Purple Story: A "technological" breakthrough (2023)

Purple Story: A "technological" breakthrough (1)

Did you know that the purple dye has the most interesting history of all colors and was eventually developed by humans?

From a natural dye to the affordable synthetic dye we use today, purple dyeing technology has evolved over the centuries. Some of them weren't very successful, others were. Understanding why would certainly help us appreciate the purple clothing we are free to wear today - it didn't come easy!

1570 BC BC: sea snails

According to historians, the Phoenicians were the first to discover purple and use it to dye clothing. The raw material, commonly known asTyrian purple, came mainly from a specific species of sea snail found in the eastern MediterraneanBolinus brandaris(d. h. Purpurfarbstoff-Murex).

The solid color is obtained from the endocrine glands of this species. It would take about 10,000 of these sea slugs to get 1 gram of pigment. The amount of work behind the collection process is unimaginable, so it was very rare at the time. It was an exclusive luxury of aristocrats and clergy, representing wealth, power, and social position. For example, in ancient Rome and the Byzantine Empire, only people of royal blood were allowed to wear purple clothing.

Later, in 1700 B.C. The Phoenicians started trading in purple-dyed wool and established a dye works in Tire (today in Lebanon) - the term "Tyrian purple" was born. As the Greek colonies expanded, this primitive but practical method became more widespread.

16th Century: Insects (ew…)

During the Age of Discovery, many European countries crossed the ocean to explore other parts of the world. When the Spanish arrived in Central America, they discovered that the Incas had crushed a type of insect calledcochineal(e.g. Dactylopius coccus) and apply yourskarminrotblood on the face. These ant-sized insects thrive on cacti and depend on cactus sap. Males have wings, but only females (without wings) have red body fluid. They are very light once dry - 10,000 of them weigh just under a pound.

The Spaniards recognized the commercial value of these insects, so they grew a ton of them in Mexico and shipped the dried insects back to Europe to make pigments—not just dyes, but artistic paints and makeup too. As a result, the European upper class loved it. Although the color doesn't last long, it has a much higher saturation than Rubia tinctorum (common redhead) - an affordable but unsatisfactory source of natural dyes in Europe at the time.

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The Spanish benefited greatly from the cochineal trade. They kept their reproductive technologies and provenance information secret so only they could produce and sell them (at high prices). Europeans had no idea where this beautiful pigment came from. Some thought it was a flower seed, others a fruit. The mystery was only revealed when a botanist smuggled some of these insects out of Mexico.

In many 17th-century portraits, such as the Dutch Golden Age portraits (like Rembrandt's) and Baroque paintings, we can sometimes see purple-red clothing on European figures. Now that we know the secret, it's not hard to guess where the color came from. If they were rich enough to hire painters, they wouldn't have had a hard time paying for and wearing expensively colored clothes.

Before the dried cochineal was imported to the East, China had its own insect calledKerria-Lack(Look up). They are smaller than the ants commonly found on longan, lychee and apple trees - harmful to fruit but great for making cosmetic powders for cheeks and lips (calledRougeorYan Zhiin ancient China). However, the pigments obtained from the resinous secretion of these insects are less luminous than thesecochineal, and the colors vary depending on the tree species. Interesting right?

It's worth noting that these two insects produce dark red rather than purple, only slightly purple, so people have mixed them with indigo blue pigment (obtained from plants like Persicaria tinctorial and Indigofera suffruticosa for centuries) to create a more purple color.

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1757: Lichen and Urine (really???)

After sea snails, insects and plants, people were desperate for a cheaper and more effective way to produce purple pigment. In 1757 a tinsmith named George Gorden was repairing one of his old boilers at a local dyer's shop in London, UK. He noticed that workers used different onesweaveto make natural purple dye very similar to how her grandmother made dyes in the Scottish Highlands, but somehow this method did not become popular and commercialized.

George was inspired. He realized that if he could recreate the process, it would bring him and his family great wealth. Returning home in Leith, he shared his idea with his nephew - Cuthbert Gordon, who happened to be a chemist.

Cuthbert soon found an accessible species of orchid lichen calledRoccella tinctoriawho was wealthy in many areas of Scotland. After a series of chemical experiments, he finally found an ideal, inexpensive new method of making purple dye: first he washed and dried the collected lichen, boiled them in salt water and waited for it to cool, then pissed. in it (a cheap source of ammonia), keep the mixture wet for 3 to 4 weeks, dry, grind into a powder and they turn into a purple dye. Magic!

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After Cuthbert came up with his own version of the purple dye, he quickly filed a patent and dubbed it "Cudbear," similar to his name. He then opened a factory in Edinburgh to manufacture it. Like the Spaniard, he kept the process secret by erecting a three-meter-high wall around the plant and swearing all his employees to secrecy.

However, Cuthbert did not consider the sustainability of lichens, particularly in the cold climate of Scotland. Consumption of lichen for mass production of the dye soon reached 250 tons per year and had to be imported from other countries such as Norway and Sweden. His partner, who was in charge of marketing and sales, also didn't have much passion for the business.

The factory went bankrupt. Deep in debt, Cuthbert tried to find a new investor and set up his second factory in Glasgow, but that didn't work either. He had to sell his stake to pay off his debt. Unlike Thomas Edison, Cuthbert's story did not end well.

1856: Synthesized dye (finally!)

It was Easter 1856 - a hundred years after Cuthbert's discovery. An 18-year-old English student named William Henry Perkin tried to synthesize some quinine (a drug used to treat malaria) in his laboratory at the Royal College of Chemistry in London. When he added potassium dichromate (a strong oxidizing agent) to the aniline sulfate salt, a black, asphalt-like residue appeared in the flask. The experiment failed and Perkin was disappointed.

While attempting to clean the organic residue with alcohol, he accidentally discovered the first synthetic purple dye in human history -lila.

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Perkin found that this purple substance adheres easily to silk and wool, but does not fade easily, and is far more vibrant than any previous plant-derived dyes, making it a perfect new dye. He applied for a patent and was successfully commercialized because it was during the industrial revolution.

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Since then, the purple dye is no longer rare and expensive. With new industrial standards, technologically backward printing and dyeing works were closed and replaced by chemical plants. Intricate craftsmanship has been replaced by mechanized mass production. Purple became available to everyone and quickly became popular around the world.

In today's world, purple is also taking on new meanings: feminism, LGBTQ, and manifestation. It no longer represents aristocracy and wealth.

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