Imprint’s longtime color columnist, Jude Stewart, is writing a new series on patterns in design. Her previous posts have touched on Adolf Loos, pattern consulting, pattern archives, and holiday wrapping paper. Here, she plumbs a simple, ubiquitous pattern—black-and-white checks, or tartan—that carries a dizzying variety of meanings across cultures and contexts.
How many ideas can a single pattern contain? That’s the prevailing thought experiment, a bright through-line, underpinning my investigation into pattern in this series. Black-and-white check presents an apt case in point. Its utterly simple visual stamp turns out to be teeming with all kinds of backstories, peeking between its windowpanes. Let’s dig in, shall we?
It may surprise you to know that, for policemen at least, this pattern sports a formal name: Sillitoe Tartan. Named for the marvelously poncy-named Sir Percy Sillitoe, a Glasgow police chief who rose to director of Britain’s MI5, Sillitoe Tartan trims the uniforms of coppers throughout the former British Commonwealth. (Adoption in the U.S. is spottier than, say, Australia or Brunei; only in Chicago and its environs do cops wear Sillitoe Tartan proper. In Pittsburgh, they wear a version in black-and-gold.)
Sir Percy had a distinctly rocky rise to power. He first introduced his tartan in 1931 to improve police visibility and recognizability—and his idea proved a good sight more durable than the competing suggestion, that cops flounce about in white capes. Spreading from Glasgow, Sillitoe Tartan blanketed the entire British police force by 1974. Percy’s other wins included introducing wireless communications between patrol cars and putting down the notorious (and intractable) Glasgow “razor gangs,” immortalized in the novel No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long.
Sillitoe’s autobiography, Cloak Without Dagger, details his reluctant rise as director of MI5, Britain’s secret service (1946–1953). Much like George Smiley of John Le Carré’s fiction, Sillitoe battled a series of high-level Soviet moles within MI5 as the Cold War heated up all around him. Lurking among their numbers was one Klaus Fuchs, a nuclear physicist who managed to hand over the secret of hydrogen bombs to the USSR. Sillitoe retired from MI5 with the relaxing sinecure of plugging holes in the illegal diamond trade for De Beers.
But I digress. To explore more black-and-white history, let’s turn to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. A vast checkerboard girds up the bewildering action and encounters of this sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. On its checkered plane Alice meets the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, various blood-thirsty queens, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and quite a few more. (Carroll suppressed her encounter with a “Wasp in a Wig,” a variant of a “bee in one’s bonnet” who sounds devilishly charming. It’s a shame, really.)
A felicitous little book, Number Terms and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Numbers by Karl Menninger, explains how the term “checkerboard” arises via tangled means from “exchequer”, a 12th-century practice in England of gathering officials together around a counting board marked with perpendicular lines. Its linguistic offshoots include that now-outmoded form of payment, “to write a check,” and “checking” as a synonym for “to verify”.
Meanwhile, the chessboard features in one of the oldest fables among mathematicians. In it a gullible king is tricked into paying off an obligation in grains of rice, in multiplying fashion. Starting with one grain of rice on the first square, the amount he must pay doubles with each successive square: two on the second square, four on the third, eight on the fourth, et cetera. The burden is extremely modest along the checkerboard’s first row. By the end of the second row, the king owes 100 tons of rice. A square before completing the seventh row puts him in hock for 500 million tons of rice—equal to the world’s annual rice production. The amounts of rice he’ll owe on subsequent squares defy imagination—centuries and centuries of an entire planet’s output.
In short, what’s embedded in the B&W checkerboard of chess and checkers? Mathematics, money, careful allocation of same, and a neat perpendicular accounting surface—plus a dash of adventurous gamesmanship.
It may minorly astonish you, as it did me, to learn that an entire book exists about the origins of the B&W racing flag. Guess what it’s called? Origin of the Checker Flag: A Search for Racing’s Holy Grail by Fred Egloff traces this iconic symbol of speed back to the 1906 Glidden Tour, in which “checking stations” between Buffalo, New York, and Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, were marked with suitably punning checkered flags. The very first race in which a checkered flag marked the finish line happened that same year, in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup.
Here’s where the tale behind B&W checkers takes an odd turn. In her book Textiles: The Whole Story: Uses, Meanings, Significance, scholar Beverly Gordon explores how black-and-white-checked cloth acquired various layers of meaning across the globe. In Bali, a B&W checked fabric called wastra poleng represents the harmonious balance between good and evil, light and dark, opposing forces that keep the world in balance. The Balinese drape wastra poleng over guardian shrines and the roadside kiosks of magical healers. It’s such a potent symbol that a local environmental NGO was able to protect threatened Balinese forests, just by wrapping the trees in this magical pattern. In Thailand, yan squares of various colors could protect the wearer from harm. And this contradictory store of value, this magical amalgam of vice and virtue, found perhaps its perfect expression in the Indonesian island of Buton, where villagers used a specific B&W checkered cloth as their monetary currency until well into the 20th century. What could be more ambivalent, more powerful, and more deeply checkered than money itself?