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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

A book review and Summary by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD
Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color
That Changed the World

a book written by Simon Garfield

Mauve reads like a novel, telling about the history and development of the industrial chemical industry in general and coal-tar products in particular. It is a history of the chemistry leading up to the development of synthetic dyes for textiles, rather than a history of dyeing. I have the impression that many of the dyes, colors, and information given by Garfield relate to wool and silk, rather than cotton textiles. This is evidenced by the fact that Garfield seldom mentions the type of fabric dyed: cotton, silk, wool or linen. It is not always clear if he is referring to the new dye or any of the many dyes he mentions working on. Based on my knowledge, the original synthetic mauve dye was discovered with silk. 

In much of the book, the author discusses the historical development of coal-tar products. Coal tar had been found useful for waterproofing cloth, protecting timber, making rubber, and as a disinfectant for sewage. In 1826, Prussian chemist Otto Unverdorben discovered aniline liquid, which he obtained from distilling natural vegetable indigo. Some years later, Friedlieb Runge distilled aniline from coal tar. Interestingly, he got a blue color after mixing it with chloride of lime. (Lime was used in the indigo China Blue dye process). No one gave any thought to the usefulness of these findings back then, and the liquid aniline was expensive and not easy to obtain. So, no one gave thought to the usefulness of these findings at that time.

Garfield continues in this vein and gives credit to Perkin for bridging the wide gap between the world of chemistry and that of business, emphasizing manufacturing. Prior to Perkin, seldom did an individual engage in both worlds. William Perkin did. He invented a use for coal tar by discovering the chemical make-up necessary for producing a fast dye on wool and silk and named it mauve. Aniline was the basis for the dye. At age 18, Perkin patented mauve and went began manufacturing shortly thereafter.

He had a tough time getting it off the ground. His fellow chemists routinely admonished him for trying to do both, as scientist-inventors simply were not industrialists in those days. Perkin finally realized the best way to induce the fashion industry and textile companies to order mauve dyestuff was to sell the public on desiring this “lilac” color.

Garfield tells the reader that Perkin chose to name his color mauveine, after the French name for the non-fast color made by natural dyes, as French designers were admired for their fashion sense and were trend setters. He states that the English and Scottish calico printers never paid attention until France did. Emperor Napoleon III asked his wife Eugenie to promote the French trade by wearing garments made in Paris and Lyon. Since she felt mauve matched her eyes, this became her color, and she did indeed influence the rest of the world desire for it. So did Queen Victoria, who chose to wear a lilac-colored velvet gown to her daughter’s wedding in 1858, further increasing the call for mauve.  

Garfield states Perkin became a wealthy man, producing synthetic versions of mauve, magenta, pink, green, blue, fuchsine, yellow, red, violet and brown. By mid-1859, dye paste and concentrated mauve were exported to Scotland and England, where it was all the rage until 1861. In 1860, he received “honors” from the Societe Industrielle de Mulhouse for his methods.

Mauve became a color associated with mourning in the 1863, when Princess Alexandra wore it before her marriage to the Prince of Wales Albert Edward, eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Mauve become known as a color for the half-mourning.
Queen Victoria also wore it years after the death of her husband, Albert, who died in 1861.

By 1869, mauve was all but forgotten. As alizarin, a synthesized madder dye, had replaced it. Perkin had been involved in the development and discovery, too. Many scientists were desperately trying to synthesize madder root because it was the most-used natural dye. Garfield describes the frenzy, and it turns out the process we use today was discovered by three scientists at the same time -- two German partners and Perkin. The Patent was awarded to the Germans in June 1869, which was one day before Perkin got the patent. They worked out a fair agreement, which gave Perkin the rights in England, and the Germans at BASF the rights in mainland Europe and USA. However, the Franco-Prussian war held up production at BASF. So, Perkin & Sons produced all of it for almost a year.

Perkin and his discoveries eventually gained the highest regard from the scientific community, including his foresight to enter into manufacturing. There is a Perkin Award given in his name to this day. He received many honors and accolades at the 50-year Jubilee celebration of his discovery. He died suddenly of natural causes at 69, in July 1907.

The book is actually in two parts. Part two describes more about the many and varied uses of synthetic dyes as time went on. One of the most interesting ones to me was how using synthetic dyes with a microscope helped scientists to discover DNA and chromosomes.

Garfield also writes about Perkin's sons and wife. The face of the Statue of Liberty is based his wife's face. His sons continued scientific study in the dye field.

Final observations about the book from my perspective:

1) Neither New England nor U.S. mills are discussed.

2) It is hard at times to follow the chronology, in terms of dates and times, as Garfield jumps around.

3) Because it is written by an Englishman, there are language differences. For example, all money is expressed in British pounds, as are measurements. Geographic areas within the European countries are described only by the city or town name, not where they are or were located.


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© 2001 - 2015 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted. Phone: 805-649-182

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