Victorian Fabric Dyes

Despite my main interest being the period between World Wars One and Two, I’ve been getting increasingly interested in the Victorian Era.  There’s always been a bit: I love watching adaptations of Dickens, Gaskell, Burnett; The Forsyte Sage is one of my favorite miniseries and books (not written in the period, but the first two parts take place during it); I loved The Young Victoria.  After Christmas I picked up three or four books on Victoria and the Era, and I’m working through one of them currently.  In the book, the author takes you through a day in the life of a Victorian, covering different classes and different years in the period.  There is a lengthy discussion of changes in fashion and the new colors that were created at this time due to the discovery of chemical dyes.

Purpur-mit-AusfaerbungDyeing clothes has been around for millennia.  Dyes were made from plants and animals.  The first popular fabric dye was a purple made from crushed mollusk shells; it was the most expensive dye ever, literally costing its weight in gold.  By about the year 300, instead of things that actually made purple, people were using blue and red to make purple; this was more affordable, and, well, the mollusk had gone extinct.  Late in the fourth century, the Emperor of Byzantium issued a decree that only the imperial family could wear purple.  You could be killed if you went against the decree.

The next popular dye was red.  In Europe, madder root was used to make red.  In South America, Brazilwood was used for a brighter red.  In Central America, cochineal, an insect, was used.  In the fifteenth century, “Cardinal’s Purple” was used for the clergy, but was actually a crimson red made from a different insect related to cochineal; cochineal was brought back to Europe around 1519.  In the seventeenth century, it was found that adding tin to this made for a deeper, more intense red; this was used for the British Army’s coats and for those bright red hunting jackets you see.

Now we’re finally caught up to where dyes were at coming into the Victorian Era.

mauveIn the 1850s, William Henry Perkins was trying to cure malaria by creating artificial quinine.  In the process, Perkins discovered aniline dyes.  Aniline dyes were “a byproduct created from distilling tar left from coal that was ‘cooked’ to produce gas for commercial use” (1).  Perkins created the “first mass produced chemical dye” (2) – mauveine.  At first Perkins called it Tyrian Purple after the Roman purple, but since this was a real thing, that name was dropped.  Next the color was called mauve, after a flower, but personally Perkins called it mauveine.  (This mauveine is a different shade than modern mauves, so that’s why that name is still used. (3))

2006BB4781Mauveine wasn’t the first aniline dye – the first dyes from coal tar were blues and reds – but Perkins was the first to really pursue aniline dyes.  There were issues at the beginning: the earliest mauveine dyes weren’t very colorfast, fading in the sun; they couldn’t dye cotton – the most popular fabric at the time – only wool and silk; creating aniline dyes was incredibly expensive.  Perkins experimented though and found that tannins (the same things found in wines and whatnot) helped the dye work on cotton.  He also found a way to produce the dyes much more cheaply; he found his own dyer and built his own factory. (4)

Around this same time, the Empress Eugenie decided she really loved wearing purple.  In 1858, Queen Victoria wore a pale purple to her daughter’s wedding.  Purples, of all shades, were on the rise.  In 1859, Punch magazine was joking about the “mauve measles”.  After mauve went out of fashion, there were reds, browns, other purples, yellows, blues, and greens.  Perkins kept up with the changing fashions, coming up with new colors: dahlia, Britania violet (a deep blue), Perkin’s green, aniline black, and others (5).

Aniline dyes were very popular.  Many of the colors were bright (though not all were; aniline blacks were incredibly popular) and the new dyes didn’t fade in the sun or rinse out in the wash.  Natural dyes were more pale, and would fade or wash out over time; the market for natural dyes just collapsed.

scheeles green.jpgAniline dyes also were safer than some of the older dyes.  As mentioned with purples, greens could only be made by mixing blues and yellows until the late 1700s.  In 1775 Carl Wilhelm Scheele created a bright, colorfast green by mixing copper and arsenic.  Scheele’s Green was used for everything from wallpaper and paintings to clothing.  It looked good in natural light and the new gas lighting.  It was used for the fake flowers that were so popular.  It was everywhere.  It could also be dangerous; it did have arsenic in it after all.  Aniline greens took over from the arsenic dyed greens in the 1870s.

(Honestly though, these arsenic dyes weren’t as dangerous as they’ve been made out to be – especially not the greens.  The most dangerous arsenic dyes were red and black, and possibly blue.  Green got the bad rap probably mostly from the fake flowers it was used on.  Unless you had very sensitive skin, or allergies to the metals in them, fabric dyes probably wouldn’t really hurt you.  The people that suffered the most from arsenic dyes were the people that created the dyes and the dyed items.  The worries about arsenic dyes were more likely about “Victorian morality and condemnation of fashion and female vanity” than anything else (6).)

mens dressing gown.jpgBy the late nineteenth century nearly all colors could be created with aniline dyes.  Not everyone approved of chemical dyes though.  By 1900, the Shah of Persia had even banned the dyes from being used in making rugs.  If someone did make a rug with chemical dyes, the carpets were taken and the guilty party was fined at double the value and possibly even burned in public.  Aniline dyes helped pave the way for modern dyes.

So that’s a brief telling of the evolution of fabric dyes, and Victorian chemical dyes.  I didn’t find quite as much as I would have liked (I do have a whole book about the creation of mauve, but I haven’t read it yet, and that’s still limited in scope), but I found it pretty interesting.  Besides, those pretty, crazy colors!

1 – Fabric Dye: Dyeing to be Fashionable

2, 3, 4, 5 – Terminology: What are aniline dyes? (or, the history of mauve and mauveine)

6 – Drop Dead Gorgeous: A TL;DR Tale of Arsenic in Victorian Life

3 thoughts on “Victorian Fabric Dyes

  1. Pingback: Historical Sustainability Analysis. – Demii Christodoulou

  2. I recommend you go on YouTube and watch the Timeline documentary entitled “Hidden Killers Of The Victorian Home”. It explains exactly why Scheele’s Green and other arsenic dyed are dangerous, and how much arsenic was actually left in things like wallpaper and other items found throughout the household. It’s not always just the ingredients that which makes something deadly, sometimes it’s also the applications and situations the ingredients are in.


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