We live in a world so oversaturated with colors that it’s difficult to imagine a time before our walls bore yellow paint, our shirts blue stripes, or our bed sheets vibrant patterns.
But the world’s widespread embrace of mass-produced color is a relatively recent development; much of its advance is owed to the mistake of one amateur 18-year-old chemist working in his shoddy home laboratory in London. Sir William Perkin’s accidental discovery of the color mauve in 1856—and with it, the first aniline dye—transformed the world of fashion and influenced everything from food to photography, from medicine to military research.
Perkin did not set out to turn the world purple. In 1856, he was attempting to help cure malaria while studying at the Royal College of Chemistry. More specifically, he sought out to use thick, oily coal tar to artificially produce quinine, which, back then, was the sole, expensive cure for the disease. Perkin’s experiment accidentally yielded a bright crimson substance. He mixed it further, and it turned into a black goo. As he cleaned it out with alcohol, it turned a lustrous purple hue, which he used to stain a piece of silk cloth. Such was the first accidental use of modern synthetic dye.
Before Perkin’s discovery, dyes were produced from natural sources such as plants, insects, and minerals. These dyes were expensive and cumbersome to make, and faded quickly after laundering or sun exposure. Thus, wearing color was an unmistakable symbol of high economic status; the average person in the 1850s was typically clad in dull beiges and browns.