Green is for Babies

Not for the clothing of them, but for the begetting of them.

Color was considered to hold great power by humans, reaching back into pre-historic times. Though they shifted and evolved over the centuries, the powers associated with various colors continued to be recognized by our ancestors until the last decades of the nineteenth century. It was only then, when science had finally reduced color to chemical compounds and various lengths of light rays, that people slowly relinquished their age-old notions of the power of certain colors. But during the Regency, as they had for millenia before, many people still believed that certain colors held certain powers. In the face of a pressing need, any number of people were more than willing to employ a particular color and thus, its attendant power, to achieve their desired ends.

The peoples of pre-historic times made their colors from the various elements of nature which they found in their environment. In so doing, they assigned specific powers to each color, based on the element of which it was made. The ancient Greeks did much the same, but by the fifth century, B. C., the Greek scholars, Empedocles and Democritus, were recording these "color theories" for the mixing of colors. They linked their four "primary colors" with the four major elements, earth, air, fire and water. In the fourth century, B. C., both Plato and Aristotle took up the study of color, and these studies were to influence Pliny, whose own color theory was incorporated into the Hippocratic principles of the four humors. Each of these humors were believed to be expressed in the color of human skin. By the Middle Ages, these humors had become the foundation of medical practice across Europe.

It was also during the Middle Ages that colors were assigned certain properties and powers in the complex discipline of heraldry. The colors, known as tinctures, used for a blazon, a heraldic shield, were primarily associated with astrology. By the later Middle Ages, the colors used by heraldry were specified by law in most countries, while some were prohibited. These heraldic colors varied from country to country, but in all cases they were assumed to provide certain prerogatives or supremacy to the holder of each blazon, based on the combination of colors used in the design. Though only the aristocracy was entitled to bear arms, everyone of every social class was aware of the power of the colors used in heraldry, and many of them would use these colors as talismans by which they could put some of that power to work for themselves.

There were a few men of learning during the Middle Ages who studied color from a more scientific perspective, but such studies were random and did not become widespread. Then, in the later seventeenth century, during the course of his studies on optics, Sir Isaac Newton proved that white light could be broken into a rainbow of colors when it passed through a prism. He did his own color studies, but they were restricted to color in light, not pigments. Building on Newton’s studies, through the eighteenth century, other men of science studied both light and pigment to learn more about the physical properties of color. However, the results of those studies were still not widely known among the general public, many of whom clung to the old, traditional beliefs regarding the power of color, some of which pre-date even the ancient Greeks. Though science was gradually garnering greater respect and acceptance by the dawn of the nineteenth century, superstition and the belief in the hidden powers of nature still held some sway in the world, even among educated people.

By the eighteenth century, in England, as well as in most European countries, there were four colors which were considered to represent the four major elements, particularly when used for interior decoration. These colors were red for fire, green for earth, pale blue for air, and darker blue for water, though in many of the better rooms water was represented by looking glasses. Red was often used for the most important rooms of a house because fire, the element which it represented, was considered the most noble. Some people preferred having one of the elemental colors dominant in each room, while others liked to blend them all in each of their rooms. Red was often used in dining rooms, as dining rooms were considered to be predominantly masculine rooms, thus meriting the use of the most noble color. Drawing rooms, considered to be feminine rooms, were sometimes decorated with colors which represented gentler, less powerful elements, such as air and water. However, red might also be used in the decor, to communicate the power and dignity of the homeowner and/or to impress visitors with that power and dignity.

Gold, usually gold leaf, was incorporated into the interior decor of the main rooms of many fine homes, because gold was considered to be representative of light. Though light was not a primary element, from at least the Classical Greek era, it was acknowledged to be emblematic of purity and goodness. There was also the added benefit that the use of gold clearly demonstrated a homeowner’s wealth. Especially by the second half of the eighteenth century, white was often used to lighten the decor, because it was also considered to represent nobility since it was the lightest color. However, black was used sparingly, if at all, because it was the opposite of white, heavy, dark and impure.

