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.
Perhaps puce, a dark-reddish brown