The Colors of Morality; The Tints of Torture


The Colors of Morality; The Tints of Torture 1908 RGV Color Wheel "The Colorist"

The Colors of Morality; The Tints of Torture 1908 RGV Color Wheel “The Colorist”

This recent article on Victorian theories of synesthesia reminded me of Professor Elmer Gates’s uplifting theories of colors and their moral influence and of Dr. William S. Wadsworth’s color torture experiments.

Moral Sense Colors.

Relative to Their Influence Upon Human Conduct— Something for the Thoughtful to Think About.




There are certain emotions which retard circulation, respiration, digestion, produce pallor, hasten fatigue, and other emotions which do just the reverse. Fear causes a cold perspiration that differs chemically from that due to joyous labor. Anger fills the mouth with a bitter taste. By training the good emotions life and health are promoted, while the bad emotions shorten life.

Thus, even in its chemical nature, the universe is moral.

Now, recently I have been able to prove that pleasing combinations and contrast of color produce anabolism (or the life-producing force), and that discords of color and unpleasing combinations thereof augment katabolism (the life-destroying force). The conclusion is obvious that colors do this through aesthetic emotions, which, when pleasant, act as all other pleasant emotions, and when unpleasant do as other unpleasant emotions. I have shown that the fatigue point occurs less quickly under emotions due to pleasant colors and more quickly under emotions due to unaesthetic combinations. Thought has no such relations. Colors affect metabolism (the process of physical life) only through emotion, and intellective states only in so far as they produce emotions.


Professor of Psychology and Psychurgy. Washington, Jan. 22.


Red… Violent Passions,Rage and Love.

Blue…. Sentimental Affections.

White…. Peace, Quietness and Virtue.

Purple ….Ambition and Lust of Power.

Yellow…. Meanness, Craft and Cunning.

Green…. Suspicion, Jealousy and Envy.

Brown…. Honesty, Goodness, Equability.

Gray…. Meekness and Demureness.

Through recent remarkable experiments by Prof Elmer Gates, of the Laboratory of Psychology and Psychurgy at Washington, D. C, it has been discovered that colors have a distinct moral (or immoral) effect upon the human mind.

It is a fair conclusion, from Prof. Gates’ theory, which is based upon a series of wonderful demonstrations obtained by the use of scientific apparatus, that colors not only do possess a distinct moral influence, but that this is the only direct effect which they do produce. In other words, their first appeal is to the emotions and “they effect the intellective states” (to use Prof. Gates’ own words) “only in so far as they produce emotions.”

The meaning of this latest discovery in psychology is of a rather revolutionary character, if fully analyzed.

It shows, for instance, that black, instead of being a sign of woe chosen at haphazard for that purpose, possesses in itself an inherent quality of sadness and was instinctively selected for mourning because of its possession of that quality. It not only typifies sorrow—it creates it.

White the Color of Morality.

It shows that red is used to represent the more violent emotions of love and rage, because that color possesses the independent power of arousing those emotions, in some degree, in the human heart.

It shows that white, with its negativeness, produces no violent effect upon the emotions and is therefore moral.

It shows that purple—the imperial purple which Rome has transmitted to succeeding generations—arouses in the human heart ambition and the desire for power.

Although Prof. Gates is the first scientist to announce a theory from which the moral influence of colors may be deduced, there have been many instances of a tacit recognition of the fact by artists of the canvas and the stage.

Mrs. [Minnie] Fiske, for example, in “Mary of Magdala,” now running at the Manhattan Theatre, dresses the part and the stage itself, during the scenes that deal more particularly with the life of the erring and sinful woman, in a deep and suggestive tone of red. When she was told by a writer for the Sunday World Magazine the other day of the theory regarding the moral effect of colors, Mrs. Fiske did not seem surprised.

“I always dress according to the emotions and character of the part I am to portray,” she said, “and for this reason I have a red color scheme in ‘Mary of Magdala.’ Red is the character color of the woman.”

Indeed there is the highest warrant for the theory of the inherent immorality of red in the Scriptural reference to the sins that are “as scarlet,” and history has furnished supplementary testimony in the “Scarlet Woman” and in the “Scarlet Letter,” which Hawthorne used so picturesquely in one of his greatest romances.

Mrs. Fiske, speaking further of the morals of colors, said:

“My costumes in “Frou Frou” were studies of frivolity in shades of light blue and pink. In Tess I wore the white of my bridehood and the soiled pink of my London lodgings. Nothing could better portray Tess in colors.”

The Testimony of Duse.

Eleonora Duse was, perhaps, the first actress who expressed the psychology of color. Her first season in New York was marked by a storm of comment and criticism on her peculiar gowns. The Italian artist did not deign to explain, but when she returned to her native heath she laughed at the Americans who were unable to understand why she made her costumes in the “Wife of Caesar” a perfect holocaust in color, so that she might express the innate depravity of the woman she represented.

Dr. William S. Wadsworth, Assistant Professor of Physiology in the University of Pennsylvania, has for years pursued the study of color effects upon the human mind, and has performed experiments which indicate the moral effect of colors.

Experiments of Dr. Wadsworth.