And what of green, the primary subject of this tale? Green, the color of the essential element, earth, was also representative of fertility. It was for this reason that green was a favorite color for the decor of bedchambers. This was the case from the early eighteenth century right through the first few decades of the nineteenth. Certainly, old superstitions regarding the innate powers of various colors was dwindling by the time of the Regency, but they had not yet completely died out. And even couples who did not hold with superstition, but were eager for a child, particularly that all important heir, may have been quite willing to employ any means which might aid them to that end. Some people chose to have only green accents in their bedchambers while others used green throughout the room. These choices appear to have been influenced by the level of desire for a child.

Apparently, to take advantage of the increased fertility which was conferred by green, it need be present only in the room in which efforts at conception took place. There was no need to decorate the entire house with green to gain this benefit. There is no evidence that green garments were believed to have had similar power. However, it is possible that one or both members of a hopeful couple might have worn a green garment or two for added insurance of fertility. Curiously, there does not seem to have been any prohibition against the use of green in the bedrooms of unmarried persons, even young ladies about to make their social debut. Of course, so long as no young man was allowed to cross the threshold of her room, a young lady was considered to be perfectly safe, no matter how green her bedchamber might be.

It is quite possible that decorating their bedchamber in green might have helped a couple to conceive a child, though not in the way they believed it did. In my own extended family there have been two different couples who badly wanted children. After years of trying, they both decided to adopt and in each case, both couples conceived a child within a year following the adoption. According to their doctors, once they had adopted a child, they essentially relaxed and just enjoyed themselves in bed. Once the pressure was off, nature took its course. Something similar may have happened to Regency couples who wanted a child. If they believed in the fertile power of green, and had their bedchambers decorated with green, confidence that the power of nature was with them may have allowed them to relax and thus conceive the child they wanted.

Dear Regency Authors, how would you use this belief in the fertile power of green in one of your stories? Might an interfering mother-in-law, determined to have an heir for the title, order the bedchamber of her son’s new bride decorated in green if a child does not arrive quickly enough to suit her? Perhaps an apparently barren married woman, longing for a child, consults a wise woman in her village and is advised to decorate her bedroom, or at least her bed, with green. But if green, the color of the fertile earth, could be helpful in efforts to conceive, what about Mother Earth herself? Would a couple impatient for a child decide to engage in their conception efforts out in the midst of real nature, rather than a room merely decorated with green? Would there be other, unintended consequences of such activity?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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12 Responses to Green is for Babies

  1. Charlotte Frost says:

    After reading this I shall look at period interiors with new eyes. Thank you Kat.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Don’t take everything you see in period rooms at face value. Green was a particularly fugitive, unstable color. Unfortunately, very little of the paint, and other colorings, which were used in rooms centuries ago are of the same colors today. In most cases, the only way to be sure that a room was originally painted green is to conduct chemical analysis of the paint itself.

      However, a number of historic houses have taken the time to do such chemical analysis. Using modern, stable paints, have repainted their period rooms to replicate how they would have looked originally. In those cases, you will indeed see rooms as they looked originally.



  2. Of course green in the bed chamber was also pretty perilous as the major pigment used to create a bright green was heavily steeped in arsenic, which may have contributed to the death of Napoleon in his green room. Making a pure bright green had always been difficult and the pigment Scheele’s Green, a bright emerald, became popular because it did not fade. It was also known as Paris green, Schweinfurth green, Imperial green or Vienna green. Having been already very popular in wallpaper this became fashionable in fabric around 1817.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are quite right, many greens had an arsenic component, which is one of the reasons greens were so unstable. Also as you noted, the creation of green was difficult and the few green pigments available at the time were rare and expensive. I suspect that very rarity may have only increased the presumption of their power for fertility.

      On the subject of death by arsenic-treated wallpaper or paint, a grain or two of salt may be needed. In most cases, any tests done to determine if someone has been poisoned by arsenic, particularly of people who died centuries ago, was done on strands of hair. Often, those strands were acquired from locks which had been taken from the body prior to burial by family and friends. The rub is that these locks were often sprinkled with a special powder sold at the time which was intended to preserve them. It has only been in recent years that analysis has shown that that powder contained arsenic. The lock of Napoleon’s hair which tested positive for arsenic was later discovered to have been treated with that special preserving powder. Today, few scholars or scientists believe he was poisoned. Those who have studied the case now believe he died of stomach cancer, as his attending physician certified.

