Recent research on the history of children and color shows that the gender binary (blue is for boys, pink is for girls) is of postwar vintage. Color has been an indicator, in the pint-sized realm, of so many other things. Age, separating the wardrobe of white-dressed infants from the breeched in colored rompers or knickers. Interests, manifested in wallpapers with transportation scenes or Western stampedes. Program, with bright colors in the playroom and soothing hues in the bedroom. Complexion, red for brunettes and blue for blondes. This essay explores a few of those choices, which overlap and interweave rather than advancing toward a color-coded future.
For Saturated Space, I explore the evolution of American children’s colour-space in the 20th century.
Carrie looked like one of the little angel-birds in the Bible. Her dress and her tiny sunbonnet were white and all trimmed with lace. Her eyes were big and solemn; her golden curls hung by her cheeks and peeped from under the bonnet behind.
Then Laura saw her own pink ribbons on Mary’s braids. She clapped her hand over her mouth before a word came out. She scrooged and looked at her own back. Mary’s blue ribbons were on her braids! …
Ma, in her hurry, had made a mistake. They hoped she would not notice. Laura was so tired of pink and Mary was so tired of blue. But Mary had to wear blue because her hair was golden and Laura had to wear pink because her hair was brown.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, “On the Banks of Plum Creek”
I first read On the Banks of Plum Creek when I was five or six, and Ma’s maxim stuck with me. As a blue-eyed blonde, I had blue sweaters, a blue room, even, at 16, a blue car until switching to architecture school black-and-sometimes-gray. Then, about two years ago, blue came back. The fates of fashion decreed, after years of black, brown and cream, that blue was back. Indigo and chambray, Breton sailor stripes, ikat prints and every shade of denim. I put blue on again and realized the wisdom of Ma Ingalls. I did look better in blue.
Caroline Ingalls was not alone in her strict belief that blue was for blondes and pink (and red) were for brunettes. Etiquette books of the late nineteenth century stressed blue’s accentuating powers for blondes. In the 1980s it was a rite of passage for American female adolescents to get your colors done: a consultant at Color Me Beautiful would assess your hair, your skin tone, and your eye color and declare you one of the four seasons. Mary would have been a Summer; Laura, an Autumn. A friend of mine still has the folder issued to her after her consultation at Color 1, a plastic card-holder with paint chips in shades of brown, sage and orange (a brunette with fair skin, she is a Muted, according to their system). In any of these schema, your nascent relationship to color, rather than being gendered, was visual. Blondes can wear red, but the shade has to have a lot of blue in it.
Recent research on the history of children and color, from the Industrial Revolution on, shows that the gender binary is of postwar vintage. Color has been an indicator, in the pint-sized realm, of so many other things. Age, for example, separating the wardrobe of white-dressed infants from the breeched in colored rompers or knickers. Interests, which might manifest in wallpapers with transportation scenes or Western stampedes, circus balloons or flowers. Program, with bright colors specified in the playroom and soothing hues in the bedroom. Complexion, as above, with red for brunettes and blue for blondes. Hygiene, with white alone representing the bleached, germ-free world appropriate for tiny innocent babies. Style, as in modern primaries versus traditional rich shades. The externality of blue is for blonde, however arbitrary and frustrating it seemed to Laura Ingalls, is far simpler than the overlapping reasons behind color choices for children and even, in the latter part of the 20th century, by children. The rest of this essay explores a few of those choices, which overlap and interweave, rather than advancing toward a color-coded future in pink and blue. The 1930s turn out to be an important decade, one in which the commodification of childhood began, and modernism began its march into mass culture.
(As my title suggests, the texts and images I examined seem to mean, by and large, “white children” when they say children. When talking about children and color, particularly in reference to complexion and appropriate historical themes, I expect there were different recommendations for non-white children historically, and indeed separate merchandising and advertising histories in the early 20th century. I did not find good references to such material in this first pass at the topic, but acknowledge the omission and plan to research further.)
