The Poor Wore Color

A year ago I posted on how ancient buildings are usually depicted as colorless, even though they were brightly colored, and suggested this is because we think about the distant past in far mode. I’ve argued similarly about future images and colors.

We also tend to think of the clothes of the past poor as colorless; here are some typical images:

ColorlessGirls

ColorlessBoysBut not only did the poor smile, they wore a lot of color:

“Threads of Feeling” is an exhibition of the thousands of textile tokens left with the children at London’s Foundling Hospital from the middle to late 18th century. The 3-by-4-inch fabric swatches are the largest collection of 18-century common textiles from Britain, preserved for a heartbreaking reason. In 1739, wealthy patrons created the Foundling Hospital, a nice name for a large orphanage, to adopt and take care of abandoned babies being left at churches and on sidewalks across London. This orphanage took in thousands of babies left at its doors from 1739 to 1770, with the hope that mothers would ultimately return to claim their children if their monetary circumstances changed. So when the mothers left their babies, they often attached a small fabric swatch to identify the child. Often, the swatches were cut from the mother’s clothing, and included ribbons, embroidery and brightly colored materials that represent the textiles of the poor in 18th-century Britain.

FoundlingHospitalCloth

Though not a traditional textile or costume exhibition, the trove of fabrics recasts much of working-class London in a vibrant, colorful light, opposing the drab, gray palette depicted in the writings of Samuel Johnson and his contemporaries. The men who chronicled life in London rarely described the attire of poor women; when they did, the colors of smut and sewage seemed to cloud their eyes and words. But the women, by and large illiterate, lived life in florals, needlepoint and intricately dyed fabrics. John Styles, curator of the exhibition, said 18th-century textiles of the poor were rarely preserved, because most peasants sold old fabrics and clothes to be made into paper. …

FoundlingHospital

Since the practice of leaving children at hospitals was so common, many historians once believed wrongly that women and parents were less attached to their children. Indeed, narratives of hardened mothers abandoning their children were documented in texts at the time, making children seem dispensable. But what illiterate women couldn’t chronicle in books about life in London, they could weave into carefully crafted tokens of love for their infants. Some mothers illustrated enduring love with hearts and butterflies, symbols of innocence that displayed their deep attachment to their children. The most wrenching part of the exhibition is the mostly unrealized hope that mothers would return to claim their children. Of the 16,282 infants admitted to the hospital, only 152 children were reclaimed. (more)

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  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    Sanity check: before the chemical dye revolution, dyes were *extremely* expensive; before the Industrial Revolution, any clothes at all were extremely expensive. Excerpts include a mention that peasants would *sell their old clothes, they were so poor*. Dyes were known to be very powerful signaling devices (eg. ‘the coat of many colors’, Tyrian purple), and we can come up with contemporary examples (why do Africans wear such garish clothes? Because the dyes have become affordable.)

    Which more parsimoniously explains the exhibit’s observations: (1) parents leaving behind a child forever grabbed one of a few tiny treasured brightly colored garments and left it with the child, with the more interesting items being more likely to be kept or to survive; or, (2) peasants blowing an enormous chunk of annual income on expensive brightly colored clothes to the point where they cannot afford to keep children, apparently, but they can strewn them with colorful swatches and our inability to realize this is due primarily to cognitive biases stemming from a non-consensus psychological paradigm called construal theory?

    • Douglas Knight

      Do you have direct evidence that dyes were expensive? Tyrian purple is famous for being more expensive than other dyes.

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        Feel free to google it; look at searches like ‘historical dyes expensive’ or ‘industrial revolution German dye price OR cost OR expense’. (German because cheap coal-tar dyes were one of the foundations of German growth and, incidentally, connected to modern pharmaceuticals.)

      • Douglas Knight

        The only absolute claims I find are that purple and (some) red were expensive.

        Yes, synthetic dyes were eventually cheaper than all natural dyes, but that doesn’t address how expensive the mass of natural dyes were. When coal-tar purple was first introduced, it was extremely popular because it had been completely inaccessible before. But the novelty didn’t last long and people went back to natural dyes that were perfectly affordable. But in such histories of fashion, “affordable” means to the middle class and doesn’t tell us much about the poor. However, if the poor had previously not been able to afford any color and had switched to purple, I think history would have recorded it.

