How Purple Color Changed Society

The discovery of the purple started with a teenager who was trying to obtain a chemical drug.

No, this is not a Netflix serial!

This discovery means not only the discovery of the way to obtain a colour but also the way such discovery changed society, textile industry and how it was the origin of the modern chemical industry and important pharmaceutical companies like BASF and BAYER… It also meant a change in life style… If you wish to know the reasons, keep on reading!

William Henry Perkin was only 15 years old (1855) when he was admitted in the Royal Chemistry College (part of the London Imperial College at present). When he was 17, he became a pupil of the famous August Wilhelm von Hoffman. This chemist was looking for synthetizing quinine, a component used against malaria very demanded at those times by people living in the colonies. Quinine was the unique known and effective treatment against malaria and was obtained from a Peruvian tree called “quino”… but it was highly expensive!

This was precisely the main reason why William Perkin tried to synthetize quinine during the 1856 Holy Week, at his home, when von Hoffman was visiting his family. Perkin tried it using an own idea: to oxidise aniline… But the experiment became into a complete failure…

When he proceeded to dilute unintentionally the anilline, he was surprised with the more intense and brighter color ever comparable with others already known. It was the first synthetic dye and colour was similar to blackberry, mauve or dark violet and was finally called Perkin Purple.

Until that moment, colours were a high classes privilege as they had the enough money to pay for such privilege as the dyes were of natural origin and very expensive. And Perkin’s purple was precisely and unintentionally one of the most difficult to obtain. Purple was then associated to royalty and religion and not only meant a novelty on fashion as well as an unexpected change in society.

Purple dyes already existed in the market but they were expensive. Around 1830 decade, a similar colour called “murexide” (ammonium purpurate) was very popular but very few people knew it was obtained from some Peruvian birds’ excrement. Other purple dye was extracted from a very rare Scandinavian lichen. French, considered as the advancers of fashion, had a special denomination for the purple colour: pale violet, mauve…

Nothing of this was important for Perkin because if he was able to synthesize a colour in a laboratory, such colour would become cheaper and could be used by everybody. And he did it, massively! He was only 18 when the patented the idea and did what only a teenager could do: he settle is own company to manufacture the purple. In addition to his discovery, Perkin improved the techniques in the industrial process and at 21 he became millionaire.

This was the “birth” of Perkin’s & Sons, as manufacturers of a dye which was richer in colour and more permanent than the previous ones. A full success! A few time afterwards other coloured dyes, such as green, red, blue, black and also purple started to be obtained from coal tar. The colour liberation had started, the bright colours were no more a privilege of the rich people and the codification of people through the using of colours was about to disappear. Around 1860, colours were a question of taste, only!