Yellow is the color we commonly associate with spring. It is the radiant color of sunshine, daffodils, lemons, bananas, emojis, highlighters, fluffy chicks, and the finest Pittsburgh sports shirts. It is a royal color. The early Tang dynasty banned common people and officials from wearing yellow, and declared royal palaces would be marked by yellow roofs.
It also denotes sickness—sallow skin, jaundice, or a bilious attack. It was the color of cowardice, as well as the star Jews were forced to wear, and of derogatory reference in the early twentieth century referring to immigrants from Asia.
The pigment Indian yellow was popular among Indian painters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because of its odor, there was much conjecture about its origin. An Indian civil servant traced the mysterious yellow balls of pigment to a tiny suburb in Bengal. “There, a small group of gwalas (milkmen) tended a herd of ill-nourished cows they fed only on mango leaves and water. On this diet the cows produced extraordinarily luminous yellow urine—about three quarts per day per cow—which the gwalas collected in small earthen pots. Each night they boiled this down, strained it, and rolled the sediment into balls that were gently toasted over a fire and then left to dry out in the sun.”1
The Italian word for yellow is giallo, which is also the word for thriller, because yellow book covers used to denote this genre of book. France, however, set the trend for yellow covers to mean sensationalist literature. In London in 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested and later found officially guilty of gross indecency in court for carrying such a yellow book under his arm in public. Vincent Van Gogh painted a yellow book in two of his paintings. Yellow increasingly became symbolic of the rejection of repressed Victorian values, to the point where the final decade of the nineteenth century became known as the “Yellow Nineties”.
pause for yellow
Next time you see a daffodil, insert an emoji, or, for my writer friends, the next time you pick the dominant color for your book cover, perhaps you’ll #slowdown for a moment, and reflect on the story of yellow. And if you’re interested in reading more stories about colors, I highly recommend The Secret Lives of Color, by Kassia St. Clair, the inspiration and source for today’s post.
1T.N. Mukharji, “Piuri or Indian Yellow” in Journal of the Society for Arts, Vol. 32, No.1618 (Nov. 1883), pp. 16-17.