Making Color

Making Color

William Henry Perkin (1838–1907)
Self-portrait photo at age 14
Courtesy of the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Until the mid-1800s, all dyes came from natural sources, such as insects, roots, or minerals. Producing them was difficult and expensive.

In 1856, an 18-year-old English chemist, William Henry Perkin, accidentally discovered one of the first synthetic dyes. In search of a treatment for malaria, Perkin experimented with coal tar, a thick, dark liquid by-product of coal-gas production. His experiment failed but left behind an oily residue that stained silk a brilliant purple. He called the dye mauveine.

Perkin’s purple changed history. He applied for a patent and abandoned the lab for the path of manufacturing. He paved the way for modern chemistry to move into industrial applications, and indirectly led to advances in modern medicine, explosives, photography, and plastics.

“Milking” Plicopurpura pansa, Oaxaca, Mexico.
© Fulvio Eccardi
Cotton yarn with tixinda dye, 2012
Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, Mexico
Gift of Marilyn Murphy,
Sea snails like these are found around the world. When poked (milked) or crushed, they secrete a substance that was used for making purple dye as early as 1570 BC. Thousands of snails were needed to color a single robe, and for centuries purple dye was more valuable than silver and worn only by royalty. Mixtec weavers in Oaxaca, Mexico, color locally grown cotton with natural dyes — including the rare purple tixinda, extracted from the Plicopurpura pansa mollusk. The introduction of synthetic dyes and the decline of mollusk populations have greatly reduced the production of natural purple dye.
Anthracite coal
National Museum of Natural History, Department of Mineral Sciences
Gift of Frederick A. Canfield
“Perkin mauve” dyed silk, 1860
Photo courtesy of National Museum of American History
When coal was carbonized to make coke (a fuel), or gasified to make coal gas, one of its by-products was coal tar. William Henry Perkin presented a sample of dyed silk to American industrialist William John Matheson, founder of the National Aniline and Chemical Company. Matheson in turn donated it to the Smithsonian.

Perkin’s new purple took the fashion world by storm. First appearing in Paris and London, it quickly spread to America and was heavily featured in popular women's magazines of the day.

Godey's Lady’s Book and Magazine, 1861-1877
Badische Anilin- & Soda-Fabrik
Aniline Colors on Cotton Yarn
New York: Badische Company, ca. 1900

Synthetic dyes became big business after 1860, with Germany in the lead. This BASF dye sample catalog displays the vibrant variety of new synthetic colors. Founded in Germany in 1865 to manufacture dyes, BASF is one of the oldest chemical companies in existence today.

Alexander Paul
The Practical Ostrich Feather Dyer
Philadelphia, Pa.: Published by Mrs. Dr. M. Frank, 1888

You don’t need to be a chemist to dye feathers! This instruction manual provides “simple” recipes using natural and synthetic dyes, encouraging readers to pursue the “profitable business” of feather dyeing. Ostrich feathers were a major fashion accessory in the late 1800s and early 1900s, adorning hats and dresses.