My chromatic alphabet from A to Z.
I recently read Maggie Koerth-Baker’s insightful article Magnetic Letters Taught Us More Than How to Spell, which is available online at National Geographic. It’s a fascinating read for people interested in grapheme-color synesthesia, as well those interested in how we learn, and how culture shapes that learning. Ms. Koerth-Baker’s reportage is focused on those brightly colored alphabet magnets that Gen-Xers and Millenials know so well. These magnetic toys were designed by Victor Reiling and first produced by Fischer-Price as part of the “School Days Desk” play-set. The letters came in a rainbow pallet of 6 hues that repeated the spectrum from red to violet. Currently, they’ve gone through many changes, including dozens of manufacturers each creating their own designs, and color ranges that are influenced by prevailing trends. In the image that accompanies Ms. Koerth-Baker’s article, an art-car is decked out with thousands of magnet letters in various fonts and hues. You can find that photograph here.
I was in grade school in 1972 when the Fischer-Price magnetic letters first hit the marketplace, and while I didn’t play with them in my early childhood, they were popular with my younger sister Barbara and her friends. Alphabet magnets were ubiquitous, at least in my community; almost every family with a school-aged child had a set of them stuck to metallic surfaces in their home. I saw them a lot in my teen years too, when I was in demand for my mad babysitting skills. After my charges had gone to bed and there was nothing for me to do but homework, I would write terse and angst-ridden poetry on the door of a harvest gold Frigidaire, carefully deranging the letters before my employers came home.
In the last few years, I’ve had several conversations with non-synesthetes about my experiences with grapheme-color synesthesia, with most of them suggesting I learned synesthetic perception from these magnetic letters or other learning toys. I’ve never felt that this is the case for me in regard to my own grapheme-color, although I do believe that ideas may inform the experience of cross-modal perception. There are three specific reasons why I don’t feel my grapheme-color synesthesia is rooted in magnetic alphabet toys.
The colors I associate with my letters aren’t the primary and secondary hues included in the original play-set. When I look at my alphabet as a whole, my letters seem tinged by the mid-century pallet that influenced design in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For example, my mother had a taffeta bridesmaid’s dress from the late 50’s that is the exact shade of my letter “A”. And that weird sage green that I associate with “Z” is almost the color of the sofa in the living room of my childhood home. It seems more likely to me that my grapheme-color was informed by multiple objects in my environment, and not just toys.
Additionally, those magnetic toy letters weren’t around in my early childhood. I learned to read at a ridiculously early age, mostly due to the efforts of my older sister Elizabeth. When the first School Days Desk play-sets were produced in 1972, I had been reading for 5 years; my colored letters were already formed. I have an early recollection of my colored letters and colored words from 1969, with my first experience at school. I felt a strong connection to my preschool teacher Mrs. Clark in part because she was lovely, and kind, and in all ways wonderful, but also because the color of her last name (Clark) matched the color of my first name (Carolyn). I already knew that “C” was medium blue long before magnetic letters appeared in toy stores. And, in those first play-sets, the “C” was primary yellow.
Also, color distribution among the letters of the alphabet as experienced by grapheme-color synesthetes is one of the most frequently researched synesthetic phenomena. While many of my grapheme-color experiences are quite unusual (for example, my bright pink “F” and my purple “J”), others are very common, including my colorless vowels. For me, the vowels “I”, “O”, and “U” are white. But, none of the magnet letter toys, including those produced by manufacturers other than Fischer-Price have white letters. However, many synesthetes do tend to have white vowels, and it seems possible that the frequency of color distribution among specific letters in grapheme-color synesthetes has a cultural or learned aspect.
I’m not certain how my grapheme-color synesthesia formed, although I’m positive that colored magnets had little or no influence on the origin of my cross-modal perception. However, those colored magnets do indeed seem to have some impact on synesthetes younger than me. You can learn more about that in Ms. Koerth-Baker’s article. Also, grapheme-color is one of the most common forms of synesthesia. If you’d like to assess your own synesthetic tendencies, specifically in regard to grapheme-color, I highly recommend taking the Synesthesia Battery. It’s one of the few ways to test for synesthesia online. You can find the Synesthesia Battery here.