All the Colors of the Rainbow: Ombré Patterns from 1820 to 1850

Silk dress (sleeve detail), American, 1840s. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. Melvin C. Steen, 1978. The ombré trimming on this 1840s dress in Bartow-Pell’s collection exemplifies the widespread use of rainbow patterns in the 1840s.

Luminous, colorful, undulating—and sometimes even iridescent—the new French ombré wallpapers and textiles of the 1820s were so vibrant that these nuanced designs in shades of one or more colors were often called rainbow patterns. They were also known as irisé (iridescent), ombré (shaded), and fondu (melted).

The Industrial Revolution was an age when manufacturers produced exciting new goods for an expanding consumer market. In his 1846 treatise on dyeing and printing calico, the British chemist Edward A. Parnell put it like this: “At the present time, science and its applications seem to go onward almost together. No sooner is a new fact announced than it is made available for some useful purpose, and never was there an age so fertile in discovery as that in which we live.” Rainbow patterns fit the zeitgeist perfectly.

Wallpaper (sidewall), 1820–30. Block-printed paper. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Harvey Smith

It all started with wallpaper. In about 1820, the legendary Zuber factory in Alsace began making papers with shaded grounds composed of subtle gradations in tone from dark to light (which could also be overprinted with another pattern). In order to achieve this effect, Jean Zuber used an innovative printing technique developed in 1819 by his relative Michel Spoerlin of Vienna, which allowed several colors to blend together like the rainbow. Twenty years later, in 1839, the British chemist Andrew Ure wrote about printing rainbow papers with blocks: “The fondu or rainbow style of paper-hangings . . . is produced by means of an assortment of oblong narrow tin pans, fixed in a frame, close side to side . . .; the colours of the prismatic spectrum, red, orange, yellow, green, &c., are put, in a liquid state, successively in these pans, so that when the oblong brush . . . is dipped into them across the whole of the parallel row at once, it comes out impressed with the different colours at successive points.” A printing block—used later in the process—“takes up the colour in rainbow hues and transfers these to the paper.”

Advertisement for “New and Splendid French Paper Hangings,” including rainbow papers. Daily Richmond Whig (Virginia), April 26, 1830

Textiles began to be produced in ombré palettes not long after Zuber’s irisé papers first appeared, and the astonishing array of fabrics in the new rainbow-striped patterns must have delighted shoppers in the 1820s. In 1826, the author of “London Letters to Country Cousins” gushes about the dazzling new and colorful fashions: “I do not think anything so beautiful in its way was ever before invented as the patterns of morning dresses of this season. . . . The prevailing trait of them has been brilliance and variety of colours—chiefly the primitive, or rainbow colours—and often all these united in one pattern. But the effect produced in many cases has been what I could not have thought possible—a species of optical illusion, produced by printing one pattern over another, and sometimes two—so as to give the impression of seeing one through the other.”

Visiting dress (detail), 1820–23. American. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1976

Over the next few decades, rich and inventive ombré designs would be especially eye- catching on cotton, silk, and light wool dress fabrics. These effects were achieved through various methods, including block-printing, roller (cylinder) printing, and the use of brushes. In A Practical Treatise on Dyeing and Calico-Printing (1846), Parnell discusses improvements patented by Louis Joseph Wallerand in 1844 that “consist in giving shaded stripes of color to woolen, silk, cotton, or other fabrics . . .  in a more expeditious, economic, and perfect manner,” adding that the same machine “may also be used for dyeing shaded stripes to form a ground upon fabrics intended afterwards to receive a printed pattern.” In 1846, the French chemist Jean-François Persoz wrote in detail about the printing and dyeing process in his four-volume work Traité théorique et pratique de l’impression des tissus (Theoretical and Practical Treatise on Printing Fabrics). And on June 21, 1849, the British civil engineer Charles Augustus Holm was awarded a patent for “machinery for shading or printing paper, silk, and other fabrics with one or more colours . . . to produce greater intensity of colour or, as they are termed, rainbow patterns.” His system used movable, perpendicular blocks in combination with a “vacuum table” and “atmospheric pressure.”

Couleurs primitives imprimées en fondu (Primitive colors printed in fondu). Fabric sample in Traité théorique et pratique de l’impression des tissus, vol. 2, by Jean-François Persoz, 1846. Persoz was a French chemist who in 1846 published a four-volume treatise on textile printing. Among the many samples he included is this fondu pattern composed of the seven colors of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. These were once known as the “primitive colors.”
Top: Noir et lilas fondu au rouleau (Roller-printed black and lilac fondu). Bottom: Chaine [sic] coton, impression orange et violet fondus (Cotton warp printed in orange and violet fondus), Persoz, vol. 4, 1846. Cotton was sometimes used for the warp (lengthwise threads) and paired with another fiber, such as wool, for the weft (horizontal threads).

