In class this week we learned about the discovery of synthetic dye in 1856, and since I am a fashion design major, I decided to do more research on the history of synthetic dye for fabrics. As we learned in class, synthetic dye was discovered by William Perkin in 1865 by accident. He was trying to create a cure for malaria and accidentally created a purple dye. He was only eighteen years old at the time! He found that the dye could be used to dye silk very easily, and so it became the first synthetic dye. He called the color aniline purple, because it was made using the compound aniline, which was a component of coal tar.
Coal tar was used a lot on the synthetic dye industry. It was a black by-product of gas production when coal was used, which people first though to be gross and useless, but it turned out to have a lot of chemicals in it that could be used to create dyes. It was used to make most synthetic dyes up until only about forty years ago.
Aniline purple was later renamed mauve, or mauveine, which is the name of a French purple mallow flower, because of it’s popularity in France. The dye was very bright when it was first applied, but faded easily, so the mauve we know today is not the same mauve that was created by William Perkin.
Perkin then patented this dye and started to manufacture it on an industrial scale. He set up a factory in Greenford Green, in Middlesex. “Mauve” continued to rise in popularity, especially when it was applied to cotton fabrics. The French Empress wore a dress in the color, and after that even Queen Victoria said it was one of her favorite colors. Perkins retired and sold his business 1874, before he was even 40, and he was “knighted for his contribution to the British chemical industry.” He had made a huge difference in the chemical, fabric, and clothing world by showing that synthetic dyes could be created on a large scale.
However, the next 50 years in Britain were not as prosperous for the dyeing and textile industry. Germany surpassed Britain, becoming the main producer and inventor of synthetic dyes until after the first world war. Even the khaki dye that was used for the British military uniforms during the war had to be secretly imported from Germany.
For the first few years that synthetic dyes were discovered, they were mainly dark, like purples, browns and blacks and some blues. It wasn’t until the discovery of methyl green, in 1872, that brighter, lighter dyes were discovered. Methyl green is still used today. Today, almost the entire textile industry uses synthetic dyes to color their fabrics and clothes.