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Colours of The Civil War

Three Colours commonly used in Civil War Quilts

Poison Green


There definitely was a poison green, green dyes and pigments based on copper arsenate - arsenic. Chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786) discovered arsenic's use as a colouring agent in 1778.

Variations became extremely popular for dyeing and printing cloth and wallpaper and for food colouring! Before food and drug regulations the only testing was trial and error on the part of the consumer. Decades went by before people realized that colouring marzipan with copper arsenate was an extreme health hazard. Wallpaper and silks also could sicken, if not kill. As fashion plates from old magazines show us there was a literal meaning to the term "fashion victim."

In the first half of the 19th-century green silk dresses were quite the thing. Fashionable homes required a Green Room; indeed there was a Green Room in the White House circa 1875.

By the 1860s people became aware of the toxic qualities in Scheele's green and pale green fell out-of-fashion, until a better, non-toxic mint green became available in the 1920s.


Turkey Red


As the Industrial Revolution spread across Europe, chemists and manufacturers sought new red dyes that could be used for large-scale manufacture of textiles. One popular colour imported into Europe from Turkey and India in the 18th and early 19th century was Turkey Red. Beginning in the 1740s, this bright red color was used to dye or print cotton textiles in England, the Netherlands and France. Turkey red used the root of the rubia plant as the colorant, but the process was long and complicated, involving multiple soaking of the fabrics in lye, olive oil, sheep's dung, and other ingredients. The fabric was more expensive but resulted in a fine bright and lasting red, similar to carmine, perfectly suited to cotton. The fabric was widely exported from Europe to Africa, the Middle East and America. In 19th-century America, it was widely used in making the traditional patchwork quilt.


Chrome Yellow


The first recorded use of chrome yellow as a colour name in English was in 1818. It was a natural yellow pigment made of lead chromate. Chrome yellow had been commonly produced by mixing solutions of lead nitrate and potassium chromate and filtering off the lead chromate precipitate. Because the pigment tends to oxidize and darken on exposure to air over time, and it contains the toxic heavy metal lead it was originally replaced by, Cadmium Yellow (mixed with enough Cadmium Orange to produce a color equivalent to chrome yellow). However Cadmium pigments on their own are also toxic because of the cadmium content, and have themselves been replaced by azo pigments.