‘The Colour Wars: Colour Psychology in the Post-War Era’ by Kathryn Millard.

When we think of the 1950s and the immediate post-war period, it is often the Cold War that comes to mind. But in the workplaces, schools, shopping centres and households of America and its partner nations a new battle broke out: The Colour Wars.

Ideological conflict was at the heart of the Cold War. Accusations of enemy brainwashing and ‘mind control’ were aimed at gaining popular support for the United States and its allies in the fight against ‘the Reds’. Those allies included Britain and its fading empire. (Australians were officially British citizens until 1949.) During the Cold War, scientific psychologists played a leading role in testing and developing ‘mind control’ techniques. The chief strategists of these Colour Wars were men whose expertise spanned art, design, engineering, market research and advertising. They claimed that colour could not only boost efficiency and profits but promote desirable states of mind in the population at large.

In the post war era, psychology was enlisted to produce images designed to encourage an expanded use of colour in industry, the office and on the domestic front. As the feature film industry marched towards its target of ‘100% colour production’, colour television for mass consumption was waiting in the wings. In research laboratories, modern-day alchemists tested new shades and tones. Experts in psychology came up with scientific-looking instruments to measure individual responses to specified hues and saturations. In local hardware stores, men in white coats demonstrated the new paint chip systems to their (mostly) female clientele. A number of sponsored documentaries were produced to endorse the use of new colour technologies.  This democratisation of colour film in the 1950s involved a blurring of art, advertising and science.

In the aftermath of World War II, America and its allies competed to leverage gains from the secrets obtained from German colour scientists. (Men who later faced trial at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. There was a high price to be paid for the new colour technologies.) Developments in synthetic colours made available plastics, paints and other materials in all the shades of the rainbow.

By the early 1950s, Technicolor’s near monopoly on colour film systems was coming to an end. Amongst multiple competitors hoping to take inexpensive and reliable ‘living colour’ film systems to market, Eastman Kodak emerged as the victor.

As a filmmaker, I am especially interested in the industrial artwork and documentaries made to sell colour systems to industry or consumers. Films and graphics that explained colour processes and materials. Many of these promotional documentaries are now sold as stock footage, visual snapshots the post-war period. But let’s rewind …

‘Do you live in a color hungry world’, asked a 1949 Color Dynamics advertisement? In the world of paint sales in 1940s and 50s America, two colour systems went head-to-head. The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPGS) hired colour engineer Harley Earl, who had introduced colour streamlining to General Motors, to direct his skills to interior design. His Color Dynamics system applied colour psychology and reverse camouflage techniques to factories and hospitals. One 1940’s print advertisement claimed ‘Color Dynamics is a new science which utilises colour energy to reduce fatigue and absenteeism.’ In the home context too, colour could be managed scientifically.

Colour  can aid vision and boost morale! Enter rival consultant and prolific writer, Faber Birren, a pioneer of the use of functional colour in workplaces and public spaces. Birren developed a Color Conditioning system for Dupont who rolled out the scientific management of colour even more widely. Colour systems helped sell paint – buckets of it. The systematic use of colour, it seemed, was best left to the experts – the Colour Men. (Faber Birren warned against the misuse of colour which could have serious adverse effects on productivity and morale.)

Colour Broadcasting System

Colour Television Broadcast. Columbia Broadcasting Systems.

CBS demonstrated a workable colour television system in 1940 but put development plans on hold during the war. This clip, filmed by the US Navy, shows ‘Patty Painter’ posing for flicker tests as CBS perfects its technology.  And the race was on as CBS, RCA and Color Television Incorporated competed to get their respective systems approved first. Patty Painter, pictured here, was CBS’s ‘living colour’ test pattern. Cast for her luminous white skin and red hair, Painter would not have been out of place as a Technicolor heroine. Marie McNamara, a blonde model, was her counterpart at RCA. The two women were sometimes required to pose all night so that operators could calibrate their cameras to their skin tones, clothes, make-up and accessories. Painter and McNamara were each dubbed ‘Miss Color TV.’

Technicolor Industrial Films

Technicolor for Industrial Films. 

In 1949, Technicolor was also actively championing its colour stock for use in promotional films. Featuring a never-ending series of product shots, the title pretty much made its case: Technicolor for Industrial Films.The main point of the short film was to let prospective clients know about the more widespread availability of the fabled stock and its new credit system. 

Fast forward to 1956, and the ‘scientific’ use of colour was making more and more in roads into domestic environments. A film promoting the ‘Colour Harmony’ system of selecting paint colours was aimed firmly at women. Customers bought cans of white paint and pigments to mix the colours themselves at home. A colour wheel gave the whole process a scientific gloss. In factories and workplaces, the functional use of colour was emphasised. In the domestic environment, good taste was paramount.

According to the American Paint Journal, the 1957 debut of Color Harmony for Your Home was received with great enthusiasm at an industry event. Cocktails and dinner were served with the awarding of the colour industry’s annual COSCARs.

Colour was making a splash.

Kathryn Millard is Professor of Screen and Creative Arts at Macquarie University, Sydney. A writer and award-winning filmmaker, she frequently collaborates with psychologists. This blog post is based on Kathryn’s presentation at the ‘Colour in Context’ symposium at Bristol in 2018. Contact: kathryn.millard@mq.edu.au




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