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When did orange become a color?

The color orange has a long and fascinating history. While orange has been around for thousands of years, it was not widely recognized as its own distinct color until more recent times. The evolution of orange from a nuanced hue to a defined color on the spectrum reveals key developments in science, culture, language and technology.

Early Origins

The earliest origins of the color orange can be traced back over 12,000 years to prehistoric artists using ochre pigments made from iron oxide-rich clay to create cave paintings. These muted orangey reds and yellows provided a warm, earthy palette for their artwork.

In nature, oranges and yellows have always been present through fall foliage, citrus fruits, flowers, sunsets, and other visual phenomena. However, these were seen as variants of reds, yellows and browns rather than being defined as the distinct color orange.

Classical Antiquity

In Classical Antiquity, civilizations like Greece and Rome did not have a word for orange, nor did they see it as its own color. Their vision was limited to five main colors – white, black, red, yellow and green. Nonetheless, they used saffron, ochre and other orange-like hues in textiles, decorations and artworks to create vibrant, warm effects.

The Emergence of Orange

By the 12th century AD, a change was underway. Literature from India and China started referencing orange shades, suggesting they were now seen as noteworthy colors rather than variants of red and yellow. In Sanskrit poetry from this era, words emerged for the color of the rising sun and saffron robes.

In the early 1500s, the first recorded European use of “orange” as a color name occurred. A cloth shipment inventory from England in 1502 listed an item called “orynge color.” This followed the arrival of orange trees and fruits to Europe, which provided a reference point.

Widespread Adoption of Orange

In the 16th and 17th centuries, orange was progressively recognized across cultures. Several developments enabled this wider adoption:

  • The proliferation of orange fruit imports made the color more prominent.
  • Advances in paint pigments allowed brighter, more saturated orange tones.
  • The word “orange” entered common parlance as part of a broad effort to name colors after objects.

By the late 1700s, orange was firmly established as its own named color in English, European and Asian languages. This growing consensus emerged alongside an era of taxonomy and scientific classification that defined the visible color spectrum into discrete bands.

Distinction from Red and Yellow

What prompted cultures to single out orange from neighboring red and yellow hues on the spectrum? A few key factors helped cement its status as a distinct color:

  • The vividness of certain orange objects in nature, like citrus fruits, marigolds and red-shafted flickers.
  • The utility of orange as an intermediate color for shading and mixing paints.
  • Orange’s cultural associations with warmth, vibrancy and prestige.

Naming the color created a dedicated box for orange on the palette.

Science of Orange

Advancing optical science and color theory in the 18th and 19th centuries led to a more technical perspective on orange and its place in the visible spectrum. Sir Isaac Newton identified orange in his color wheel in 1670. Later scholars measured its wavelength range between RED and YELLOW:

Color Wavelength Range
Red 700-635 nm
Orange 635-585 nm
Yellow 585-575 nm

Modern color science has confirmed these wavelength boundaries, providing objective parameters for defining orange as a distinct slice of the spectrum.

Psychology of Orange

The psychological impacts of colors like orange have also been studied extensively. These subjective associations paint a rich picture of how orange is perceived:

  • Exciting, energetic, warm
  • Youthful, playful, adventurous
  • Affordable, accessible

Marketers have leveraged these traits to effectively use orange in branding, advertising and product design. Orange conjures up positivity and fun for many consumers.

Usage Throughout History

After firmly establishing itself as a color name, orange became widely employed across many contexts:

  • Fashion – Ancient Saffron robes, 18th century orange waistcoats
  • Decor – 17th century Dutch painters used orange extensively
  • Food – Carrots, oranges, pumpkin, peaches
  • Nature – Red-shafted flickers, monarch butterflies, marigolds
  • Misc – Fall foliage, sunrises/sunsets, citrus branding

Today orange is ubiquitous, finding infinite applications across design, media, foods, materials, decor and more. It continues to inspire usage with its enthusiasm and vibrancy.

Shades and Variants

Like any color, orange has spawned a vast range of hues, tints and tones. Here are some of the most prominent:

Orange Variant Description
Peach Soft orange with pink tones
Coral Orange-pink blends
Terracotta Earthy orange-browns
Amber Golden orange
Tangelo Red-orange hybrids

Creative color names like peach, terracotta and tangelo capture the richness of orange and how it can be modified in diverse ways.


In summary, orange originated in prehistory as a subtle hue, gaining recognition as its own color somewhere around the 1500s. Scientific advances, cultural influences and semantic change solidified orange over centuries of increasing usage. Today orange is a bold, energetic color evoking positivity and enthusiasm. The journey of orange reveals the evolving ways humans have classified, produced and used color.