has not been manipulated or flipped; cyan really does read about the same as white! All those “mourning” pictures that show up for sale? A crimson dress, pumpkin orange dress, or screaming canary yellow dress can all photograph with the same black tones. That pale grey dress? Could be deep blue: it “reads” lighter because of the blue tones. Those “zombie” pictures from mid-century, where the sitter appears to have blank white eyes with a tiny dot of pupil and no iris? Welcome to my world: we folks with pale blue eyes end up iris-free with period photographic technology.

Even with this rather nifty color comparison, we can’t use the second set to go around “reading” colors in original images, because the actual color of the fabric and complexion is not the only factor influencing the color “read.” The age and temperatures of the chemicals used to prepare or develop the plate, the skill of the photographer, the angles of light as they strike different planes of the sitter, and even the temperature of the light that day (changeable with the season, weather, time of day, and orientation of the sun relative to the photographer’s windows or camera position) will all affect the finished image (click through for the physics explanation of the temperature of light, and here for a nice chart that relates light temperature to time of day, year, and illumination in everyday terms.)

While we can sometimes match an original image to an extant dress documented to the sitter in the image and compare the colors more directly, it’s safe to say that it’s well-nigh impossible to simply look at color comparisons and state with certainty what color something is. We can often say things like, “It reads dark here, so it may have red or yellow tones, or be black,” or “It reads light, so there may be some blue toes in the fabric,” and other such statements, but definitive declarations of color can be problematic. (This isn’t limited to armchair historians; there are some fantastic photo resource books that seem to use modern grayscale for reading the images, too. When you know that filter exists, the books remain extremely valuable for the images and non-color commentary.)

You’ll no doubt want to know more about the ways color photographs with period technology. I recommend a great (fat and wonderful) article by Michael and Virginia Mescher, available on their website here. Be patient as the pdf file loads; it is extensive, and has images included, so the file is large. (Also, if you want to share the article, link your friends to it’s location on the Mescher’s site, so they’ll always have the most recent updates and new research!)

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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