Story of Mauve

11.09.2014 § Leave a comment

I have always been fascinated with dyestuffs—what all the natural dyes can do, how the synthetic dye industry got started and how it replaced natural dyes. I found this wonderful story and extracted excerpts below:

Sir William Henry Perkin

Sir William Henry Perkin and
his wife Jemima, c 1860.
Science & Society Picture Library

During the Easter break in 1856, William Henry Perkin—an 18-year-old chemistry student in his second year at the Royal College of Chemistry in London—was doing experiments at his family home in Shadwell in the East End of London. His professor was Wilhelm Hofmann, a German chemist who was very interested in the chemicals that could be made from coal tar.

His efforts to make quinine, however, only produced a black tar. He then decided to try the same reaction with aniline, another coal-tar chemical that was similar to allyl toluidine. Although this also produced a black tar, Perkin managed to extract a lovely purple colour from this mess. He had made the first synthetic dye to be commercially successful, which he called Tyrian purple after the famous colour of the Ancients. With his father and his elder brother, Perkin set up a factory in Greenford Green, west London, to make Tyrian purple, which was renamed mauve in 1859.

Perkin fabric sample

Fabric sample dyed with synthetic alizarin made by Perkin in 1869.
Science & Society Picture Library

Mauve became the first commercially successful synthetic dye because Perkin found a way of making the novel colorant on an industrial scale. He had to invent new processes and new equipment to make his purple dye. Yet within a few years, mauve had been displaced by other dyes made from aniline: fuchsine (also called magenta), introduced in 1860, and Hofmann’s violet, patented by Perkin’s former professor in 1863.

Find the original story and more information here.

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