Quest for Permanence

A camouflage net over British troops in World War I. During the war military concealment became a technical craft to which Toch devoted his artistic and scientific skills. (National Archives, 111-SC-23098)

A camouflage net over British troops in World War I. During the war military concealment became a technical craft to which Toch devoted his artistic and scientific skills. (National Archives, 111-SC-23098)

Toch was less pleased about attempts to translate the demand for purity from food to paints. Edwin F. Ladd, a chemist who lobbied for the act, also called public attention to the “adulteration” of paints, drawing a parallel to food adulteration. Ladd’s efforts hinged on the question of labeling: should manufacturers be forced to disclose the composition of mixed paints? Hewing to the principle of purity, Ladd supported legislation that would require all “adulterants”—anything other than white lead, linseed oil, and “pure” colors—to be disclosed. Manufacturers vigorously opposed this initiative, fearing both the disclosure of trade secrets and the sales consequences of listing “adulterants” on their products’ labels.

Toch, a friend of Ladd and a leader of the paint industry, was caught in the middle. From 1906 through 1908 he testified against state and federal versions of the law, both before Congress and in appeals hearings that made their way to the Supreme Court. On the one hand, his professional experience made him wary of a law that would label necessary and beneficial ingredients as adulterants. On the other hand, Toch wished to eliminate the clandestine use of cheap, inert pigments and linseed-oil substitutes simply to cut costs, a widespread practice uncovered by Ladd.

In his testimony Toch criticized a proposed federal law that defined a paint as adulterated “if any of the materials contained in the article be of inferior quality.” For Toch this definition was meaningless; he noted that it would brand the paint on the White House and every car on the Pennsylvania Railroad as adulterated. The result, Toch feared, would be confusion and endless lawsuits. In the end Congress rejected the federal labeling law, but the Supreme Court accepted a North Dakota version of the law as constitutional, and several other states made the labeling of paint ingredients compulsory. Fortunately the chaos predicted by Toch failed to materialize.

Paint Chemistry Goes to War

During the decade following the 1898 Spanish-American War the U.S. Navy phased out the splendid but highly visible white paint on the hulls of its fleet in favor of the color known as “battleship gray” or “haze gray,” a neutral shade closer to that of the horizon. A change in color brought material consequences. The gray paint used by the navy included lampblack (soot produced by the combustion of oil), white lead, and zinc white, and was easily scraped off a ship’s hull by anchor chains. It also absorbed and reacted with seawater.

The navy approached Toch, by then well known as a paint chemist, for advice on a more effective formula for the gray paint. Toch found a solution both cheaper and more resistant to abrasion and seawater than the navy’s paint. He added graphite to the lampblack and replaced the white lead with blanc fixe (synthetic barytes).

Meanwhile French artists and scientists on World War I’s Western Front were transforming the ad-hoc practice of “military concealment” into the technical art of camouflage. As the United States prepared to declare war in 1917, Toch was among the chemists and artists called on to bring this new science to the American armed forces. In one project Toch worked on the dyes used on tarpaulins intended to hide weapon emplacements from enemy aircraft.

To the naked eye these coverings resembled natural greenery, but an opponent using optical filters and special photographic plates could distinguish the fake from the real. Toch helped find dyes that mimicked the optical properties of grass and foliage across the entire spectrum of visible light, fooling enemy equipment. At the same time, he helped recruit New York engineers, artists, and chemists to join the U.S. Army’s camouflage corps in France. More exciting to Toch was his work camouflaging shipyards and ships. At the naval bases in Pensacola and Key West, Florida, Toch first darkened the bright-white concrete walkways. Disguising the base’s telegraph poles, however, called for improvisation. Toch had pine branches nailed to the crosstrees and the poles wrapped in mottled burlap. He used a similar stratagem of shrubs, vines, and flowers to conceal mortars placed in the backyards of New Jersey and Long Island mansions to protect New York City’s waterways.

Toch also designed a camouflage system used on some vessels in the American merchant fleet. Naval camouflage required different strategies than its terrestrial cousin. Toch aimed both to lower the ship’s visibility and to distort its heading. He had wave shapes painted on the ship’s hull in four colors: grayish white, olive green, salmon pink, and yellow ochre (or sometimes blue gray). Toch wrote that, thus disguised, “a ship not only became foreshortened but its direction was so distorted that when I went out to sea in a submarine and fired some dummy shots at one of my own camouflaged ships, I missed the boat at as short a distance as 600 meters.”

Camouflage tests in early 1918 convinced Toch and other American naval camoufleurs—camouflage and disguise experts—that course distortion was far more effective than lowered visibility. As of March 1918 the U.S. Navy adopted the British “dazzle” scheme, a pattern of jagged areas of highly contrasting color that maximized foreshortening and so distorted direction. Toch’s wartime service was one of his proudest memories—“the Great Adventure,” he called it a decade later.