Munsell Color System; Color Matching from Munsell Color Company > Color Theory & History > Alexander Ector Orr Munsell by Dorothy Nickerson

Alexander Ector Orr Munsell by Dorothy Nickerson

A photograph of 220 Tremont Street in Boston, MA - the future home of Munsell Color Company

Alexander Ector Orr Munsell died of a heart attack on March 26, 1983 at Beekman Downtown Hospital in New York City. He was 87 years old. On Sunday May 15, 1983 a Memorial Meeting was held at the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights by a number of his friends who announced establishment of an Alex Munsell Memorial Fund “to carry on work in the spirit of Alex’s lifelong activity.”

The New York Times headline – “Gave Away Inheritance” – recalls the sensational news he made, beginning in the early depression days of the 1930’s when he gave away the fortunes inherited from the maternal side of his family, from his grandfather, from two aunts, and finally from his mother. (His Grandfather, Alexander Ector Orr, had been a prominent merchant in New York, director of a number of banks, railroads, and insurance companies, chairman of the rapid transit board of New York that built the New York subway.)

But it is not of AEOM’s devotion to Marxism, his primary interest beginning in the early 30’s (Carl Marzani called him “that unusual combination of a practicing Christian and a practicing Marxist”), that we want to recall here.

Rather, it is to his earlier contributions to, and continuing interest in, the field of color science and in the Inter-Society Color Council, that we call attention. For it was Alex Munsell who, in 1921, took over control of  the Munsell Color Company, established in 1918 to carry on the business of handling publication of books, charts, and school supplies for use in teaching the Munsell system of color notation developed by his father, Albert H. Munsell.

A certificate from the Inter-Society Color Council honoring Alexander E.O. Munsell

Prof. Munsell, an artist and art teacher at the Massachusetts Normal Art School, had developed the Munsell color system to provide a means for describing color in terms of a simple notation. This he described in 1905 in his book, “A Color Notation“, and by 1915 in a set of color charts published under the title: “Atlas of the Munsell Color System“. By 1917 friends in the graphic arts industry, Arthur S. Allen and Ray Greenleaf, who were enthusiastic about the industrial possibilities of use and application of the Munsell system of color notation, had suggested (in a visit of March 27, 1917) formation of a Munsell Color Company with Allen and Greenleaf stockholders, A.H. Munsell majority stockholder.

Following Prof. Munsell’s death, June 28, 1918, when the company was hardly established, but with an office in New York, his friends carried on. Among other things Arthur Allen did during that time was to request the Bureau of Standards to, undertake the fundamental standardization of a set of Munsell cards. The resulting report, published in 1920 by the Bureau (Technologic Papers of the Bureau of Standards No. 167) called attention to the Importance of the system and made proposals for its improvement.

Alex Munsell, following his junior year at Harvard, had been drafted into the army and had spent some time overseas. It seems likely that after his return to civilian life this Bureau of Standards report helped to make him listen to his father’s friends and let them persuade him to drop the medical studies he had started at Harvard in order to take on the active presidency of the Munsell Color Company. Legal changes were first made that put all stock into Munsell hands, his Mother as principal stockholder. Alex took over in July 1921. My six year association with the Company began a few months later, in October 1921, at headquarters then located at 220 Tremont Street in Boston.

(Much of the history of these early days is contained in a paper originally published in the December 1940 number of the Journal of the Optical Society of America, Vol. 30; republished in 1977, with two other historical papers, 1969 and 1975, in Vol. 1 of COLOR RESEARCH AND APPLICATION.)

From his earliest days with the Company, Alex Munsell was greatly influenced by Irwin G. Priest, chief of the Colorimetry Section of the Bureau of Standards and an active leader in the Optical Society of America’s outstanding Committee on Colorimetry. I quote from the 1940 history:

“Mr. Munsell was neither a business man nor an artist. His interest lay, rather, in scientific fields, and from the beginning he left much of the handling of the business of the Company to others, while he concentrated on the scientific aspects of the Munsell work. The writer’s first memory of A.E.O. Munsell is that of his enthusiasm upon his return from the 1921 October meeting, of the Optical Society of America where he had met and talked with I. G. Priest. It was at that meeting that he first heard of Carl W. Keuffel’s direct-reading spectrophotometer, later described before the O.S.A. One was ordered on the spot and was delivered in New York to the Munsell Research Laboratory during the next year.”

As the quotation indicates, a Research Laboratory was soon established. This was separate from the Company, provided for by funds contributed by A.E.O.M., his Mother, and his sister Margaret. It was founded as a memorial to A.H. Munsell to carry forward the application of A.H. Munsell’s particular contribution, namely: “a simple and practical notation, or method of writing color.”

In early 1922 the Company was moved to New York. But, more and more, the burden of handling a school supply business irked Alex, so in the spring of 1923 the entire stock of Munsell crayons, water colors, drawing papers, etc. was turned over to other companies; the only things the Munsell company intended to continue handling were the production and sale of ATLAS papers, charts, disks, and Munsell publications. In the spring of 1923 the Munsell Color Company moved from New York to Baltimore, Md., into quarters more suitable for its more restricted business needs, large enough to take care of the growing needs for laboratory space, but primarily to be nearer to the Bureau of Standards and to the Johns Hopkins University where Alex Munsell intended to do such graduate work as might help him to carry out the very general laboratory plans he was developing under Mr. Priest’s guidance.

