The History of the Color White: Pure, Bright, and Held in High Regard

Bright white marble stairway with big pillars

White is one of the more common colors in the world. It’s used in everything from paper to wedding dresses. Some colors tend to fade into the background of everyday life. But white is an unusual case where it can quite literally function as a background for other colors or indicate something very significant.

By looking into the history of white we can get a better idea of how and why the modern world has such an unusual relationship with the color.

Starting Out at the Very Beginning

Libyan Sahara prehistoric white and red cave painting in the Acacus Mountains

The history of humanity’s journey with the color white begins before our official history. Our history only begins with the invention of writing. Before that point, we’re left with guesswork and a few lingering remnants of the past. Thankfully, color is one of the few items from prehistory that we can examine in detail.

We’ve found a few cave systems used by artists in the mists of prehistory. These prehistoric humans delved into the undoubtedly worrisome darkness to paint some of the most important aspects of their lives. We find one of the most remarkable examples of cave paintings in the Lascaux caves in France. And this cave also provides us with the earliest example of humans using white pigments. It’s thought that the cave paintings were created around 17,000 years ago.

And make no mistake, this was a serious endeavor for the ancient artists. 17,000 years ago humanity was still very much at the mercy of the natural world. Accidents, diseases, and wild animals were a clear danger to anyone who ventured too far from safety. But in this midst of all this danger we see evidence of people traveling up to 25 miles on foot to secure the precious materials for their paint.

The White Temple of Ancient Uruk Gives Us a Different Perspective on Color

White Mesopotamian temple with decorative wall art

The next major leap in humanity’s artistic appreciation would take a while. We see evidence of primitive housing in Mesopotamia around 14,000 B.C. This marks a point about three thousand years after the cave paintings in Lascaux.

The ancient Mesopotamian culture would slowly develop over time. The primitive huts of early Mesopotamia would give way to true agricultural civilization. And by 3,200 B.C. we see the thriving city of Uruk begin to take shape. Uruk would eventually boast a population of around 50,000 people. The region provides us with the first examples of writing, laws, and what we now think of as urban environments. Uruk is arguably the first example of what we think of as civilization. And all of this innovation was marked by a stunning white temple dedicated to the sky god Anu.

It’s easy to imagine the awe someone would feel after making a trek to Uruk. Imagine having little to no real concept of a bustling city. And after making a laborious trek under the blazing sun you see a beautiful white structure towering 40 feet off the ground. The temple would have towered over the flat plains surrounding the city. And it’s easy to imagine the awe and wonder people must have felt upon seeing it. As visitors approached Uruk they’d eventually see the protective city gates and walls. But it’s that towering white temple that would define their view of this first great experiment in civilization.

The color white wasn’t simply chosen for contrast with the surrounding landscape. Ancient Mesopotamians held the color white in high regard. Remaining records from this period even describe how the walls of the great priest-king’s homes were painted white with gypsum. This might be the first connection between divinity and the supernatural in the history of civilization. However, as we’ll soon see this will be far from the last time that a culture links these elements together.

The Shining White Pyramids of Ancient Egypt

The Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt were once covered in white limestone

The ziggurats and temples of ancient Mesopotamia represent a huge landmark in humanity’s development. However, the pyramids of ancient Egypt are what most people think of when the topic of ancient architecture comes up. The ancient Egyptians coalesced as a unified culture around 3,100 B.C. under the pharaoh Narmer. In 2560 B.C. pharaoh Snefru or Sneferu guided the creation of what we now consider a standard Egyptian pyramid. His son Khufu would later lead the creation of the Great Pyramid at Giza. This structure was created around 2,600 B.C. It’s stood the test of time as the only representative of the seven wonders of the ancient world which is still largely intact.

Most people have heard about the Great Pyramid. But what’s less well known is that it was originally covered in about 5.5 million tons of white limestone. And the rough steplike structures we now associate with pyramids were absent at the time. The limestone was fit to the pyramid’s steps to create a smooth surface that shone a brilliant white under the hot Egyptian sun.

This was far from abnormal either. Most of the ancient Egyptian pyramids were white. But over time both elements and humans would strip the limestone away. But for a time the Egyptian landscape was lit up by these monumental white pyramids. The Egyptians sought this color scheme for good reason. They associated the color white with purity, omnipotence and the sacred. Egyptian priests typically used white tools in their rituals. And even the embalming table used to preserve bulls thought to exist as an avatar of Osiris were made of white alabaster.

But just because white was holy doesn’t mean it was off-limits for everyday attire. Some types of clothing, like white sandals, were typically regulated to religious use. But Egyptians were generally quite fond of white clothing. And a large number of the artwork preserved from that time depict Egyptians wearing white garments.

The Surprisingly Colorful World of Ancient Rome

Ancient Fontana di Trevi in Rome with white marble sculptures

The decline of ancient Egypt is generally linked to its invasion by the Roman empire. There’s some irony in the fact that this land of white pyramids would be conquered by a culture defined by white art and architecture. However, the modern view of ancient Rome’s colors is nearly as off as our perception of ancient Egypt’s.

