History of Polka Dots (and My Obsession with Them)

Offbeat
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Are you a sucker for polka dots? Me too!

Why?

Because they make me happy. They actually have a reputation for doing that. It’s true.

Polka dots hearken to the 1950s and suggest simplicity, fun and cheerfulness. But it hasn’t always been so.

In medieval Europe, wearing dotted patterns was taboo. Without machines, it was difficult to evenly space the dots — and unevenly spaced dots made people think of diseases like leprosy, small pox and the bubonic plague, not to mention spotting caused by miscarriages or handkerchiefs dotted in blood from tuberculosis. Dots were actually bad omens and nothing to be celebrated.

But non-Western cultures had their own use for the circles. For some cultures the dots conveyed magic, male potency, and the triumph of a hunt. In central Africa, white dots are still used during male-initiation rites.

Back in Europe, as time progressed, clothes began to be used for self expression. Wardrobes were no longer used to simply distinguish the separation of classes. From the 1590s to the 1720s, European women started to strategically stick a dot of black fabric over a blemish or to offset and enhance the beauty of their face. This practice became known as “patching”. However, it was abandoned in 1665 after a plague broke out in London.

In the mid-19th Century dotted patterns went by a variety of names in Europe like Dotted-Swiss or the French word quiconce, which described the diagonal pattern of the dots on the five-side of dice. The Germans used thalertupfen, for the large coin-sized dots on fabric — thaler being the currency used in German-speaking Europe until the late 1800s.

The English term polka dot stems from the craze for polka music and the polka dance that swept through Europe between the 1840s and 1860s. Although it’s a stretch, some believe the dotted pattern evoked the lively half-step to the dance.

During WWII, polka music made a roaring come back in America and marketers seized on the opportunity to polka-theme their products: polka pudding, polka sauce, polka hats, shoes, curtains and more. Godey’s Lady Book, a popular magazine at that time, dubbed the dotted pattern the polka dot. While the polka-themed products petered out, the name stuck.

More recently, modern day retailers have used the cheery pattern of polka dots to lure budget-conscious shoppers into buying their products. I don’t know about you, but it works on me. I simply can’t help myself. I’m admittedly addicted to the polka dot. I also have a lot of freckles. Even my skin is polka-dotted!  — although free of disease. Ha!

For a snazzy slide show on the history of polka dots, visit Slate.com. And if you have your own polka-dotted pictures, upload them to the gallery. Just click the link below.

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