        Here is a page that describes woad, madder, weld, and lichen as cheap in absolute terms in Elizabethan times, though, again, it doesn’t distinguish cheap enough for the poor from too cheap for nobles. The Picts famously painted their bodies with woad, suggesting that it was pretty cheap thousands of years ago. But maybe this was just for battle, or permanent tattoos, or a myth. But the myth was not about their fabulous wealth.

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        To cherrypick from your link like Robin cherrypicked from another link: “The brightest or darkest colours were more expensive to produce and therefore limited to higher status clothing.”

    • Robin Hanson

      In the first search you suggest, the third link has this second paragraph:

      “Dyes of the Renaissance may be divided into two categories: Those that were expensive, difficult to obtain and required artisans and craftsmen to achieve satisfactory results, and those that were inexpensive, easy to obtain, and could be used at home or in the local village. However, to my surprise, all the bright and beautiful colors do not belong to just that first category. An assortment of vibrant, lively colors were obtained from the local flora of England, France, Spain, Holland, and the surrounding countries.”

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        ‘Inexpensive’ is a very relative term to use when you are so poor you are abandoning babies to orphanages. There are cars which are expensive recerche items of prestige costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there are ‘inexpensive’ ‘easy to obtain’ cars which can be ‘used at home or in the local village'; yet, it’s rare for a single person to own more than one car. If people back then owned only one ‘inexpensive’ ‘easy to obtain’ colored garment, the past would still be drab and colorless.

        And do the examples cited in OP even fall into the latter category of being obtained from local flora?

      • Stephen Diamond

        Did the poor wear color? Obviously they did: Hanson’s reporting on an exhibit of colorful fabrics left by the very poor.

        Sanity check indeed! You’re countering demonstration with tendentious interpretation of secondary text.

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        And if someone ran an exhibit on some gold coins found excavating countless peasant hovels, would you conclude that peasants must all have been extremely wealthy?

        ‘Did the poor have gold? Obviously they did: this reporting is on an exhibit of gold coins left by the very poor. Sanity check indeed!’

      • Stephen Diamond

        From the OP:

        “Threads of Feeling” is an exhibition of the thousands of textile tokens
        left with the children at London’s Foundling Hospital from the middle
        to late 18th century. The 3-by-4-inch fabric swatches are the largest
        collection of 18-century common textiles from Britain

        And you simply haven’t made any case that all dyes were out of the poor’s reach.

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        Ooh wow, thousands. From half a century. From the largest city in England. From one of, if not the, largest charity in London. Do just a little reading and think about the scale involved here; for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundling_Hospital mentions them having to deal with 15k kids over 3-4 years at one point, which is ~4k kids a year. 4k a year times half a century = quite a few kids, shall we say. Looking at the article on the exhibit, they must’ve clamped down heavily on how many they accepted, because it only works out to 800 kids a year, but using the latest date mentioned (1767) we still get 800 * 1767-1741 = 20.8k kids. So we have selection effect (which kid’s swatches got used) piled on top of selection effect (using one’s best piece of clothing, perhaps).

        It’s simply absurd to claim, as Hanson does, that this exhibit tells us much of anything about clothing among the poor at that time, or that construal theory predicts this, or that construal effects are why historical fiction like movies are supposedly biased against the more colorful truth. Every step there is highly questionable.

      • Stephen Diamond

        You’re arguing that the curator of the exhibit “cherry picked” swatches while representing that they’re the complete set of remaining swatches. Presumably, only a subset of swatches were preserved–it would be relevant to know why some were preserved and others not–but you assume that only the colorful ones were preserved and that the curator conceals this crucial information.

        You have what amounts to a conspiracy theory about the exhibit, based on what: your unsupported assumption that all dyes were too expensive.

        You also have the unsupported (and bizarre) assumption that the very poor owned multiple outfits.

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        I don’t claim the curator represents anything. Exhibits often ‘show a collection’ while not showing the entire collection; it’s a rare and small collection which can be exhibited in its complete entirety bar none.

        > the curator conceals this crucial information.

        The curator is not making Hanson’s argument. At most, he makes a comment about some designs being ‘relatively cheap’ and this demonstrating some consumerist ‘roots’. I don’t accuse the curator of concealing crucial information because he’s not making the argument that it’s relevant to.

        > You have what amounts to a conspiracy theory about the exhibit, based on what: your unsupported assumption that all dyes were too expensive.