Today we typically extrapolate our view of ancient Rome from their work with white marble. We imagine cities filled with white pillars and equally bright white statues. But in reality much of that marble would have been colored with paint. Much as the white casing of the pyramids was lost to time so was the paint coloring Rome’s white marble. The modern trend of viewing ancient Rome with white marble says more about modern than ancient aesthetics. An idea of ancient cities artfully carved from white marble is such an appealing image that it tends to drown out the reality of ancient history.

That’s not to say that ancient Rome was devoid of white coloring. White togas were one of the most common articles of clothing. The toga’s exact shade of white could denote class or position. The average citizen would wear off-white togas. Someone in a higher position such as a senator would choose much brighter shades of white for his toga.

It’s also important to remember that not all white marble was painted over. The practice was indeed quite common for marble statues. But the marble exteriors of buildings often maintained their original white coloring. It was also quite common to take a hybrid approach with buildings. For example, a painted mural might cover a portion of a building while the white marble served to frame the top and bottom.

A Journey to the East Provides a Different Look at Color

Chinese oracle bone with inscriptions

Of course, the world is a big place and history marches on beyond the Western countries. China in particular provides a very different viewpoint on the meaning of the color white. China has traditionally associated white with mourning and death. The reason for this is largely unknown. It’s speculated that this might simply relate to the fact that the complexion of a corpse will become pale as its blood settles.

However, China’s association of white with death might also relate to something known as oracle bones. Ancient Chinese fortune tellers would make use of specially prepared bones in their practices. The oldest known example of oracle bones date back to about 1,600 B.C. And in fact, these bones provide us with the first example of a full writing system within China.

The Chinese view of white would incorporate more positive elements over time. This is probably in large part thanks to the Tang dynasty’s adoption of Taoism. This philosophy places heavy emphasis on balance. Taoism’s balance is best known today through its yin-yang symbol. The interlinked black and white ovals highlight a Taoist belief in a balance between both positive and negative qualities. White might be negative, but without it the positive elements would become unbalanced and overly encompassing.

We also see white used to great effect within Chinese art. The ink wash style was first used in China around 618 A.D. It erupted in popularity some time later, around 960 A.D. The technique makes use of only two elements. The artist uses black ink on a lighter background. This typically creates a contrast of various shades of black and gray against a white background.

However, even with these changes white is still generally associated with death and mourning. This association isn’t so strong that people will avoid white articles of clothing. But dressing all in white is typically relegated to funerals.

Japan Matches and Melds Different Cultural Contexts

Japanese samurai with katana sword wearing white ritual clothes

China’s close neighbor, Japan, held a similar view of the color white for most of its history. This isn’t too surprising given how often travelers from China would bring along spiritual and artistic traditions.

Of course, Japan’s traditions brought about some unique interpretations to this color association. For example, a samurai would dress in white before performing seppuku.

White wasn’t traditionally worn in day-to-day life until the Meiji era. Starting in 1868, this period saw increased cultural exchange with the West. This would culminate in a view of white that’s more similar to the Western view. Today black is considered the more appropriate color for mourning attire.

The Western Tradition Marches On

Carved wood statue of Jesus with a lamb on his shoulders in a white church

The Western influence on Japan is far from unique. Western culture would exert a huge influence on most of the world as time went on. But the exact origin of its view of the color white is something of a mystery. The history of semi-modern Western culture is almost synonymous with the history of Christianity. And this probably is where an association between the color white and divinity gained popularity.

The Christian church has used a white lamb in metaphors since its earliest days. On top of this, both the old and new testament make relatively frequent allusions to the color white as a sign of purity or spirituality. This view of white would influence the early Church and even lead to traditional white garb for popes.

It’s tempting to extrapolate this view to everything related to a positive representation of the color white through Western history. For example, a white wedding dress must relate to a bride’s purity and the religious environment within which the ceremony is held. Except that’s not really the case. White wedding dresses only started to become the norm around the mid-1850’s thanks to Queen Victoria’s nuptials. And even then her choice of white had more to do with a show of frugality and workmanship than religious ideals.

Titanium White Leads Into the Modern Age

Famous architect Le Corbusier with his iconic white building on a stamp from Monaco

The Western view of white would get a boost in 1921 with the creation of titanium white paint. This quickly overtook the lead-based white paints of the time. It provided twice the covering power and a much brighter shade. The availability of brighter shades of white paired quite well with a new architectural appreciation for the color. Architects such as Le Corbusier set the precedent for clean white designs in the mid-20th century.

In the modern world, white has become a little more transient. It’s still the default background for writing. But digital displays will often have options to change away from that color scheme at certain points of the day. At the same time, the pure unadorned white angles favored by Le Corbusier are now seen as somewhat retrofuturistic rather than modern.

As with most colors, white is now usually seen as one choice among many. There are some areas where it’s a default option. But modern artists and designers are no longer limited by the scarcity of raw materials. Now white, or any other color, can be freely brought up in any new idea or campaign. This provides us with the chance to create our own meaning for the color as we all walk together into the future. But at the same time, it’s important to occasionally take a look back to appreciate the long and beautiful history of the color. It’s also important to appreciate all the white things we can find in nature.