Thursday, November 8, 2018

Dark Ground Chintzes #4: What Color Is It?

I've been familiar with this checkerboard quilt in the collection of the Spencer Museum of Art for many years. In my mind it has always been "the brown and white quilt from the Alexander Hamilton family." Collector Sallie Casey Thayer found it about 100 years ago and that is the story she was told.

But apparently the dark print was not considered brown when it was made.

From a quilt dated 1795 by M. Campbell, Smithsonian Collection

In fact the word brown for a calico or chintz is curiously absent from all discussion of these obviously brown prints.

Here's what Peter Floud said about the prints:
"The ground itself, which is always of a characteristic purple-black---sometimes appropriately referred to in the pattern books as damson...looks unmistakably different from the pure black or blue-black grounds...from logwood and indigo."

Current exhibit at Old Sturbridge Village features
this high contrast quilt

He mentioned that "the earliest book on calico printing, Charles O'Brien's The British Manufacturers Companion refers to 'dark or shady patterns (according to the present [taste])' " in 1791.

Everybody seemed to know what a dark-ground print was. In 1820 a London exhibition offered a prize, a silver medal "For the best original pattern in a new taste, of light and dark ground Chintz for garment work, or furniture for the purpose of the Calico printers."

In 1799, The Laboratory discussed  "Black, or dark-ground chintz patterns"

This is not black in my eyes. It's brown.

From the M. Campbell quilt

Or plum---a dark purple with a reddish cast

Floud mentioned "Damson" as a color name

A Damson is an English plum, small and rather blue.
These prints are not blue---derived from madder they tend to reddish brown

UPDATE: Carolyn Gibbs wrote:
"Your query about why the description of a dark background is described as 'damson' when the fruit is blue/black can be explained by the fact that when they are cooked, the colour of damsons changes to an intense reddish purple."
Thanks, Carolyn, from a person who has never cooked a plum.

In the comments in the last post Susan Greene, author of Wearable Prints 1760-1860, directed me to some pages in her book about the dyestuffs and colors that made these browns. See page 135-142.

She looked at the color names carefully and noted they "do not seem to admit neat categorization." Other names for brown: Chestnut, cinnamon, nut. "Damson, the name given to a purplish black...was based on madder...with strong alum and iron mordants."
One reason these browns are so appealing is they were often dyed with a good deal of the dyestuff and overdyed with other colors, particularly indigo, making them expensive prints. Do read her analysis of the dyes and colors.

From a scrappy brown quilt in the collection of the Smithsonian

I've designed several reproduction chintzes in plum-colored versions.

Some of my favorites.

It's not that textile people did not use the word brown 200 years ago; they often discussed it as a color. For example O'Brien discussed "pompadour or brown-red". But when it came to describing the finished product the word brown was neglected. 

There was chocolate, buff, aubergine, plum, pompadour, damson and puce (the color of a squashed flea.)

Perhaps puce, a dark-reddish brown


  1. Lol. I will now never forget that definition of "puce". Perhaps "brown" was considered too common a word, hence the pseudonyms?

  2. When did the word "brown" become part of the vocabulary used to describe textiles?

    "A squashed flea"---yes, I see clearly now. :-)

  3. In Ngaio Marsh's 1943 book "Color Scheme" the color "puce" which figures in the solution of the crime is considered a pink.

  4. Beautiful - even if they are flea coloured! I am enjoying these postings very much.

  5. I thought the dark purple was the original color of the dark ground and over time it degraded to brown. I don't know where I got that idea, maybe from the lavender dye used later in the 19th century that has mostly by now turned to brown. Could it be the same process?

  6. Barbara, you are such a treasure to share all this wonderful information with us quilt history fans. Thank you so much!