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The Color Purplish

Anthony Travis

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World. Simon Garfield. 222 pp. W. W. Norton, first published in the United Kingdom in 2000. $23.95.

If the term high-tech had been in use around 1860, it would certainly have applied to the industrial manufacture of synthetic dyestuffs. From the late 1850s until 1865, diversification among dye-users and some chemical firms encouraged the growth of this new industry, and numerous fledgling science-based dye-making enterprises arose from experiments in basements, attics, kitchens and garden sheds. The venture capitalists who funded these start-ups were family members and bankers, as well as individuals who had backgrounds in chemistry, the preparation and use of natural dyes, and coal-gas manufacture. It was the last activity that afforded the abundant raw material, the insalubrious waste known as coal tar.

Simon Garfield's Mauve describes how it all started at Easter in 1856, when the teenaged William Henry Perkin, assistant of August Wilhelm Hofmann in London, found that benzene extracted from tar could be transformed into a colorant that dyed a piece of silk a brilliant purplish color. Perkin—who had started out trying to synthesize artificial quinine—realized the significance of his discovery, and a few months later filed a patent in London for the process. In 1858, Perkin, with the help of a brother, began production of the dye at a factory erected by his father. Thus was born the synthetic dye and modern organic chemical industry.

William Perkin at 68 years of age . . .Click to Enlarge Image

In 1859, English fashion observers gave the purple dye the name mauve. (Perkin had earlier called it "Tyrian purple" to suggest a connection with the ancient color associated with wealth and high status.) The word mauve had just entered the English language from the French for the mallow flower to describe the color favored by the ladies of the courts and palaces of London and Paris. Perkin's dye, unlike the other purples that were derived from lichens or bird excrement, was stable to light and washing, although great efforts had to be made to fix the synthetic color to cotton fabrics. In 1869, Perkin followed up his mauve with another brilliant invention, a commercial route to the red dye known by chemists as alizarin, which was obtained from the root of the madder plant. However, by this time several chemists were doing almost the same thing, particularly Heinrich Caro at the German company BASF (Badische Anilin- & Soda-Fabrik).

Caro's alizarin patent was filed in London during June 1869, just one day before Perkin's application arrived at the Patent Office. The outcome was a Perkin-BASF cartel that divided the international market for this important dye, which was, incidentally, the first natural product of some complexity to be synthesized.

At the end of 1873, Perkin retired from business and left the Germans to refine the technology and chemistry. In 1874, Caro and the academic chemist Adolf Baeyer published the modern structure of alizarin, an achievement that bound science with industry and from which emerged the industrial research laboratory.

This silk dress was dyed . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Mauve is an inviting cocktail of Perkin biography, account of the dye industry and where it led, and social and cultural history of the color mauve up to the present. It is a very successful and instructive mix, certainly for the intended popular audience; it succeeds in providing sufficient background to retain the nonscientist's attention and to convey the excitement and sense of achievement at the various pioneering enterprises. Moreover, Garfield has researched his topics well, scouring little-used archives and the historical literature that is produced and read by a small group of specialist historians. He also conducted interviews with scientists, fashion designers and colorists, and historians (including myself) who in one way or another have an affinity with mauve or its successors. (In the interests of full disclosure, I note that I also read the book in manuscript and suggested minor improvements.)

Garfield describes how the dye industry grew tremendously in Germany, where the pioneers were the forerunners of BASF, Bayer, AGFA (Aktiengesellschaft für Anilinfabrikation) and Hoechst, and also in Switzerland, at the factories of J. R. Geigy and a predecessor of Ciba. Many of these firms diversified from dye products into pharmaceuticals, in part because the dyes were employed in early biomedical research and in part because dyes were models for the first synthetic drugs to attack sites of infection within the body. Thus Paul Ehrlich's Salvarsan (1909) was an arsenic analogue of an azo dye, and the first sulfa, or wonder, drug, Prontosil (1936), was the metabolic product of a red azo dye. Garfield does not forget the health and environmental implications of synthetic dyes and the wastes from their manufacture, the latter having contributed to the demise of dye production in Europe and, especially, in the United States, since around 1980. Nor does he ignore the fact that in 1925 the German concerns merged their interests to create I. G. Farbenindustrie, a name that emphasized the historical connection with the founders. The behemoth "I. G." supplied Hitler with a myriad of coal-based products, in particular synthetic fuel and Buna rubber, and for the latter erected a plant at Monowitz to exploit, in the worst possible sense, the labor available at nearby Auschwitz.

Mauve is an appropriate companion to the historical scholarship on the dye and allied industries. Popular, readable and inexpensive, it will also do much to make clear to a wide audience the role of chemistry and chemical technology in the making of the modern world.

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