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When was the yellow formed and why?

When was the yellow formed and why?

Yellow is a color that has been around for thousands of years. The earliest known use of yellow as a color name in English was in the year 1250. However, the history of the color yellow goes back much further than that. In this article, we will explore the origins and history of the color yellow, looking at when and how it was first produced, used, and given its name.

The Origins of Yellow Pigments

The earliest yellow pigments were produced from natural materials like clay, minerals, and plants. Primitive man used yellow ochre – a naturally occurring clay containing iron oxide – to create cave paintings as far back as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. In Ancient Egypt, a vivid yellow pigment called orpiment was produced from the mineral arsenic sulfide. Orpiment was used in Egyptian painting and cosmetics. In Ancient Rome, a yellow pigment called mosaic gold was made by heating tin and sulfur together. This was used for glazing pottery and other arts.

Safflower, a flowering plant domesticated in parts of Asia, has been used to produce yellow dyes for over 2500 years. The carotenoid pigments in the safflower petals and florets produce a brilliant yellow. Turmeric, a flowering plant of the ginger family, has also been used in India and Southeast Asia as a vibrant yellow dye for centuries. The curcumin compounds in the roots of the turmeric plant produce the distinctive yellow color.

Early Synthetic Yellow Pigments

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most yellow pigments were derived from mineral and organic sources. However, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, chemists began artificially synthesizing yellow pigments for industrial use. In 1775, Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a yellow pigment called scheele’s green by reacting potassium hydrogen sulfate and arsenic trioxide. In 1814, chrome yellow – made from lead chromate – was invented and soon became the most popular yellow pigment used by artists.

In the 1830s, cadmium yellow began to be commercially produced in Germany by oxidizing cadmium sulfide. By the end of the 19th century, cadmium yellow had largely replaced chrome yellow as the yellow pigment of choice for many artists. Unlike chrome yellow, cadmium yellow was stable, vivid, and mixed well with other colors. It became especially popular with impressionist painters like Van Gogh, Monet, and Renoir.

When Was Yellow First Named as a Color?

The first recorded use of “yellow” as a color name in the English language dates back to around 1250 AD. An early example appears in the medieval romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was written around 1375 AD. In the poem, yellow is used to describe objects like gold, wax candles, fur, and hair. This indicates that the concept of yellow as a distinct color was already established by the late Middle Ages.

In other languages, the word for yellow appeared much earlier. In Latin, the word flavus – meaning yellow or golden – dates back to the 1st century BC. The Greek word khlōros, meaning greenish-yellow or pale green, is found in Ancient Greek literature like the Odyssey and Iliad dating back to the 8th century BC. So the idea of yellow as a unique color distinct from others was already present in Antiquity, even if the English word was not coined until later on.

Etymology of the Word Yellow

The word yellow comes from the Old English term geolu, geolwe, meaning yellow, yellowish, or of the color yellow. Some linguists believe it is related to the German word gelb and Dutch geel – other Germanic words for the color yellow. The further roots of yellow may originate from the Proto-Germanic gulthaz and Proto-Indo-European ghel- meaning green, yellow, pale. Ultimately the word developed from the tendency to describe colors as either light or dark variants of black or white.

Interestingly, in Old English, the color yellow was written as ġeoluġrǽg and applied to a range of yellow, greenish-yellow, or light green shades. The modern senses of yellow and green became more clearly distinguished over time. Up until the 1500s or 1600s, the English word yellow still could carry the meaning pale, light green, or yellowish in hue.

When Did Yellow Become a Popular Color?

Although the word yellow dates back to Old English, yellow pigments and dyes remained rare and expensive for most of history. As a result, yellow was not commonly worn as a prominent color until the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A few key developments helped increase the popularity and accessibility of yellow:

  • The mass production of synthetic yellow pigments like chrome yellow and cadmium yellow in the late 1700s/early 1800s significantly lowered the cost of yellow paints and dyes.
  • In the 1840s, an efficient yellow maize dye was invented, allowing for mass-produced yellow clothing.
  • In the 1860s, bright aniline yellow dyes were synthesized from coal tar, making yellow even more affordable.

During the 1840s and 50s, bright yellow became fashionable in women’s dresses and gowns. In the late 19th century, Vincent Van Gogh helped popularize the color yellow in art through his prolific use of yellow ochre and chrome yellow pigments in his paintings of sunflowers and other subjects.

The Cultural Significance of Yellow

As the use of yellow increased in the 19th century, the color also took on new cultural meanings. In France, yellow was associated with depravity and moral corruption after prostitutes were forced to wear yellow crosses on their clothing in the Middle Ages. However, it also symbolized happiness and warmth in Japanese and Chinese art.

In Medieval Europe, yellow marked heretics, Jews, and lepers as outsiders. However, it was also seen as representing wisdom and intellect. In Spain, yellow symbolized jealousy, though in Egypt yellow was linked to mourning. So the symbolic associations of yellow have varied greatly between cultures and eras throughout history.

Why Has Yellow Been a Significant Color Throughout History?

There are a few key reasons why the color yellow has maintained such significance across cultures and eras:

  1. Association with gold and precious metals: Since prehistory, yellow has been closely linked to gold, amber, and other precious materials. This gave yellow an innate association with wealth, status, and higher powers in many early societies.
  2. Availability of yellow pigments: Yellow ochre and other natural yellow earth pigments were relatively abundant compared to rare blues and purples, making yellow a prominent color in early art and decoration.
  3. Yellow’s visibility and luminosity: Yellow pigments and dyes often provide strong visual contrast and visibility. Even before synthetic pigments, yellow stood out vividly against darker backgrounds.
  4. Connections to sunlight, harvest, and prosperity: In many cultures, yellow has represented the life-giving powers of the sun. The association between yellow and agriculture linked it to ideas of fertility, bounty, and prosperity.
  5. Spiritual symbolism: In some religions and belief systems, yellow carries various spiritual meanings – like hope, wisdom, or renunciation of the material world. This imbued yellow with divine symbolism.

So in combination, yellow’s aesthetic properties, its rarity and costliness, and its diverse cultural associations helped it become one of the most spiritually and artistically significant colors since ancient times.


In summary, the earliest uses of yellow pigments and dyes date back over 40,000 years to prehistoric times. However, yellow was not established as a distinct color name in English until around 1250 AD. By the late Middle Ages, yellow had developed strong associations with light, warmth, and gold across many cultures. While yellow was rare and expensive for centuries, the Industrial Revolution brought mass production of synthetic yellow pigments and dyes. This caused yellow to rise in popularity in the 19th century and take on new cultural symbolism. So the deep human fascination with the color yellow has very ancient origins, even if its English name is relatively modern.