Racial Differences In Skin-Colour as Recorded By The Colour Top


The “Bauhaus Optischer Farbmischer”
(via Mabak)

The title of this post comes from a 1930 article in Man which discusses the superiority of such tops over various other ways to measure skin color, such as Broca’s skin color charts. While I knew anthropologists had used Broca’s charts, I don’t recall reading about the use of color tops, which was apparently quite common. The tops used were actually by Milton Bradley, but as best I can tell they were quite similar to the Bauhaus design pictured above. [Can anyone find a picture of the actual Milton Bradely tops?]

The colour top is a device made by the Milton Bradley Company, of Spring- field, Mass., U.S.A., a firm which manufactures kindergarten supplies. It is, primarily intended for teaching children the principles of colour blending. The first investigator to use it for recording skin-colour was Davenport, who employed it in his study of the heredity of skin-colour in Negro-White crosses in Jamaica (1913). The principle is one with which we were all familiar in our childhood. The apparatus consists of a small top, of the disc variety, spun by means of a wooden spindle kept in place by a nut. On this basal disc, which is of cardboard, are placed paper discs of various colours. When the top is spun the colours blend… The proportion of each colour which goes to the make-up of this composite surface can be varied at will, by merely moving the discs round upon the spindle… By suitable adjustment of these four discs, the spinning surface can be made to reproduce,with a considerable degree of exactitude, the colour of human skin of all shades and gradations that may be met with.

Be warned, however,

The judgment must always be made while the top is rotating at full speed. Even slight slackening of speed renders matching difficult and the records unreliable.

I learned of the use of these tops from an interview with Michael Keevak, author of Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking. It sounds like another interesting book from the man who wrote The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar’s Eighteenth-Century Formosan Hoax, which I blogged about back in 2006.

4 thoughts on “Racial Differences In Skin-Colour as Recorded By The Colour Top

  1. Here’s a fun exercise you can do with open minded undergraduates. Before class visit the paint section of your local big-box hardware store. There you will find free paint chips with goofy names including some that are very similar to skin tones. Collect all the skin tone -esque chips you can.

    Back in your office notice that many of these skin tone paint chips have for their names various foodstuffs. Cut out all the food name chips that you think match well with your students’ skin tones. Be sure you have plenty of different chips to choose from. Then, in class, share these with your students and have them find the chip that is closest to their own skin. Make sure everyone is using the same body part, say, top of the forearm.

    Students will find this to be an amusing activity and it will teach them that skin tones don’t break down neatly along what we in the United States consider to be a “race”. Let the food names prompt the students to self reflection, or if they’re really game, break them into small groups and have them plan a menu with their skin tone ingredients.

    Bon appetit!

  2. So you have to set the discs to approximate one’s skin colour, spin it, see if it matches, stop it, adjust the discs, spin it again, adjust it again, etc? Sounds like a hassle. Seems like it would’ve been easier to just cut off the Jamaican’s ear and take it home for comparison. They were considered no more than mere savages, after all…

  3. Fascinating. Made me think of the Lyra Skin Tones set of pencils, and how they might have developed their colours.

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