Trivia Teaser

Which of these is a poetic name for Ireland?


A matter of mauve


By Christine Lovatt

Only 150 years ago, fabric was coloured with mainly plant dyes, which meant that tints were limited to earthy reds, blues, yellows and greens, browns and blacks, and they mostly faded after a few weeks!

What changed all that was young chemistry student William Perkins working in a London hospital, trying to find a substitute for quinine from coal tar. Quinine was the only known treatment for malaria, so it was a very worthy pursuit.

However, all he ended up with was a purplish powder. But instead of throwing it away, this smart young man tested its properties and discovered that when mixed with water, it dyed cloth. He called the colour mauve.

Apart from the plant dyes mentioned above, some dyes were obtainable from animal sources, but they were expensive. For instance, purple dye at that time came from the glandular mucus of snails, difficult to extract and affordable only to the very wealthy. In fact, purple was associated with wealth and royalty. (In the days of Ancient Rome, only the Emperor and his household were allowed to wear purple.)

Luckily for Perkins, the raw material for his dye, coal tar, was a waste product of the gas lighting in the London streets and so was in plentiful supply. Another lucky stroke for him was that Queen Victoria wore mauve to her daughter’s wedding and the Empress Eugenie of France favoured the colour too, so that mauve was suddenly the in colour.

  Franz Xavier Winterhalter - 'Portrait of Empress Eugenie', 1894

Franz Xaver Winterhalter - 'Portrait of Empress Eugenie', 1894

William and his father took out a patent and went into production of mauve cloth. You may think at this stage that Perkins, instead of finding a cure for malaria, was wasting his talents dyeing cloth. But he was making history. He had accidentally produced the first ever synthetic dye. Many more dyes from coal tar were discovered and were used in medicine to stain and see microbes that had previously been invisible.

Why did Perkins call his new colour mauve? It was the French name for the mallow plant, whose stems were purple. Marshmallows, those favourite treats of campers, were originally made from sap from the root of the mallow plant, since replaced by gelatin. Perkin’s dye is known as anil, a word you may have seen in crosswords, where it is clued as ‘purple dye’.

The 1860s were called the mauve decade. Imagine making a discovery, at the age of 18, that would go on to provide brilliant colours as well as great medical advances – and affect fashion as well!

Happy puzzling!

Christine Lovatt

37 Responses to

A matter of mauve

DebG said:
November 11, 2012 at 11:40 PM

I love the way the jacarandas and the silky oaks flower at the same time in Sydney. The mixture of purple (or should I say mauve) and orange is really striking. I recall seeing it all along the train line from Central to the Mountains as you look out across the suburbs.

November 12, 2012 at 11:12 AM

Small point, but it's Perkin not Perkins.

MaudFitch said:
November 13, 2012 at 12:52 AM

Traditionally, in south east Queensland, the mauve jacaranda blossom heralds the start of Uni end-of-year exams. A beautiful sight which fills students full of dread. Has anyone mentioned that these trees are natives of South Africa?

MaudFitch said:
November 13, 2012 at 1:06 AM

Apparently jacaranda trees originate from South America. Sorry about that!

November 13, 2012 at 6:50 PM

OMG MaudFitch, any studies where exams 'fill you full of dread' are really not suited to you. Rethink your career.

November 13, 2012 at 6:53 PM

I quote, 'If you love your job, you will never work a day in your life'... and the exams will not torture you.

MaudFitch said:
November 13, 2012 at 11:38 PM

Wise words, Jafa. I guess Uni students will have last minute nerves before an exam with or without jacaranda blossom! To quote a proverb "Whatever is good to know is difficult to learn".