The Night Thread of Mauve (8/23)

The colour mauve was created in 1856 by British chemist William Henry Perkin, then an eighteen-year-old student at the Royal College of Chemistry (now the Imperial College) in London.

Perkin was attempting to synthesize quinine, which was used to treat malaria, but found something else instead: the first synthetic organic dye. As The Guardian recounts:

He got the molecule wrong, but found that the oily dark sludge he produced dyed his shirt a brilliant purple. He also found that the colour didn’t fade much on washing or in light, and realised that artificial dyes would greatly reduce the cost of everyday clothing.

Perkin originally named the dye Tyrian purple, after a historical red-purple dye. The dye was renamed mauve after it was first marketed in 1859, a French word used to describe the stems of the mallow plant. (Mauve is also sometimes called ‘mallow.’)

A piece of silk dyed mauve by Perkin in 1860.

Mauve first truly became popular once Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, started wearing similar colours in 1857; Perkin soon started a factory to produce the dye. The colour became phenomenally popular in London between 1859 and 1861:

The weekly journal All the Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens, described a scene never witnessed before or since. Mauve was everywhere: streaming on hair ribbons, waving from car riages, jamming up railway stations on the newly fashionable crinolines, “all flying countryward, like so many migrating birds of purple paradise”. 

Perkin’s discovery of mauve arguably changed the course of fashion. His dye didn’t fade after being exposed to light, and was fairly inexpensive to create. The creation of mauve led to the development of other synthetic organic chemicals as well.

Perkin was knighted in 1906. In 2007, Imperial College London updated its academic dress to include purple elements in his honour.