In her study of color and culture, “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America,” Jo Paoletti writes that white clothing for infants, like Carrie’s homemade white-and-lace church-going outfit described in “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” came into vogue in the nineteenth century, with inexpensive, industrially-produced cotton and the introduction of bleaching. Where once darker colors were favored because they hid dirt between less-frequent washings, now white was considered easier to care for, as it could be cleaned more often without color loss, as well as sanitized. “Death Becomes Her,” the current exhibition on mourning attire at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, notes that children could wear white with black edging during the period of bereavement; for the young, an interruption to the white was all that was necessary to indicate changed status, and also allowed the re-use of existing clothes.
In the early 20th century, as manufacturers began marketing to mothers, they invented the layette, the suite of tiny clothing purchased before the birth. Department stores might offer a brochure itemizing these “essentials,” which would be offered in unisex white cotton. The expectant mother was seen as a vulnerable, hence desirable, consumer, and buyers were advised on different strategies to make her buy more in her inexperience. Even now, companies like Carter’s, whose clothing for older children reflects color and style trends, sell pale, radically simplified garments for newborns in white and pale colors. “Classic baby,” from the current season, includes onesies in white, light aqua and peach, with tiny giraffes.
White was both literally and symbolically “pure,” and used both for clothing and nursery décor. As the keepers of the home, women were put in charge of maintaining its cleanliness. In the first half of the nineteenth century, household manuals stressed the morality and manners of clean; in the late nineteenth century cleanliness was transformed into the more scientific “hygiene,” and connected to disease prevention. When, in the late 19th century, bathroom fixtures became increasingly smoothed and standardized, white was considered the ideal, and “the hard, white porcelain bathroom rendered dust and grime immediately visible,” write Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller in “The Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste.” Ads from the interwar years show mothers being shamed for keeping an unhealthy home. In a ScotTissue ad from 1939, a Shirley Temple-lookalike glares balefully at her mother. “Ask Your Doctor what he thinks about Standards of Cleanliness,” reads the copy, suggesting that better toilet paper equals stronger and pleasanter children.
In a November 1930 “Parents’ Magazine” article on nurseries, interior decorator Pauline Duff drew a line between babies and older children in terms of color. “Deeper colors are too strong for use in an infant’s room,” she wrote. “Wallpaper for an infant’s room may be amusingly juvenile and the ground may be light and dainty in coloring.” Suggestions included gold stars on a pink ground and children lofting pastel balloons on a cream-colored sky. Carpet should be dark, or the floor may be covered in linoleum with washable area rugs. In another article, on playrooms versus bedrooms, she sounds the same theme: “Only in the nursery is it advisable to use delicate colorings in decorating. Peach-colored furniture with a line trim of French blue is a smart color scheme.” While Duff always outlines alternate décor for older boys and girls, her nursery suggestions are singular: the baby, in its youth, has no preferences.
Although, as we will see, the postwar playroom frequently embraced color, earlier modern spaces like schools were discussed in similar terms of hygiene, light, and lightness. If they were not white per se, they were as bright as possible, and floors, walls and furniture were made of materials left uncovered and uncolored. The outdoors was to come in, for sunlight, for exercise, for learning; a clean architectural space could serve as frame. Jan Duiker’s open-air school in Amsterdam (1929-30) is essentially the institutional version of Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino, with concrete floors cantilevered on columns, open corners, and large glazed panels. Eugene Beaudoin and Marcel Lods’s one-story school in Suresnes, France (1935-36) had glass walls that folded back like an accordion, making a smooth transition from the indoors to the outdoor classroom. Beaudoin and Lods also designed lightweight furniture for the school, including stainless-steel cabinets on wheels and miniature chaises of bent tubular steel and canvas that could be moved by the children. Marcel Breuer’s children’s furniture for Thonet (1930-31) was also made of tubular steel, with plain wood tops and seats. Gio Ponti even designed a child’s desk made of glass with wooden feet in 1939.