American manufacturers at this time were scrappy competitors in the busy domestic market for printed fabrics. Demand was high. Women in the 1840s, for example, required about eight yards of fabric every time they wanted a new dress (not including the lining). The Proceedings of the National Convention for the Protection of American Interests (1842) tells us that thirty-seven factories in the United States printed 158,028,000 yards of calico in 1840, but it also reports that Americans imported vast amounts of dyed, printed, colored, and white cotton cloth from abroad. Furthermore, a British government committee on copyrights in the design industry, published in 1840, points out that a high American import tax did very little to stop large quantities of calico being exported to the United States, especially from Manchester. (British mills, however, relied heavily on American cotton for their raw materials.) American “printers turn out good work; calicoes are manufactured there, and the machines are constructed upon as good a principle as in England.”

This illustration from Persoz’s 1846 treatise depicts a machine that uses the latest technical advances to print multiple rainbow colors with an engraved cylinder. According to Persoz, it is similar to a device developed in 1845 by Messrs. Colon and Lalan in Suresnes, near Paris, that produced “de très belles impressions en fondus au rouleau et sur chaîne-coton” (“very beautiful fondu roller prints on a cotton warp”).
Fonds ou ombrés par teinture de MM. Jourdan (Dyed backgrounds or ombrés by Messrs. Jourdan), Persoz, vol. 4

John Royle, a master engraver for calico printers in Manchester, appeared before the British government’s Select Committee on Copyright Designs on May 11, 1840. He had worked in the American calico-printing industry in New York and Providence from 1831 to 1837 and testified that he was one of many Englishmen in the trade who had been induced by higher wages and more regular work to emigrate to America. Royle warned that the Americans “are making very rapid progress” and were soon likely to become England’s rival in the print trade. He also noted that manufacturers in the United States produced both original designs and copies of English and French patterns. French calicos were also exported to the United States, and according to Daniel Lee, a merchant in Manchester, “Many Americans have establishments in Paris for the express purpose of purchasing prints there.” As for ombré prints, John Brooks—who had worked in the Manchester calico-printing trade for thirty years—complained that other British manufacturers were copying his style of rainbow patterns because “now there is a rage for shades.”

Dress (detail), ca. 1843. American. Wool, silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Brooklyn Museum Collection
New French Goods. Advertisement from the New York Herald, August 22, 1845. James Beck & Co., a dry goods store at 359 Broadway, offered “the richest assortment of Fancy Goods that has ever been shown in this city, having been selected for them in Paris.” These items include “ombre shaded” wools and rainbow-striped silks.

The fashion for ombré dress fabrics continued into the 1850s. “A decided novelty is the soie arc-en-ciel. This “rainbow silk” is made in various colours,” The Ladies’ Companion announced in March 1852, “but we may describe two or three dresses. One has a deep flounce, shaded in shot from a dark to a light blue. . . . Another, in a similar style, has all the shades of rose colour shot with white. . . . A third is shaded from a full blue to white.”

Robert Peckham. The Hobby Horse, ca. 1840. Oil on canvas. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. The fashionable ombré carpet seen here has a foliate design of graduated shades of red and green. The wallpaper appears to be in a shaded pattern as well.
Carpet fragment, 19th century. Wool. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Rainbow patterns were also very well suited for the flat-woven floor coverings known as Venetian carpets, which were commonly found in bedchambers and on stairs. “The pattern is generally in stripes and shaded like the rainbow, and the great object of the manufacturer is to bring off the shade of colour from dark to light imperceptibly,” The Saturday Magazine (London) related on December 24, 1836. Today, some fragments of these carpets survive in museum collections. Click here to see a magnificent example dating to 1830–60 at Old Sturbridge Village. Shaded colors were used on patterned ingrain (flat-woven and reversible) carpets as well.

Miser’s purse, 1840–60. American. Cotton, metal. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Daniel M. McKeon and Robert Hoguet, Jr., 1965
Goblet, ca. 1820–40. Copper lusterware. British. Ex-collection Mary Means Huber

The influence of ombré shades can be seen in other items ranging from fashion accessories to embroidery to ceramics. Miss Warble, a character in The Lion: A Tale of the Coteries (1839), wears “a flaunting rainbow shawl.” Shaded ribbons were popular trimmings for bonnets. And in 1854, Mrs. Ann S. Stephens gave her opinion on the current trend for ombré embroidery silk in The Ladies’ Complete Guide to Crochet, Fancy Knitting, and Needlework: “Waistcoats and other articles are now much embroidered in soie ombre, that is silk shaded in varieties of one colour. I cannot say I think it so pretty as the variety of natural colors, or even a single self-shade. It is, however, fashionable.”

The smallest things sometimes have a larger story to tell. In this case, a tiny embroidered flower on a dress trimming at Bartow-Pell reminds us of one of the creative wonders made possible by nineteenth-century technology.

Margaret Highland, Bartow-Pell Historian

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