Heather's Reviews > Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World

Mauve by Simon Garfield
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Mar 28, 2012

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bookshelves: nonfiction
Read from March 28 to 31, 2012

Garfield's writing style is mostly matter-of-fact, with a few flashes of oddness or romance, which I wanted more of: I liked, for example, that he gave the recipe for Perkin's dye alongside a recipe for Nesselrode pudding (served at a jubilee dinner in New York celebrating Perkin's invention). I wanted more of that: my absolute favorite thing in the book was the long list of where color-names come from (chemicals flowers, places, fruits, common things, etc.).

Which isn't to say that the central story of Perkin, who made his discovery by accident at the age of eighteen, wasn't interesting in itself. Perkin studied and worked in the lab of August Wilhelm von Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry, and one of Hofmann's interests was showing "how well the study of chemistry could produce the artificial synthesis of natural substances" (29). One of the substances he wanted to synthesize was quinine, which was in huge demand for the prevention and treatment of malaria; Perkin's discovery, which came about at home over the Easter holiday because of his curiosity about the results of a failed experiment, was not synthetic quinine, but rather a way of treating coal-tar to make a distinctive powerful and color-fast purple dye with aniline as its base. Mauve inspired many imitators: other aniline dyes in similar shades and other shades were developed, and were manufactured (especially in Germany) on a huge scale, bringing more and brighter colors to more consumer goods.
And aniline dyes like Perkin's mauve weren't just used to dye textiles: they were used to stain cell and tissue samples, and were useful in staining and therefore identifying and studying specific bacteria associated with specific diseases. They even were the starting point for chemotherapy, as scientists realized that the dyes weren't just staining the cells but reacting with matter in them.

I wasn't so into the parts of this book about industry (I especially could have done without all the bits about corporate buyouts and mergers) though I did like some of the more lively bits, particularly a section on the Victorian-era dye industry's publicity battle. As more and more people made aniline dyes in various colors, worries about health risks grew: some colors used arsenic, which could pollute local water supplies and might also cause skin irritations; some doctors and concerned citizens claimed that even arsenic-free colors were irritating because of the coal-tar itself - especially in cheaper dyes that were less color-fast than Perkin's mauve. There was a push to encourage a switch back to natural dyes, but that didn't really make financial/logistical sense, and besides, the manufacturers of artificial dyes pushed back. I love this: "Williams Bros and Ekin, from Hounslow, Middlesex, mentioned that an analytical chemist from London called Antony Nesbitt fed his rabbits for many weeks on oats which had been steeped in strong solutions of magenta, violet, brown and orange. The rabbits seemed to like it, and stayed white" (108).

Mostly I liked the bits of this book about the history of dyes and dying: I knew that cochineal was made from insects, for example, but had no idea that it took "about 17,000 dried insects for a single ounce of dye" (40). And I'd heard of Tyrian purple, but I loved this passage about it:
Pliny described how, during autumn and winter, the shellfish were crushed, salted for three days and then boiled for ten. The resultant colour resembled 'the sea, the air and a clear sky,' suggesting that Tyrian purple defined not one particular shade but a rich spectrum from blue to black. The dying process varied from port to port, and might have water or honey mixed in to achieve different hues. (39-40)

That's what I wanted more of: color as product/process and color as evocative, bits of shell conjuring sea and air and sky.

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