        This is ordinary consumerism history. Textiles were expensive pre Industrial Revolution. Dyes were likewise expensive. What, did you think the Industrial Revolution with the textile sector as its leading wing didn’t drop prices massively or something? Seriously? *Of course* clothes and dyes were expensive before.

        > You also have the unsupported (and bizarre) assumption that the very poor owned multiple outfits.

        No, I don’t.

      • Stephen Diamond

        The curator is not making Hanson’s argument. At most, he makes a comment about some designs being ‘relatively cheap’ and this demonstrating some consumerist ‘roots’

        “Though not a traditional textile or costume exhibition, the trove of fabrics recasts much of working-class London in a vibrant, colorful light, opposing the drab, gray palette depicted in the writings of Samuel Johnson and his contemporaries.”

        In context, this represents the curator’s point of view.

        This is ordinary consumerism history. Textiles were expensive pre Industrial Revolution. Dyes were likewise expensive.

        This assumption is precisely what is being contested. You haven’t supported it–you appeal to authority, but without citing any.

        No, I don’t.

        “parents leaving behind a child forever grabbed one of a few tiny treasured brightly colored garments and left it with the child,”

        You assume they had multiple garments, and that they could afford “treasured” garments that they seldom wore. (You also turn what are reported as swatches into “tiny garments.”)

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        ‘Much’ is not much of a specific word. (And incidentally, why would one favor a highly unusual collection of small swatches over the testimony of the people who, you know, actually lived back then?) So no, I don’t think the curator necessarily agrees with Hanson that the past was extremely colorful and similar to today, even if we take the reporter’s writing as being the

        curator’s view.

        > This assumption is precisely what is being contested. You haven’t supported it–you appeal to authority, but without citing any.

        So let me see if I’ve gotten this straight. You don’t think textiles got massively cheaper during the Industrial Revolution. And you want me to support this claim.

        No thanks. This is in schoolchildren’s textbooks. Maybe you should go back there if you didn’t pay attention in history class.

        > You assume they had multiple garments, and that they could afford “treasured” garments that they seldom wore. (You also turn what are reported as swatches into “tiny garments.”)

        ‘garment: an item of clothing'; same root as ‘garnish’. But no, I’m sure you’re reading what I wrote perfectly accurately and I think that poor people back then were tiny little dwarfs who wore individual swatches as clothing…

        What I meant, as you would see if you were reading my comments non-moronically, is that garment is a generic term applicable to swatches and shirts alike. If someone pins a ribbon – or swatch? – to themselves and their dreary ordinary clothes, they have put on another garment. It’s perfectly possible that these peasants – the subset which had any colorful attachment at all! – had a handful of outfits and a few colorful small items they used on holidays or for special occasions like church, and the most colorful of those were left with the babies and the most colorful of the most colorful of these small items are what are on display.

      • Stephen Diamond

        It’s perfectly possible that these peasants – the subset which had any colorful attachment at all! – had a handful of outfits and a few colorful small items they used on holidays or for special occasions like church, and the most colorful of those were left with the babies and the most colorful of the most colorful of these small items are what are on display.

        First you denied saying they had multiple outfits (“no I don’t [claim they had multiple outfits]“) Now you assert (without evidence) that they had a “handful of outfits.”

        If you decline to offer authority for your supposedly authoritative statements, there’s not much left to say on the main subject: were there dyes accessible to poor people before the industrial revolution? The evidence before us is that there were, regardless of what you might have been taught in elementary school.

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        > What testimony?

        The testimony of the curator himself, if we are to believe your claims about how the article is written: “Though not a traditional textile or costume exhibition, the trove of
        fabrics recasts much of working-class London in a vibrant, colorful
        light, opposing the drab, gray palette depicted in the writings of
        Samuel Johnson and his contemporaries….” What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

        > were there dyes accessible to poor people before the industrial revolution?

        Of course dyes were ‘accessible'; but as I *already* pointed out, accessible is meaningless – gold is accessible, and one could compile an exhibit of gold from peasants and poor people if one dredged enough sites – the question is whether bright expensive dyes were common among the poor to the extent that depictions of a grey drab past are inaccurate.

        > (Again, it would be deceitful for the curator or reporter to use the word “much” in the misleading manner you insinuate.)

