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We live in wonderful and amazing times. Today, you can take a picture of your friend on Snapchat, select the crayon tool, and draw a mustache on his face in mostly any color of the rainbow. Rewind to about a hundred years ago, and as strange as it may sound, our access to and understanding of the most vivid hues was much more limited.

Historian Edward Forbes spent years traveling around the globe, collecting thousands of color specimens from Brazil to Egypt; in the case of the ultra rare rock lapis lazuli – in one period more valuable than gold in medieval times – Forbes traveled to Afghanistan to collect the mineral and ship it back to Europe. Many stories like this later, and the Forbes collection had started to take shape.

Read some of the more startling tales below:

Mummy Brown

“People would harvest mummies from Egypt and then extract the brown resin material that was on the wrappings around the bodies and turn that into a pigment. It’s a very bizarre kind of pigment, I’ve got to say, but it was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.”


“This red dye comes from squashed beetles, and it’s used in cosmetics and food.”

Emerald Green

“This is made from copper acetoarsenite. We had a Van Gough with a bright green background that was identified as emerald green. Pigments used for artists’ purposes can find their way into use in other areas as well. Emerald green was used as an insecticide, and you often see it on older wood that would be put into the ground, like railroad ties.”

Read about Edward Forbes’ color collection in full at Fast Co. Design.

  • Photographer: Andrea Shea

Vancouver-born, Berlin-based writer, photographer and editor with a steady hand on the keyboard.

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