As reported in some detail in the 1940 history: “Under the advice and inspiration of I.G. Priest the Munsell Research Laboratory broadened its activities. During a three- to four-year period it supported considerable research activity in its own laboratory, and in those of the Bureau of Standards.” Much of the work at the Bureau covered a wide, field; most of the work in Baltimore was aimed at specification of an improved series of papers to represent the Munsell system.

In 1927 the investigative work came practically to a halt. A studied revision of the standard papers was made, and the results published in 1929 as the MUNSELL BOOK OF COLOR to distinguish it from the ATLAS OF THE MUNSELL COLOR SYSTEM which it was intended to replace. Funds for the Research Laboratory were continued for a few years more, but were discontinued in the early 30’s. Alex Munsell should be credited with making all this basic work possible.

During those early years he became active in the work of the Colorimetry Committee of the Optical Society of America under whose auspices the far-reaching “Troland” report was published in 1922. He provided funds for publishing the color charts that the O.S.A. committee circulated as part of its basic questionnaire on color terminology. He was one of O.S.A.’s representatives to the organizer, meeting of the Inter-Society Color Council in 1931.   He was the I.S.C.C.’s first treasurer; he was elected in 1932 to be its second chairman but in 1933 resigned before he could take office. For all the years since then, whenever the I.S.C.C. has met in New York and he could do so, he has attended its annual meetings. His interests, however, increasingly turned to other fields, to fields of social problems. It may, therefore, have been a welcome suggestion to him in the early 40’s that led to the establishment of the Munsell Color Foundation in 1942. In this way, by gift he and his Mother turned over ownership and thereby direction of the policies of the Company to a non-stock, non-profit Foundation, it chief purpose similar to that of the I.S.C.C “to further scientific and practical advancement of color knowledge.” As a “trustee representing the donor” he remained on the Foundation’s Board of Trustees until the sale of the Company to Kollmorgen in 1969/70, a sale of which he approved. He then resigned, breaking his last official link with the Foundation.

However, his interest in the Inter-Society Color Council continued. In 1981, at the 50th anniversary meeting of the I.S.C.C., April 26-28, I sat next to him at the annual luncheon. As we looked around I noted that of all those present only he and I had also been present fifty years before at the meetings in 1930 and 1931 that resulted in the formation of the I.S.C.C. It must have been a sobering thought to him, as it was to me, for a few days after my return to Washington I received a most unexpected letter from him.

The letter, dated April 30, 1981, was a long, one. He asked for answers to 17 numbered questions, all concerned with those early days of 5O years before, and about the people involved in the early I.S.C.C. history. On a carbon copy of his letter he asked me to check the names of those who present. I made notes in the margins opposite each question that could be checked or answered briefly, and returned it to him. He had not remembered where the early meetings were held, or who was there. But of some of those present he indicated what he now: best remembered. He asked about F.G. Cooper, art editor of the original LIFE magazine – what did he contribute, either at the founding, meeting, or before? He remembered a booklet, and drawings Cooper had made for explaining the Munsell system; he would search for his copy and send me “a color Xerox of it”. About Charles Bittinger he remembered quite a bit, – about Prof. Gathercoal not so much. He remembered L.A .Jones as a serious, methodical person who stressed the necessity for the “Inter-Society” aspect of the I.S.C.C.; M. Rea Paul he remembered as dynamic – he asked for the name of the Lead company he worked for (it was National Lead). Deane Judd he remembered most vividly (but that, I believe, was from the Foundation contacts in later years). Item 14 was: “Well, well, well: who would ever have thought that only 4 days after the wonderful, epoch-making Golden Jubilee meeting, of the I.S.C.C. that I would be writing you this letter?”

His letter ended with the following paragraph: “I write this letter with a deep sense of gratitude for that day in 19?? that you first entered the Munsell Color Company office (was it on Tremont Street? and did I have a small Ford truck, with which I shuttled back and forth from Malden, Mass.) I won’t go-on-&-on any further.” He signed it: “Sincerely, A.E.O.M.; Alex Munsell”.

When news of Alex Munsell’s death came to me last March through an item in the New York TIMES, I thought of that last letter of his, and determined then that at least to the color public; as represented by members and delegates of the Inter-Society Color Council, I would recall to them that in the early part of his career Alex Munsell did a lot for color, for by taking over the Munsell Color Company in 1921, and establishing its research laboratory, he helped to continue the work of A.H. Munsell by standardizing and making available on a sound scientific basis the samples that represent a simple color notation based on measured scales of hue, value, and chroma. While his active work in color grew less and less after 1930, color science remained his second interest to the last.

It is with gratitude that I also remember that day in 1921 when I first walked into that office at 220 Tremont Street in Boston. I could not then foresee how much my contact with Alex Munsell and the color ideas of his father would change my life by introducing me to the fascinating and rewarding field of color science.

July 23, 1983 Dorothy Nickerson

The signature of Dorothy Nickerson

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