This is the first book I’ve read specifically for this blog.  Being a milestone, I wanted it to be a good one, a perfect example of how the books I read sound dull at first but are fascinating and involve world-changing events.

So I chose a book about the color mauve.

Yes, really.  Mauve.

Before 1856, chemistry was thought to be a useless field.  Even Latin and Greek were considered more useful.  Chemistry was nothing, a pointless pursuit for dilettantes.  But in that year, an 18 year old boy by the name of William Perkin singlehandedly invented the field of applied chemistry.  And that? That definitely changed the world.  And he did it with the color mauve.

Perkin was a student at the newly-created Royal College of Chemistry in London.  He had already been doing experiments for years in his parents’ attic.  He was also an amateur artist, which was crucial to his discovery.  He was studying coal tar, one of the many byproducts of coal processing.  The industrial uses of coal were fairly new, and coal tar was a waste product of it.  Lots of chemists at the time thought it had potential, and most importantly, mining companies were giving it away before they thought it was trash.

Other chemists had already produced some strangly-colored substances, but they threw them out as useless.  Perkin, the artist, accidentally did the same.  The weird purple shade he came up with was pretty, and he dyed some fabric with it as an experiment.  And so mauve was born.

The other thing that made Perkin so special is that he decided to find commercial uses for it.  At the time, it was unthinkable that a scientist would turn his results into a business venture. Chemistry was about knowledge, not industry.  His mentor at the college told him that if he was to do something so base, he’d have to leave the school.  So he did, terrified that this would end his scientific career for good.  But within five years he was one of the richest men in England.

At first dyers were dismissive of using artificial dyes.  At the time, all dyes were produced using plants or animals. But he found a dyer who could see a future in chemical dyes, and as they were working, some French inventors stole his work and presented some mauve fabric to the French empress.  She got Queen Victoria interested.

The Queen wore a mauve wedding dress.  And suddenly Perkin, whose patent predated the French’s production, was very, very wealthy.

Mauve was everywhere, from rich women’s dresses to poor women’s stockings.  Other chemists, seeing how much money could be made, started making the dyes they’d originally thrown away.  New companies sprang up to produce shades never worn, some of which weren’t even found in nature.  Perkin came up with several more himself before retiring from the industry at 35.  He spent the rest of his life making new discoveries in other areas of chemistry and writing papers at his mansion.  He was the first to synthesize perfume scents, among other things.

All these dyes were aniline dyes, which today are used in biochemistry and medicine for everything from genetics to chemotherapy.  Chemists building on Perkin’s work invented plastics, superglue, hair dye, detergents, food coloring… Almost everything we use today is descended from or influenced by Perkin, and the color mauve.

And that, dear readers, is why the history of mauve is so interesting.

Random fact: the reason American and British uniforms in WWI were so ugly is because by then almost all dyes were produced in Germany.  Additionally, the chemicals used to produce dyes are also useful in making explosives.  After the war was over, both Britain and America decided that having domestic dye works was crucial to future war efforts, and not just for pretty colors.

The book is Mauve by Simon Garfield.  I’ve read a few of his works and they’ve all been enjoyable.  As usually, I’ve left out a ton of detail; the book goes into everything in depth, including all the lawsuits over patents, the environmental impacts, and what the modern color industry looks like.  If this overview has you wanting more, Mauve is a great read.

Categories: HistoryScience


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