      So, even though there was a significant amount of arsenic to be found in green paint and wallpaper in centuries past, unless the occupants of the room licked or chewed on the walls, they were in little danger from the color on their walls.



      • Wow, that’s interesting! You are very knowledgeable, I love to learn from you.

      • Sia says:

        “So, even though there was a significant amount of arsenic to be found in green paint and wallpaper in centuries past, unless the occupants of the room licked or chewed on the walls, they were in little danger from the color on their walls.”

        I don’t know what happened to it now but I do remember finding a household tips type book thing ages ago. Decoration section went on for about a paragraph or two on the theme of ‘Shame on you if you paint the nursery green’. That was the general gist of it…there was no actual explaination either for modern eyes. Standard guff of ‘bad luck’ for reasoning but beyond that, no.

        • Green is of course the colour of the devil [and of the fey folk] in medieval folklore. Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight has a hidden subtext were Gawaine represents Richard II and the Green Knight represents John of Gaunt, all sorts of symbolism going in in there! A reliable green for fabric was Lincoln green, as beloved of Robin Hood, which was also the usual livery of foresters. It is a remarkably bright green and was obtained by overdying with woad a cloth dyed with saffron [in its most expensive form] or weld [ for the less expensive form,which was not as bright.] It was an expensive colour, though not as much as as ‘scarlet’ which need not actually be red at all, in fact a lot of it was black, but it used the kermes beetle as a part of the dye to impart a rich, dark colour, and i’m rambling again, sorry. Medievalist!

          • Sia says:

            Hey, I know nothing about medieval stuff. I slept through that part of history class because all they cared about was dates. So, while I don’t have much to contribute, I’ll happily provide a listening ear….uhh….reading eye, I guess.

            I wonder if it’s partly the devil thing and partly that small children generally can’t be trusted to not lick/chew strange things.

            • I love the medieval period. All that murdering, mayhem, skullduggery and intrigue. So far as I’m concerned there are only two memorable dated in history: 1066, and November 5th. I have a big book with timelines in, for all across europe of what was happening when, so I don’t have to learn dates… other than the vague idea of the passing of time and what happened about when.
              Did you know there’s also a folk belief that if you wear a yellow dress you’ll miscarry? that allegedly dates to Anne Boleyn wearing a yellow gown to gloat about her fertility at Katharine, and she gloated too soon. Colour significance is fascinating, and the liturgical colour meanings don’t always tally with folk or everyday meanings, because green is also used for Pascal applications. Green is for young and inexperienced, it’s also for jealousy. Green is the colour of nature, but apart from Lincoln green it’s very very difficult to reproduce with natural dyes, as I know from plenty of experimentation as well as received wisdom. Even young nettle tops only make a light yellowy limey green. I suspect some of the superstition may arise from that, because only God could make a true green. I am not sure how early it was known that green paint was poisonous [we need Patrick Baty, the paint historian, if Kat doesn’t know]; but if it was known then the advice would be sound since small children do use the sensitive nerves of the mouth to investigate things.

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                Things seem to have gotten rather off track here. This article explains that green was considered the color of fertility, and therefore, some people who wished to have children painted their bedchambers green in the hope of ensuring conception. The walls of children’s rooms were not usually painted green, since green was a very expensive color, and besides, the baby had already been successfully conceived. Somehow, the idea of children chewing things seems to have bled over to comments to this article. Few children during the Regency, or for centuries before, chewed walls, and certainly not the walls in their parents bedchambers.

                In terms of paint contents, arsenic had been used for centuries in the making of paints, usually green. It has also been used as an additive in many other chemical compounds since it has a number of other useful properties. From what I have read, it did not become known that green paint was poisonous until well into the Victorian era. It was certainly not known during the Regency.



              • I had a feeling it wasn’t known. Sorry to wander off track… the fertility aspect does link to the Pascal aspect, which nicked it from the pagan jack in the green… as I recall, the dark green was about 5 or 6 times the price of any other paint at two-and-six a pound. It’s a great way of indicating that the owners of a house fancy themselves, by having a rich dark green paint job in their rooms, rather than the cheap stone-colour.

  3. Sia says:

    Sorry, I got distracted by the ‘licking/chewing things’ and the book I mentioned and kinda hijacked it … sorry again. Mea culpa

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