Architect Richard Neutra, influenced by Duiker, imported a similar concept to California in the Corona Avenue School (1935), with sliding glass walls that opened onto a patio and a clerestory, on the opposite side, bringing light from the outside hallway connecting the classrooms. The Crow Island School, designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen with Perkins, Wheeler and Will in 1940, was even more influential in the United States, well-made in an organic version of modernism style, with big windows, recessed lighting, and small chairs and tables in clear bentwood. Frances Pressler, the director of activities for the school, asked the architects that “there be no illustrative frieze decoration as the means of presenting the place to children, lest such illustration be not the fanciful picture of the children who behold it.”
The aesthetic of clean, and the modernist imperative toward truth to materials, migrate from home to school to toys. As Amy Ogata writes, in “Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America,” “Among the educated middle and upper-middle classes, wood became the material symbol of timelessness, authenticity and refinement in the modern educational toy.” She quotes Roland Barthes, who characterized plastic and metal as “graceless” and “chemical” in his Mythologies, and argued that wood “is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor. Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it wears out, it can last a long time.” As important as material, however, was the building block’s absence of imitation. “All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world… Toys here reveal the list of all the things the adult does not find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness, Martians, etc.”
Like the bleached white clothes of babyhood or plain canvas upholstery, the colorless wooden block was to suggest freedom, creativity, health, a world before imposition, preference and narrative. In this spirit, Creative Playthings hired Swiss sculptor Antonio Vitali to design the Playforms, wood toys of abstracted people and animals whose smooth unpainted surfaces were supposed to emphasize the material and stimulate pretend play. Fredun Shapur, another Creative Playthings designer, created the Wood Acrobats (1963) in contrasting rosewood and beech, combining action figures, puzzle and building toy. But over the decades, it proved difficult for parents and educators to leave well enough alone. When, in 1996, Humphrey Kelsey designed a children’s playtower, he felt its lacquered blonde wood surface actually read as “adult,” given how highly colored the world of children’s toys, clothes and furniture had become in the intervening decades.
As part of her 1930s “Parents’ Magazine” series on the “Whole-Family House,” interior decorator Pauline Duff described the need for different décor in playrooms and bedrooms. The playroom was to stimulate the imagination, the bedroom to encourage relaxation. This meant that the palette, materials and details of the décor needed to be different. “Gay, primary colors are especially delightful in th[e play]room. Scarlet, clear yellow and deep, bright blue are used together, and green, or a touch of black, for accent, may be used in this scheme.” What Duff describes, though she never uses the word, is the saturated surfaces and primary colors of early modernism. When describing wallpaper by Tony Sarg, a favorite, she comments, “a modernized treatment of the creatures of the circus is done in the amusing German manner in bright colors on a green, tan or black ground.”
“The amusing German manner” is code for the Bauhaus, where in 1923 Wassily Kandinsky tried to correlate triangle, circle and square to the three primary colors, and Johannes Itten’s 12-spoke color wheel was supposed to correspond to the 12 musical tones. Distilling design to its basic elements, they believed, allowed for greater play of ideas, sparking creativity in designers and in children. But one of those basic elements was color. In the Cooper Hewitt collection there is a Sarg circus textile, dated 1930, that is likely from the series Duff describes. Elephants, zebras and giraffes are abstracted into blobs and blots of color, with strong men, clowns and ringmasters scattered between them. Balls or balloons in blue, yellow, green and red break up the illustrated figures. It’s far from Bauhaus master Oskar Schlemmer’s geometric ballet costumes, but less tied to narrative than the storybook and historical papers also on the market. The colors, in Duff’s playroom setting, are used in great swaths. Child-size peasant chairs (wood frame, rush seats) were painted yellow, blue, green and red; built-in seats were upholstered in blue. She suggested a green divided toy cabinet with yellow, blue and red panels that echoes a famous early Bauhaus design for children, also in four colors.
Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s design of toys and furniture for the playroom at the Haus am Horn (1923) became the prototype for creative, colorful kids rooms from Duff’s mass-market ideas, to the Museum of Modern Art’s two Houses in the Garden, to high-end children’s furniture like the Stokke Tripp-Trapp chair today. For that playroom Siedhoff-Buscher designed (among other things) a “ship” building toy, made of shaped blocks in blue, red, yellow, white and green, and a corner cabinet, now in the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar, in the same colors. Siedhoff-Buscher advocated for toys as “not something finished,” and indeed, both the toy and the cupboard in which it is stored, can be reconfigured by their owners. The cabinet has a door that can be used as a puppet theater, introducing the idea of the room as well as the furniture as a stage for the child’s imagination. Later versions of this idea include Creative Playthings’ Hollow Block, an open-sided cube, used in both Marcel Breuer and Gregory Ain’s MoMA Houses. Siedhoff-Buscher’s cabinet collapses the difference between child and architect in ways essential to the Bauhaus teaching. Ever since, simplified shapes and primary colors (plus green, black, or white) have come to signify creative, often children-only spaces.
While the pale nurseries of the nineteenth century had been simply furnished with hand-me-downs, the playroom developed as a central node of inter- and postwar American houses. In “Raising Consumers,” Lisa Jacobson argues that the playroom, along with backyard climbing structures and educational toys, was supposed to bring children closer to their parents by giving them a delightful, stimulating space within the domestic realm. This space, stocked and controlled by the parents, was to counteract mass culture, seen by some as luring children away from parental control and making them old before their time. Thus, descriptions of playrooms (like Duff’s) from the 1920s on emphasize the anti-commercial, anti-brand aesthetic represented by bright colors, basic shapes, and perennial, even nostalgic themes. The playroom was the child’s domain, but in the servantless inter- and postwar world, materials also had to do the job of keeping the room clean (hygiene, again) and neat. In model postwar house plans, the playroom is typically shown adjacent to the kitchen, juxtaposing the spheres of women’s work and children’s play-as-work.
Linoleum, divided cupboards and toys that doubled as storage units, built-in seats and small chairs and tables all made a room that was supposed to be both a canvas for the imagination and indestructible. Creativity, for the American housewife, could more easily be encouraged in rooms with wipe-clean surfaces. Marian Bachrach wrote in “Arts and Decoration”: “Too often, this ‘children’s room is theirs in name only… Nursery wallpaper and permanent pictures … show the grown-up finger in the pie.” Better to have a room, however “drab or bare,” that would “withstand the frequent onslaught of thumb-tacks.” Primary colored walls, and a black linoleum floor ready for chalk drawing were her recommendations. When Joseph Aronson designed playrooms for the Toy Manufactuers of the USA in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he subscribed to the same model: yellow walls, blue ceiling, red linoleum floors, and minimal decoration. “Whatever pattern a child sees every day he will tend to copy – to the detriment of his own creative development. If you must have some decorative design, let it be strictly abstract, or something the child has drawn himself.”
One constant in these schemes, from the 1930s on, is the use of linoleum, whether black, bright, or cut into a decorative motif. In the 1940s, Armstrong Linoleum frequently paid the color advertisement across from the décor and fashion section of “Parents’ Magazine,” where their products were frequently featured. In April 1940 there was a feature on a sun-porch nursery, in orange, blue, and wood-grain, with Armstong floors in a Malevich-like repeat. The next month the same photo was used in an ad with the tagline, “But mother, why should I keep them off the floor? It’s Armstrong Linoleum.” A March 1940 advertisement in the same position shows an Indian-theme boys bedroom in shades of brown and black – more monochrome than the sunporch— with a Navaho-blanket motif inlaid into the linoleum. “At last I’ve found a way to make my two Indians behave,” says the mother in the upper left-hand corner, “and, thank goodness, a way to make my floors behave as well.” Cleanliness, by the 1940s, could come in color, and so could the toys.