        It would be a perfectly ordinary misreading or hasty reporting job, as is endemic in the mass media. Your faith in them is touching, though.

        And still no reply to my question: do you seriously believe that the Industrial Revolution did not massively cut the cost of clothing and dyes?

        Well, I guess we’re done here.

      • IMASBA

        gwern’s observation that the poor might only have had a single colored “sunday outfit” should not be so easily dismissed. It’s also possible the poor obtained more colored clothing through second hand sales but I imagine those clothes turning mostly drab pretty soon because of dirt, pollution, etc…

      • free_agent

        The literature of the times (including “Tom Sawyer”) suggests that ordinary people only had one or two changes of clothing, and I’ve seen descriptions of important people suggesting that they had only one set of truly good clothes, so that they could be directly identified by what they wore.

        Also, the economics of children was much different then, food was a much higher fraction of living expenses. Colored clothes may have been expensive to the point that one could not own many of them, and yet still be inexpensive compared to the costs of feeding a child.

  • IMASBA

    “The most wrenching part of the exhibition is the mostly unrealized hope that mothers would return to claim their children.”

    Was this sentence written by the same person who seems just a little bit too excited about a future scenario where EMs get turned into electronic soylent green the nanosecond they can’t afford their own upkeep anymore?

    • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

      Feeling things like pity and being wrenched is just part of the dreamtime, IMASBA – enjoy them while you can!

    • komponisto

      No indeed; it is a quote from the link.

      • IMASBA

        Naturally…

  • cd

    The “more” link is broken.

    • Robin Hanson

      Fixed.

  • dmytryl

    > A year ago I posted
    on how ancient buildings are usually depicted as colorless, even though
    they were brightly colored, and suggested this is because we think
    about the distant past in far mode.

    This is just getting ridiculous. First off, yes, the colours was much less available to the poor back then as easily verified, and second off, the reason for colourlessness bias is easy to see – black and white photography. (That being said, there were bright colours that were cheap, and which you could see in traditional dresses if you lived in Europe and had such thing as traditional dresses).

    • Stephen Diamond

      First off, yes, the colours was much less available to the poor back then as easily verified, and second off, the reason for colourlessness bias is easy to see – black and white photography.

      The colors available might have been restricted. In that sense, color was “less available.” The cheap colors seem to be odd, with strange names. What colors were available could depend on what grew in your vicinity. But if it can be verified that the poor in this epoch were colorless, I’d like to see it.

      Black and white photography is a good alternative explanation to construal that Hanson should consider if he hasn’t. But I don’t think the argument is as simple as it seems. Black and white photography doesn’t dictate that the viewer interpret the scene as really colorless. But I think there is a cognitive bias to think that what isn’t apparent isn’t there. That bias might compete with construal-level theory in explaining the colorless view of the far past.

      There’s another bias that needs to be considered. We assume that colors are far less important than other things, like nutrition. So, even if dyes were cheap, if they cost anything, why would people fighting hunger spend on color? I think that may be the main bias gripping some ultrarationalists like gwern, who are prone to assume the hard reality of the “utility function.”

    • Peter Jones

      they has colour *painting*. The peasants in Bruegel paintings look about how you would expect from people with vegetable-dyed clothes, lots of brown, and red.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I am reminded of a bit in “Albion’s Seed” where he mentions that Puritans wore “sadd” (serious) colors, which most people nowadays assumed meant black. but in fact that was not plain enough for most of them! Popular colors were “liver color, de Boys, tawney, russet, purple, French green, ginger lyne, deer colour, orange”, “puce, folding color, Kendall green, Lincoln green, barry, milly” and “philly mort”. I have no idea what most of those are.

    • Douglas Knight

      That’s a long list of colors. What isn’t on it? red? Half of it sounds like shades of brown, but orange, purple, flax blossom, 3x green, and maybe philly mort sound bright to me. (and that’s not counting the many I can’t identify)

      For physical dyes, like woad, it’s easy to go to google images and see modern images of fabric dyed with it, but the photographs are taken before any wear and the process may be better today than in the past.

      When you move away from dyes to names, it is even harder to assess the past. Robin Hood wore Lincoln green, and today we portray him in bright green, but some people claim that Lincoln green was olive. But with at least three greens on the list, can they all be dull?

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Yes, I don’t know what most of those are either, or what colors didn’t qualify.

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