All That’s Green is Glorious

Happy spring! In Chicago we’re enjoying one of those rapid thaws that muddies every sidewalk with fast-melting snow. The gay boys in my neighborhood, Andersonville, have all dug out their trilby hats and upturned capri jeans. The queues at George’s ice-cream shop are miles long, and half the waiters are still ensconced in heavy scarves.

Spring is like that: incautious, fickle, happily contradictory. And the color green is definitely this season’s hallmark.

Image: Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day by Christopher Macsurak on Flickr, http://bit.ly/1xdjhfC

Image: Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day by Christopher Macsurak on Flickr, http://bit.ly/1xdjhfC

This coming Saturday Chicagoans will dye the river that bears the city’s name an unnaturally brilliant green. Chicago magazine explains this 50-year-old tradition with a killer opening line: “Like so many good stories about Chicago, this one begins with crap.” The city’s practically eternal mayor, Richard J. Daley, wanted to develop more waterfront property, which entailed cleaning the sewage-clogged Chicago River. The city injected a fluorescein dye into the sewage system. Any buildings secretly dumping waste-water into the river would be outed by the plumes of telltale green dye. In December 1961, Stephen Bailey, general chairman of the still-new St. Patrick’s Day parade commission, noted the green dye and promptly appropriated the idea to dye the whole river green the following March 17.  Today the city uses an orange vegetable dye they claim is harmless to the environment; the garish green ebbs away slowly for hours, as daytime drunks stumble home. (The Daily Mail chronicles this oddly enthralling process in photos.)

Green: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau: http://amzn.to/1MsPTcs

Green: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau: http://amzn.to/1MsPTcs

u9741_1I’ve blogged lots about the color green for Print—most recently, about a book that every color fan should add to their packed shelves, Green: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau. (It was so juicy, in fact, I couldn’t fit everything into a single post. Read part 1 and part 2 here.) The third in a series (he’s already covered blue and black), Pastoureau takes as his theme green’s surprisingly ambivalent status: at once the color of hope, life and luck, but also the color of poison, unluck and devilishness.

It’s uncanny how often green is associated with luck and its opposite. Even across disparate cultures and contexts, that’s a recurring theme of the color. I plumbed this relationship a lot in my book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color. Green is lucky to Confucius, the sacred color of Islam, the color of moneyed prosperity in the U.S. It’s unlucky on magazine covers, automobiles, wedding dresses, and men’s hats in China.

Illustration by Oliver Munday, from ROY G. BIV

Illustration by Oliver Munday, from ROY G. BIV

In another post, Irish Eyes Ain’t Always Smiling, I blogged more about green’s contradictory nature. It’s Ireland’s signature color—so insistently associated with national identity, though, that it invalidates the color for other uses. This post appeared around the same time as the Arab Spring, where both factions—revolutionaries and conservatives alike—laid claim to green as the true color of Islam, and by extension, the true path forward, a divinely asserted right to rule, if you like.

Image: Sixth Day – Green Victory by Hamed Saber

Image: Sixth Day – Green Victory by Hamed Saber

 


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