Creative Playthings founder Frank Caplan was dismayed by the flood of tin and plastic toys on the postwar market: “Many of them are devoid of real toy value. Young children don’t need gadgets. Their imaginations are enough.” Siedhoff-Buscher’s ship toy was made up of shapes, and could easily be transformed into house, train, or totem. No stories on the wallpaper, no decals on the cupboard, no brands on the toys. But where elemental and abstract went, for the home market, the primary colors would follow. Playskool’s Junior Floor Train (1950), described approvingly by Dr. Spock in his bestselling “Baby and Child Care,” was made of wooden pieces that could be slotted together in red, blue, green and yellow. The Walker Art Center sponsored the development of the Magnet Master (1948), which packaged steel plates, in circles, triangles, rectangles and squares, with rods and magnets, all within a yellow box. Even later educational toys, which embrace the proliferating world of plastics, stuck to the palette. A Playskool Postal Station, advertised in the May 1970 “Parents’ Magazine,” combines red plastic with a blue wood base; kids could use it to “post” or thread a set of wooden block, including yellow circles, red squares and blue triangles. Colorforms were created by Harry and Patricia Kislevitz in 1951 out of rolls of red, yellow and blue vinyl. He picked the colors, she cut out the shapes, templating them from household items like a thimble and a bottle cap. “I just stuck to really basic shapes, which proved to be advantageous because it allowed kids to be very creative. The original design with the geometric forms is in the Museum of Modern Art,” Patricia recently told an interviewer. “I still think it’s the most versatile.” Harry, she says, coming full circle, was influenced by Kandinsky.
The advocates of white and light and the advocates of the bright and colorful have one thing in common: they both fear the imposition of adult narrative on child’s play. From the refusal of narrative murals at the Crow Island School, to advocacy for trains that look like puzzles instead of real trains, the simplifying narrative for décor and toys wants color to stimulate and not label. Both white and the primaries (plus green) base color for children not on complexion or gender, but on ideas about development and health. It is only in the Indian-theme bedroom above that gender starts to creep back in. Even while “Parents’ Magazine” described bright and unisex playrooms, boy and girl paradigms start to be expressed through theme rather than (necessarily) color.
In “The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer,” Daniel Thomas Cook identifies the interwar period as key to the development of differentiated markets for children’s clothing, separating the sexes, and then subdividing them into different departments in the store. The same process happened in the home decoration aisles, beginning the proliferation of prints, patterns and accessories aimed at children. Pink is one of many colors included in the suggested palettes for girls’ rooms, but by no means the only one. Red and blue continue to be options for boys or girls. Instead, gender and future careers are projected through narrative, just as the modernists feared. In Duff’s “Whole House” series, she suggested Colonial prints or a map of Cape Cod for the boy’s room “instructive as well as decorative,” along with wallpapers showing the constellations, airplanes and zeppelins, or the shockingly racist “scenes of gaily bandannaed mammies [sic] picking cotton in the fields of the South.” Searching online for a visual example of such a wallpaper turned up a switchplate on Etsy made from a 1940s paper that appears to show a woman in a headscarf next to a basket full of cotton, as well as a child with a halo of short black braids. The color palette is soft, red, green and taupe with white highlights that look as if they were painted on. All the color palettes for older boys are muted in Duff’s description: green and yellow zeppelins, maps in black on “parchment” with touches of red and green, ships in nautical blues, greens or grays. The palette for boys seems wider and more sophisticated than the team colors that dominate today: navy, orange, army green.
“But perhaps your daughter would prefer more daintiness,” Duff wrote, suggesting French pastoral toiles in red, green, blue and sepia, a chintz patterned to look like cross-stitch, or animals cavorting in black with yellow and green or turquoise with yellow and black. Even an undersea-theme paper employs a color range that goes far beyond the primaries to apricot as well as aqueous hues. An article in a subsequent issue on rooms for teenagers mentions wallpaper in a small floral print of rose and blue, and fashion plates on the wall from “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” which start to tip the hand of the parent toward “appropriate” interests. The same article says, of your adolescent boy’s room, he “will probably want plenty of room for a scuffle with no accessories to topple over.” Ogata quotes a 1949 article in the New York Times that promotes having a dressing table in your girl’s room (as all of these patterned examples do) as a “psychological antidote for pronounced symptoms of tomboyism.” Unlike the colors (or non-colors) of the baby room and playroom, the room for an older child was a projection of interests and activities. Whether or not the interests were a reflection of child or parent seems debatable, but the colors were not what reinforced gender identity in the 1930s and 1940s.
