Carrie Bengston Reviews Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World

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Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield

Review by Carrie Bengston

This simply titled book was named after a colour ‘invented’ by William Henry Perkin. Perkin’s accidental discovery of what became the world’s first mass produced synthetic dye, and the social and industrial changes it brought to to the world are the focus of Simon Garfield’s book published in 2001.

This tale was written when Garfield’s son brought home a chemistry book from school. Garfield read Perkin’s story of discovery and was determined to find out more. The result is Mauve. His inspiration, besides the remarkable story of aniline dyes and the era of chemical manufacture they ushered in, was author Dava Sobel’s book Longitude, about Harrison’s clock that for the first time allowed sailors to sail safely by knowing their locations. Garfield said that like Longitude, Perkin’s story is about ‘small things that meant a lot’. And that made it a story worth telling.

So, who was William Perkin? He was a precocious young scientist aged 18, trying to make quinine from coal tar in a lab while his boss was away. But he got the formula wrong. The chemical he accidentally made in 1856, later named mauveine, stained his white shirt purple and wouldn’t wash out. Far from being a bug, this was a feature, and turned out to the first synthetic dye ever made.

Prior to this, fabric dyes came from nature – crushed flowers, mashed minerals and, in the case of purple, ground up molluscs. They were labour intensive to collect, the colour was hard to extract and when used as a dye for fabrics, the colour washed out.

When news of the intensely colourful, cheap, and durable purple aniline dye emerged, the fashion world went crazy for it. Purple had been regal and expensive and suddenly it wasn’t. Mauve dyed using mauveine was suddenly the most desirable colour for fashionable ladies and in the 1890s reached the peak of its popularity. Demand for dye was high as the large hoop skirts of the time required large amounts of fabric to be coloured. Women’s wear was transformed from drab to dramatic as new dyes were developed by Perkin and manufactured in his new and expanding factory. He patented mauveine, successfully marketed his dyes and became wealthy.

Beyond the discovery, Garfield’s book describes the dye-making industry Perkin started. It traces the fortunes of his business, including its decline. Today, coal tar based chemicals are the basis for pharmaceuticals and other products.
The location of Perkin’s chemical factory was in London, near the present day Wembley stadium. Garfield toured the stadium in 2005 near its completion and was pleased to see the colour mauve featured prominently in the design – a nod to its former neighbour William Perkins and his amazing discovery 160 years ago.

I have recommended this book over the years to many people – to business development managers in research organisations to illustrate how science can spawn an industry, to friends with an interest in fashion, fabric or dyes to extol the benefits of chemistry. And to people who just love a great read about science and history.

Garfield has gone on to write other books with a less sciencey bent. Just My Type about fonts, To The Letter about correspondence and many more. He does his research very thoroughly and is a great storyteller. But Mauve in particular is a classic for science book lovers. I highly recommend it.

carrie-bengstonCarrie Bengston

Carrie Bengston is a science communicator with Children’s Cancer Institute. A bit of a tragic science nerd, she loves to see research findings reach a wider public and enjoys making that happen. She’s been a member of a book club in her community that reads fiction, occasionally fiction with a science bent, hence this book review.

Twitter: @cbbengston
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