Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Colour Purple

Alice Walker's "The Colour Purple" is a moving story but there is another story to be told about the colour purple.

In the 1850s the British Empire was pushing into Africa, however, colonization attempts were being hampered by malaria. Quinine, a chemical derived from the bark of cinchona trees from South America, could be used to treat malaria but a more readily accessible source was needed. Chemists were looking to produce it synthetically.


In 1856 William Henry Perkin, a student at the Royal College of Chemistry,  was trying to find a way of making quinine in a makeshift laboratory in his bedroom.  Perkin had been adding hydrogen and oxygen to coal tar which left a black residue in his glass jars. Whilst trying to clean the jars he discovered that when the black residue was dissolved in alcohol it turned purple -  the first “aniline dye”.


At only 18 years of age Perkin had discovered  synthetic purple. He immediately applied for a patent and convinced his family to invest in his discovery and opened a Dye Factory besides the Grand Canal in London.

Perkin could not have chosen a better time or place for his discovery: England was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, largely driven by advances in the production of textiles; the science of chemistry had advanced to the point where it could have a major impact on industrial processes; and coal tar, the major source of his raw material, was an abundant by-product of the process for making coal gas and coke.

Before his discovery purple could only be made using natural dyes and had been very expensive to make, it had become one of the most coveted colours. Purple was used to denote wealth and power.


For centuries, the purple dye trade was centered in the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre in modern day Lebanon. The Phoenicians’ “Tyrian purple" was made from the mucous of sea snails – or muricidae, more commonly called murex. It took as many as 250,000 mollusks to yield just one ounce of usable dye, but the result was a vibrant and long-lasting shade of purple.

The snails were boiled for days in giant lead vats, producing a terrible odor. The snails are not purple to begin with. The craftsmen were harvesting chemical precursors from the snails that, through heat and light, were transformed into the valuable dye.

Musée Bonnat - La découverte de la pourpre - Peter Paul Rubens (

Mythology has it that it was Hercules who discovered it – or rather, his dog did, after picking up a murex off the beach and developing purple drool.
On the colour wheel, purple sits between blue and red. Some might call it violet, or mauve, but whatever you call it, it is the most refracted colour when light is passed through a prism; at the very end of the visible colour spectrum and the hardest colour for the eye to discriminate.


If we go back to our pre-historic existence, our ancestors probably never saw a purple fruit, flower, bird, fish - or any living thing - because purple is very rare in nature. This is hard to imagine in today’s connected world.

Cleopatra introduced Julius Caesar to the colour purple and when he returned to Rome he decreed that only the Emperor could wear purple. When Nero became Emperor, the wearing of purple and even the sale of purple was punishable by death!.


The shroud in which the Emperor Charlemagne was buried in 814 was made of gold and 
Tyrian purple from Constantinople.


Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who was related to Ann Boleyn and Catherine Howard was tried for high treason against Henry VIII, part of the evidence against him was that he had been seen wearing purple: which only the king could wear.


The French called the colour "mauve" and Empress Eugenie of France a very beautiful woman loved the colour and wore it often.


In 1862 Queen Victoria appeared at the Royal Exhibition in a mauve silk gown. This made headlines in the newpapers and lady's magazines as she had put off the black she always wore after Prince Albert's death for this occasion.

Mauve then became a fashionable  "mourning" colour that could be worn after a suitable time wearing black.

Purple tends to be a color that people either love or hate. It is not a common flag colour and only two flags contain purple.

In has differnt meanings in different cultures: the “Purple Heart” is the American award for bravery; purple is a symbolic color for the gay community in many Western cultures; in Italy most performing artists would not go on stage if they have to wear anything purple.

M0000153 Portrait of Sir William Henry Perkin [1838 – 1907], chemist Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Portrait of Sir William Henry Perkin [1838 – 1907], English chemist Oil Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Purple was a very lucky colour for William Perin who became very rich from his dye. He received many awards and was knighted in 1906.

His discovery impacted on society for good and bad. His dyes were able to stain the tuberculosis and cholera bacteria which allowed further research into prevention and led to pioneering research in the fields of immunology and chemotherapy. However, the dyes made their way into the food industry particularly in confectionery and meat and they are still in our food today.


His discovery paved the way to the vibrant coloured silks we enjoy working with today.

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