In “Pink and Blue,” Paoletti dates the strong identification of pink with girls to the 1950s, noting, “the connection was neither universal nor rigid.” It wasn’t until the 1980s, in fact, that pink began to dominate clothes, décor and toys for girls, fueled in part (she theorizes) by the increasing popularity of genetic testing, which allowed expectant mothers to buy their layette for a child of a predetermined sex. In the 1950s, women still sewed for their children, expanding the range of possibility. In the 1950s clothes and toys were also more expensive, and more likely to be handed down, making neutral choices more pragmatic. Gendering of clothes and environments relies on cheap, mass-market goods not designed to last longer than a growth spurt or a phase of childhood. In decoration, one still sees pink combined with pattern, doubling down on symbolic femininity with flowers, ruffles, fashion or sweets (as the nursery rhyme goes). For boys, history and transportation remain popular.
In Formica’s 1964 World’s Fair House, built in Queens, the girl’s room and boys’ room are strictly gendered by color, theme and activity. Her room is paneled in pale pink laminate, with a concealed full-height vanity “including a wardrobe mirror and swing-away shelves impervious to cosmetics.” (All quotes are from Leo Jiranek, designer, in the commemorative booklet on the fair house.) A sewing machine is shown on the blush laminate collapsible desk, and a Princess phone sits below a folded-paper lampshade. Her bed is upholstered in raspberry ruffles, with a trundle for sleepovers, and the walls and curtains have a pattern of Alexander Girard-inspired flowers in pinks and yellows. The boys’ room (clearly for her pesky little brothers), is all faux wood grain and Indian-themed. The storage compartment in the bed “is closed with miniature brass spears, a bit of intrigue which begins by inspiring pride of ownership in the little fellows. Pictures of braves are on the wood laminate walls, and a print inspired by Navajo geometry is used in brown on the cabinets and drawer fronts, in blue on the curtains and upholstery. The boys’ desk looks ready for business, as “today in the Space Age we are rediscovering the stern necessity for homework.”
Contrast these period rooms, attractive in their thoroughness if not their themes, with the offerings from Land of Nod today. Under “Girls Bedding” you can buy a French macaron print in pastels and gold, “Surprise Party” with pink balloons and a bow, and “Fashionista” with pink stripes, polka dots and illustrations of mini fashion plates. The themes without pink are “Equestrian,” in blue, brass and Hermes orange, and “Great White North,” a flannel with polar bears “that fits well in a boy’s room or girl’s room.” On the boy side (mostly blue): the solar system, the jungle, transportation, knights of old. The message is that girls like to go to Paris; boys like to explore.
Anything But Pink
The most interesting chapter of Paoletti’s book for me was Chapter 6, “Unisex Child-Rearing and Gender-Free Fashion.” While she traces a history of “increasingly genderized fashions,” the years between 1965 and 1985 serve as an abstract, bright, androgynous interregnum. My childhood embrace of the simplest of color dicta, blue is for blondes, pink is for brunettes, may come from growing up in the 1970s surrounded by orange and brown, red and green and yellow and purple. Some women my age react by looking for pink, I find greatest appeal in the images of children and their rooms from this era, and it is shocking how different they are from most American kid merchandizing today. “Parents’ Magazine” Family Fashion section, July 1970: the cover image is of a small girl with a blonde bob, standing in front of a blue laminate toadstool table that would not have looked out of place in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape” exhibition of that year. She wears an orange tunic dress and a turtleneck striped in navy, yellow and orange. Her brother behind her wears the same shirt over an orange zip-front coverall. No zeppelins or jets or footballs, no butterflies or fashion plates or flowers. Just color.