To a visitor recently Dr. Wadsworth gave a little bottle of purple liquid, and asked him to hold it up to the light and look at it attentively. First it fascinated, then dazed the subject. At last it blazed before his eyes like a glittering phantasm, and he could stand it no longer.

Dr. Wadsworth then selected a vial with a particular shade of green and handed it to the subject with the same instructions. Scarcely had the visitor looked through it before he was seized with a nervous spasm.

“Oh, it gives you the shakes, does it?” said Dr. Wadsworth; “well I have struck your keynote, that’s all.”

Dr. Wadsworth has a new form of apparatus to test physically and exactly the emotional effects of various colors. A man sits at a table and presses down a key topping a powerful steel spring. He is told to keep it pressed down hard. So long as his attention is not diverted he does so, and a little wooden finger, connected with the key by wire and resting lightly on a revolving blackened cylinder, draws an almost straight line as this cylinder is revolved.

But when a transmitted purple light floods through an aperture close to the man’s face his attention is so much diverted from the key that the little finger scratches a line of angry, toppling waves on the cylinder. Purple is turned off and scarlet is turned on. The waves are not so stormy, but still quite accentuated. Next comes yellow and so on. The height of the wave line on the cylinder designates equivalents of emotion. The higher the wave the greater the emotional effect of the color.

A Tablet of Fifty Colors.

Dr. Wadsworth has a little tablet made up of fifty or sixty colors in sheets, one below the other, and when he flips these colors adroitly with finger and thumb your depreciation of their gamut is quite as ecstatic a sensation as when you keep on dipping your hands in boiling water. The sequence of colors stirs you profoundly, and if it is kept up for any length of time makes you exceedingly responsive from a standpoint of nerves.

The worst form of torture which the “purple East” has ever devised has been that of color. The twelfth grade of initiation into the Buddhist mysteries—the perfection of “astral” education, so graphically described by A. Conan Doyle in “The Mystery of Cloomber’—is the so-called “color test.” The neophytes are ushered into an extensive and lofty room, and at a given signal the whole surrounding space is flooded with an excruciating tint of purple light. It is reported by reliable witnesses that not more than three-quarters of those thus penned in are alive at the end of several hours, and that all the survivors are more or less frenzied.

When one is thoroughly exhausted the eyes are invariably bloodshot. The readiest and quickest relief for this physiological condition is to bathe the eyes with green.

Whistler’s Blue and Yellow.

Whistler, the artist, created a sensation in London when he had a dining-room furnished in blue and yellow. He chose the antipodes of color—beauty and viciousness—not the bold color of passion that red expresses, but the low, sneaking badness of yellow. He found it a perfect balance. It has been copied the world over.

And yet a short time ago Miss Alice Roosevelt instinctively refused to sleep in her room in the White House because it had been decorated and furnished in these colors.

“I love the blue,” said Miss Roosevelt, “but the yellow is horrid. It is the association of truth and meanness.” [In fact a shade called “Alice Blue”–more of a pale turquoise, really–was named for Miss Roosevelt.]

From time immemorial yellow has been associated with traits that are contemptible.

A yellow dog has no friends in history. His color has made him a thing apart, while his mongrel brother whose color is black and tan is accepted and loved.

Murderers have described the optical sensation of their rage as a sudden mist of swaying crimson, in which every instinct vanishes except that of killing.

Satan is represented as red when he is not black. He has never been insulted so far as to be painted yellow, for, after all, he was once an angel. Mephistopheles is also red.

Blue may be called the color of true love. The whole gamut of the emotion that keeps the world revolving on its axis may be expressed in its varying tints.

Gray is the color of meekness. It is demure, quiet and calm.

Brown is matter-of-fact, honest and good.

Green is sad, suspicious and hopeless. It is not a bad color, but it is a depressing one. Furnish your rooms in green and you will take an unpleasant view of life.

The actinic waves produced by different colors have inevitably the same effect upon the human mind. Upon each brain it is a question of balance and counter balance. The timid girl will atone for her timidity by having her room draped in vivid tints—the courage colors.

Violet the Psychic Color.

The hypersensitive creature will manage to surround herself with hues of violet—the psychic color.

The literary maid will tell you that she cannot write with proper enthusiasm without being surrounded by yellow. It is the color of schemes and plots.

It is the belief of color faddists that you attract refined or vulgar associations by the chemical effects of the colors you wear.

A Chopin nocturne may now be played in colors, or an aria drawn in outline by sensitized transmitters. Remington in England has invented the color organ and formulated a color scheme.

Each note shifts the sand on a metal surface into strange geometrical figures, the repetition of the same note bringing always the same formation upon the metal. 

Gems of thought from leading intellectual lights Educational, Soul Elevating and Spiritualizing, compiled by John R. Francis, 1906

More on the color organ here. And an example of a modern synesthetic musician, pianist Hélène Grimaud.

I thought that the color torture idea was nonsense, then I realized that I flinch from bright blue LED Christmas lights–looked at for any length of time, they are excruciating. Don’t tell my Inquisitors.

What’s your color? Paint chips, please, to Chriswoodyard8 AT

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.






0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes