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Gallery Exhibit: "Purple: Celebrating 150 Years of Synthetic Dyes"

This Exhibit was on display from March 9th - October 4th 2006

When eighteen-year-old William Henry Perkin, working in his home-made laboratory in East London, failed once again to discover a way of synthesizing quinine, he did something unusual for a chemist in 1856. He realized that the substance produced could have a different application. "While working on an experiment, I failed, and was about to throw a certain black residue away when I thought it might be interesting. The solution of it resulted in a strangely beautiful color."

Perkin had created the first synthetic dye, an aniline compound. Chemical experiments at the time were largely trial and error processes, using a limited knowledge of the relationship of chemical compositions and molecular structure. Perkin’s discovery, a dye known as mauveine, changed the developing field of organic chemistry dramatically and advanced many areas of scientific research during the middle of the nineteenth century. Just as the race to the moon nurtured the growth of electronics and computer science in the twentieth century, Perkin touches our lives even today in medicine, food production, warfare, and photography. His discovery stimulated the search for better understanding of molecular structure as well as uniting science and business.

Prior to 1856, textiles were colored with natural dyes made from plants, insects, and sea creatures. The earliest purple dye came from mollusks found in the Mediterranean Sea and western coasts of South America and Africa. Thousands of dried kermes and cochineal insects made a small amount of red-purple dye for cloth. Lichen, logwood, and iron-mordanted madder also produced purple dye, but the work to obtain the dyes was labor intensive, expensive, and subject to the influences of Mother Nature. Dyestuffs differed in composition and concentration; consistency of color depth and hue was more luck than design.

Perkin realized that his process for producing a synthetic dye, one that could be repeated over and over again in large quantities with the same results, would allow dyers to control the cost and quality of the final product more than with natural dyes. He showed unusual business sense at a time when science and business were separate realms. Industries did not regularly employ scientists for research and development purposes. Generally scientists were not connected with manufacturing and moneymaking enterprises. Even Perkin was concerned about becoming a manufacturer and not being able to pursue his love of research.

With his brother Thomas and friend Arthur Church, Perkin further tested his dye before deciding to pursue a patent, issued in August of 1856. Perkin received enthusiastic responses from dyers such as Robert Pullar of John Pullar and Son, in Scotland. "This colour is one which has been very much wanted in all classes of goods and could not be obtained fast on silks, and only at great expense on cotton yarns." Perkin’s teacher, Wilhelm von Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry who had been working on synthesizing quinine for the curing of malaria disagreed with his decision to quit school and devote himself fully to the production of mauveine. Failing to obtain financing, his father agreed to invest in the business. His brother Thomas joined the enterprise, and Perkin & Sons constructed a factory in Greenford Green, north-west London. William Henry Perkin became a business success story before he was 20 years old, making a fortune that enabled him to retire at the age of 36.

Part of his success was luck. Mauve was a popular color in 1856, at a time when women’s skirts were very wide and to the floor, requiring many yards of fabric. Queen Victoria in England and Empress Eugenie of France both extremely popular trend-setters, wore mauve, the empress saying it matched her eyes perfectly. The Industrial Revolution was in full force, fueled by the textile industry and a new-found desire of the rising middle-class for consumer goods. Perkin’s aniline dye used a byproduct of the expanding coal gas and coke industries; the coal tar waste became available in sufficient quantities. All of the conditions were ripe for producing the first synthetic dye to be a financial as well as scientific success.



Printed aniline black dye on cotton Wrapper, c. 1900; URI 1994.06.31

Photo by Angela Williams






Printed leno weave fabric; silk warp and wool weft Barege shawl, 1895; URI 1957.16.49

Photo by Danielle Tancredi