The Colour of Money


A certain scientific discovery in the 19th century drastically altered life as the Victorians knew it, affecting everything from academia to armaments, medicine to fashion. But the man behind this revolution—unlike, say, Charles Darwin or Gregor Mendel—is now virtually forgotten. His name was William Perkin, and in 1856 he discovered a dye called mauve.

As Simon Garfield explains in his recent book Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, Perkin, an 18-year-old chemistry student, had been attempting to synthesize quinine in the laboratory. A tonic extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, quinine was in short supply because it was the only effective treatment for malaria, the disease then ravaging every corner of the globe (2 million deaths annually in India alone). Researchers knew that the medicine had a molecular structure similar to that of naphthalidine, a substance derived from coal tar; but actually turning naphthalidine into artificial quinine was another matter. In those days, given the primitive state of the science we now call organic chemistry, experimentation was a hit-or-miss affair, based largely on guesswork. Perkin had tried and gotten nowhere with naphthalidine, so he decided to fiddle around with a related coal-tar derivative called aniline.

In his makeshift home lab, without benefit of running water or gas burners, Perkin distilled and oxidized a small amount of aniline; the end product was not quinine, but a black powder. As he described it, “I failed, and was about to throw . . . [the] black residue away when I thought it might be interesting. The solution of it resulted in a strangely beautiful colour.” Testing his newfound pigment on a piece of silk, he was struck by its brilliance, intensity, and resistance to fading—all qualities lacking in dyed fabrics at the time.

Until Perkin came along, the only method of tinting cloth involved organic (i.e., animal or vegetable) dyes, and only a handful of hues could be achieved. There was Tyrian purple, concocted circa 1500 B.C.; according to legend, it was discovered when Hercules’s sheepdog, walking on the beach, bit into a mollusk that stained its mouth a deep violet. With thousands of mollusk shells needed to color one robe, it was the costliest of pigments. (Thus, Tyrian purple was reserved exclusively for Roman emperors and their households, and was chosen by Cleopatra for her royal barge.) There was cochineal, a crimson that required the processing of 17,000 dried insects per ounce of dye (think of the “bug juice” said to tinge Hawaiian Punch scarlet), and madder, a mild red from the madder shrub’s roots, used by Egyptians for mummy wrappings. Blues were confined to indigo, a leaf-based tint manufactured solely in India, and murexide, supposedly from serpents’ dung but in fact made from guano. Other plants could turn textiles yellow, brown, and black.

These natural colorants, relied on for centuries, had numerous drawbacks. Production was time-consuming and labor-intensive. They resulted in dull, flat tones, as the historical-dress collection of any museum demonstrates (ditto the dreary pioneer wear simulated in Little House on the Prairie). And they were non-fast—that is, they gradually faded when washed or exposed to sunlight. By contrast, the wash-and-dry convenience and rainbow colors of today’s garments are possible thanks to Perkin. Had he not created the first-ever artificial dye, the world would be a much drabber place.

Perkin’s mauve (a violet hue) initially became popular not in his homeland of England, but in France—mauve is the French name for the mallow plant. In 1857, the extravagant, fashion-loving Empress Eugénie, who set the trends for all Europe, began wearing mauve because she thought it matched her eyes. English women’s magazines picked up on the fad, and the next year Queen Victoria dressed in mauve for the most important event of the social season, the wedding of her eldest daughter, Princess Victoria. The royal cachet ensured the color’s desirability. In the smart districts of London, mauve could be found “waving on every fair head and fluttering round every cheek,” according to Dickens’s weekly paper All the Year Round, while the satirical Punch diagnosed an outbreak of the “Mauve Measles.” (As with any craze, mauve eventually fell out of fashion, but it remained in some demand as the socially correct color for half-mourning garb, again through Queen Victoria’s example.) The 1860s would go down in history as the “mauve decade.”

At the same time, stylemakers were dictating another trend, for crinolines (invented, like mauve, in 1856)—enormous hoopskirts of steel wire covered with layer upon layer of taffeta, ruffles, and ribbons. Hundreds of yards of dyed materials went into a single frock, generating a highly profitable market for Perkin and his fellow colorant manufacturers. Following his lead, they devised new aniline dyes every week, with names like Verguin’s fuchsine (a/k/a magenta), Martius yellow, bleu de Lyon, and aldehyde green. These shades, unlike the soft vegetable dyes of old, were noticeably harsh and garish (though less so seen by Victorian gas- or candlelight than under modern electric bulbs). “Gowns of violet silk with dazzling reflections,” the historian Hippolyte Taine complained, were aesthetically “offensive. . . . The glare is terrible.” (Author Garfield himself confessed to the Voice that he doesn’t wear mauve, instead preferring blue in his wardrobe.)

Eager to exploit the commercial possibilities of aniline, businessmen soon sought additional applications for the coal-tar-derived dyes. “The lady’s hair is grey, or of a hue not fashionable at the time,” the scientist Hugo Schweitzer reported to Perkin, “[but] coal-tar colours will assist her in appearing youthful and gay. In eating the luscious frankfurter, your soul rejoices to see the sanguineous liquid oozing from the meat—alas, coal-tar colours have done it.” Further experimentation with aniline led to the discovery of saccharin and Novocain, as well as artificial perfumes that could replicate natural musk, jasmine, and rosewater. By 1906, coal-tar preparations were being incorporated by the Lumière brothers in their pioneering development of color photography.

Even more valuably, the invention of aniline dyes coincided with early investigations into microbiology. Staining cells with mauve and fuchsine made their internal components visible under the microscope, allowing for the identification of DNA, chromosomes, amino acids, and bacteria in tissue samples. In 1882, Robert Koch proved that tuberculosis was caused by a bacillus that he detected using aniline blue; the same blue turned out to be medically useful in the treatment of cyanide poisoning. Other dyes in the 20th century have helped fight diphtheria, pneumonia, leprosy, and cancer. Sold in today’s drugstores, the topical disinfectant Mercurochrome (for dabbing on minor cuts and scrapes) is an aniline dye, too.

Perkin’s work on mauve had ramifications beyond these material innovations. In his youth, applied chemistry was rarely taught in English schools (Latin and Greek predominated), and only the fledgling Royal College of Chemistry (founded 1845) offered it at the university level. Most people saw no purpose in learning chemistry, because to that date it had produced few real-world results. The idea that researchers, pottering about in their labs with their flasks and spirits, might create anything worthwhile seemed as preposterous as the medieval belief in alchemy. (Curiously enough, Perkin’s grandfather was a closet alchemist.) But once Perkin started manufacturing mauve, it was obvious that organic chemistry could be both useful and lucrative. Textile and other industries hired researchers to synthesize an increasing number of artificial substances, giving rise to a need for more trained chemists, which in turn drew more students to the subject. Applied chemistry was firmly established as an academic discipline.

Mauve has come a long way since its origins in a failed experiment—from the fashionable color that matched an empress’s eyes to an ingredient in 21st-century chemotherapy. As for Perkin, he was knighted in 1906 and received an honorary degree from Oxford shortly before his death the following year. It’s perhaps a good thing that he didn’t live to see one of the consequences of his research: A vegetarian, teetotaler, and evangelical churchgoer who donated much of his fortune to charity, Perkin would have been horrified to learn that his advances in organic chemistry led to the formulation of synthetic ammonia—the key component in almost all modern explosives.