Monday, February 3, 2014

Color Me Something Authentic by Ciara Gold

Most of us try real hard to immerse the reader in whatever time period we’re writing about. I love working on historical westerns and do my best but I ran across a blurb that really got me to thinking. Hopefully I haven’t been guilty of this, but in an article by Denise Chow on the Live Science Website regarding the color of the train that transported Abraham Lincoln’s body, Wayne Wesolowski explained, "I didn't find color records in the newspapers, and a lot of the other descriptions were written long after the Civil War. Some described the car as being a rich chocolate brown, and others said it was more like claret, or red wine. But it's very hard to describe colors with words, and paint names today have very different meanings. For instance, chocolate bars did not exist in 1865, so "chocolate brown" referred more to Dutch chocolate, which, because of the way it was prepared, was a darker, redder brown than we imagine today,”
This got me to thinking about other color descriptors. Consider a pioneer in west Texas. Doubtful he or she would think of yellow in terms of “lemon” yellow.

With that in mind, I tried to compile a list of color descriptors that might ring true in the 1870s. Mind you this is not a very complete list but was done in hopes of making us all mindful of what existed in plenty at the time of our stories.

Yellow:  Lemons didn’t really get going in Texas until the early 1900s, along with grapefruits, limes and kumquats. Also, cornsilk, gold and butter.

Orange:  Persimmons, polished brass, carrots ( introduced to America in 1700s; peaches were introduced in Texas by German immigrants, and oranges were introduced to Hildalgo County, Texas in the 18th century but most of the citrus trees didn’t become popular until the early 1900s.) Early pumpkins were really a form of squash and looked different from the traditional pumpkin of today (but it was still orange just really bright).

Red:  carmine, cherry trees didn’t come to America until 1912 as a sign of friendship from the Japanese, Apples seeds could be bought in 1845 from an American Nursery Catalogue,  pomegranate, garnet is a gemstone that can be found naturally in Arizona, Tomatoes are native of South America and Central America and the first varieties were more yellow then red.  

Purple:  Mulberries are native to Texas, as well as dewberries,  

Blue:  Whortleberries (also known as farkleberries, gooseberries and huckleberries) can range from blue to red and can be found in east Texas,  bluebonnets, and

Green:  Horse apples are native to Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. Mint, ivy, moss, grass, forest, and clover

Brown:  Dr. Pepper was developed in 1880 in Texas, Root beer also known as Sarsaparilla was quite popular by the 1890s but didn’t really become commercialized until 1876.

I’m sure I can think of a lot of other things to look up but the point being that to remain authentic to the time period one must dig pretty deep for even the most insignificant of details like color descriptors. I know I plan to be more cautious in the future.  


Caroline Clemmons said...

Definitely something I try to keep in mind, and a good reminder to those of us who write historical novels. I've often wondered if there were trendy names for colors at each era, as we have now. I try to relate the color to the POV person. For instance, in a novel where the character is a baker, I have her think a man's eyes are cinnamon because she uses that spice in her pies. In another, I have a bartender compare the heroine's eyes to a blue wine bottle. Great food for thought, Ciara.

Ciara Gold said...

Oh, those are great ideas also. I've also tried to use color to set the tone and mood.