Review Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield, 2000, 200 pages.
William Perkin was a young English lad who wanted to be a chemist. However, chemistry was a pure science and his father did not see a future in chemistry (it wasn’t ‘practical’) – why couldn’t he study architecture and go into the family construction business like his big brother?
Fortunately, Will was lucky enough to be in a school that encouraged his pure science interests and he was able to learn with some of the best instructors around… In 1856, he was barely 18 years old when he was ‘playing’ in his personal laboratory attempting to create an artificial version of quinine for the treatment of malaria.
What happened, however, was a result that was just too pretty to be dumped in the trash as a failure. Repeating the process and sharing it with a buddy, he wondered if he could indeed have found a marketable product: a dye – a vivid new color for clothes, drapes, wallpapers, what have you.
He called it mauve.
Once Queen Victoria (and the Empress Eugenie in France) discovered mauve, the concept of must-have NEW and EXCITING colors took off like wildfire. William eventually became Sir William Perkin, a father of industrial chemistry and a very wealthy man.
How it happens and the history of all the other factors* of the times, including commercial competition, environmental and health issues, technological advancements, and the fickle fancy of consumers makes this a fascinating study of a subject we take for granted now.
What color would you like that sweater? Before the late 1800’s, it was an issue of whether or not such colors even existed! At least, the process of recreating colors into dyes. And the process that started it all was due to Mr. Perkin and his use of coal-tar, the sludge left over from burning coal.
And not only color for dyes, but his process helped understand the relationships of molecules and elements and formula which eventually advanced into syntheses for all sorts of products – each year brought new findings and the chemists like to appreciate Sir William Perkin as the guy who started it all. Of course, some would say ‘he sold out’ but his impact on the field of chemistry was more than profound.
Garfield really did his research. He started each chapter with fun and clever quotes of the word mauve throughout history. He gave terrific examples of many aspects of the dye industry both then and now and as a way to explain the wealth of nations. I had no idea the extent and importance of color dyes and the companies that control them. My only complaint would be a few references that were not thoroughly explained – or perhaps I missed it somewhere prior? Anyway, I will accept half the blame on these minor distractions.
This is the kind of book that when you read it, you want to share every interesting tidbit with those around you (and thus bore and distract them from whatever they are doing!)
“Hey Hub! Perkin got his Honorary Oxford degree at the same ceremony that Mark Twain got his for literature!”
“Hey Hub! Remember those annoying BASF commercials years ago when they never ever said what the heck they did? WE DON’T MAKE THE PRODUCTS, WE JUST MAKE THEM BETTER.” huh? They were one of the very first commercial dye companies.”
“Hey Hub! This dude’s son did some great chemistry stuff, too. He invented a way to make cheap flannel cloth flame-retardant.”
“Hey Hub! Cheap dye companies didn’t rinse out enough of the arsenic and since they were cheaper, poorer people bought the fabrics and since they didn’t bathe very often, they would DIE when they sweat and thus arsenic absorbed into their bodies! DOUBLE WHAMMY – another example of how the poor are taken advantage of for the sake of profit.
Oh, just go read the book.
Very pretty, isn’t it!
notice: I can’t find the link to the Science Book Challenge – perhaps their server is down? Will fix as soon as I am able.
naff – Considered to be poor taste; Bad; tasteless; Something that is poorly thought out, doesn’t really work, or is otherwise not very good. “No more sauve mauve creations turning naff pink in daylight.”
parvenu – nouveau-riche: characteristic of someone who has risen economically or socially but lacks the social skills appropriate for this new position. “By today’s standards, his family would be judged parvenu middle class.”
mordant – black: harshly ironic or sinister; “black humor”; “a grim joke”. A reagent, such as tannic acid, that fixes dyes to cells, tissues, or textiles or other materials.
pittical – a deep blue
too many other fun color names – it boggles the brain!
* A friend who had just read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, told me that many wildly successful people were not only intelligent but also at pivotal points in time and space and opportunity. Just from knowing that, I would make a bet that Sir Perkin would easily fit in Gladwell’s book as an Outlier. The right time, the right place, the right ambition to exploit it all.