Color is everywhere, at least for the 91 percent of us who are not colorblind. Even for those who can’t discern all the variations of the spectrum, there is some color available. It results from the different wavelengths of light reflecting off of surfaces. Colors of all kinds occur in nature, though some, like the green of plants and the blue of the sky, seem to get outsized representation. Color is abundant, but the concept of scarcity of a given color is related to the human desire to impress that color upon objects. Early cave artists made outlines of their hands in ochre, a red-pigmented iron ore. They got other colors from other minerals: yellow from limonite, white from limestone, brown from manganite, black from pyrolusite or carbon. Color could also be had from vegetable sources like flowers and sap, but they were often less permanent. As humans advanced to the point of creating textiles, coloration came into its own, no longer something only used to apply to rock walls or bodies. Dyes of many colors that could leave a permanent mark upon fabric gave value to clothing, making it far more interesting than the browns and tans of natural fiber sources.
Red, blue, green, orange, black, pink—no problem. But there remained one color that was just not available for cloth. Purple. You could see purple on a flower or a butterfly’s wings or at the edge of the rainbow, but no one in those long-ago times had a good purple dye. Somewhere around 3,000 years ago, though, somebody in ancient Phoenicia made a discovery. Located as it was on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, there was easy access to a small marine murex snail, now known as Bolinus brandaris, which produced a mucus that could turn deep purple. The substance wasn’t visible on the snail’s shell, nor did it appear purple in the snail’s flesh, but when secreted as a toxic agent to paralyze prey, it turned purple. Unfortunately, no one snail provided very much of it, so they had to be collected in vast numbers. The snails could be “milked” for their valuable secretions, but were more commonly crushed to access their fleshy bodies. After obtaining particular veins containing the purple-making substance, they were soaked in a salt solution for a few days, and then the mixture was boiled down for another 10 days, reducing it nearly by half. The resulting dye color only formed after a certain amount of exposure to sunlight and oxygen, but apparently had to be kept from excessive sun exposure. In addition, it had to be used immediately upon production, lest it spoil and lose its potency. To give you an idea of the labor this all took, and the effect on the populations of Bolinus, it took ten to twelve thousand of these 2.5- to 3.5-inch long snails to make one gram of dye. Thanks to the difficulty of obtaining the snails and the laborious manufacturing process, the final product was expensive in the extreme—worth well more than its weight in gold.
Production of this rarified material was big business in Tyre, the Phoenician coastal city that gave its name to the dye: Tyrian purple. Fifty-meter-high heaps containing billions of Bolinus shells have been discovered by archaeologists. But however lucrative and industrial the creation of these dyes, the output was minimal, and so only the very richest could afford to buy the dye, or cloth made purple by it. In those days, the very rich were mostly the ruling class, and they grew so fond of purple that some passed edicts proclaiming that purple could only be worn by royalty. Phoenician purple took on the names of royal purple and imperial purple as high-status Greeks and the leaders of Egypt, Persia, and Rome made exclusive use of the color. Though the Islamic conquest of lands in the eastern Mediterranean in the seventh century AD began the decline of the dye’s supply, the specialness of purple persisted, and even as late as the 19th century, royals favored the color. In various other parts of the world, other cultures found marine snails that also produced a purple dye, but in all cases the production was low and the cost high, ensuring its status as a luxury. As one exception to the affluent-only rule, seafood divers in Japan purposely stained their white diving clothes with purple from some of their catch, in the belief that it held special powers. Even as the world progressed from a handful of vast empires into a proliferation of nations, the astronomical cost of purple was reflected in the fact that no national flags were designed to contain the color. It would have been far too expensive to dye any kind of mass-produced textile that color, even the proud national symbol.
Inevitably, though, purple would lose its nearly unobtainable status as chemistry and science advanced. In 1856, a chemist named William Henry Perkin was trying to come up with a way to make synthetic quinine to increase the supply of that anti-malarial medicine. Like purple dye, quinine had been previously obtained from a natural source, in this case, the bark of the cinchona tree. Cheaper and easier methods of production were needed. In the midst of his experiments, Perkin accidentally produced a substance whose color would have dazzled a Roman emperor, and it functioned well as a dye. Though only 18 at the time, Perkin realized the value of his serendipitous find, and set about producing it in quantity. Suddenly, purple could be had for a reasonable price, and though it was no longer more valuable than gold, Perkin’s patent on the dye he christened “mauvine,” eventually made him a wealthy man. Nowadays, purple is just as commonly seen as any color of the rainbow, but it still has a certain quality of richness, and not everyone has the chutzpah to wear it. As for the flags of nations, they have stuck with their non-purple designs of old, with the current exceptions of Nicaragua and Dominica.
Surprisingly, the massive, long-term harvesting of the purple-making snails didn’t wipe them off the face of the earth. They can still be found in their native habitat, and though they are edible, demand for them now is not high. The souls of billions of Bolinus snails look down upon their now affordable hue, perhaps wishing Perkin’s discovery had been made earlier.
Would you like to learn more about the region where purple rose to royal heights? Check out this National Geographic map of the Holy Land, available from Maps.com. Click here:
source: Wikimedia Commons: Thesus (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: Even in 1937, King George VI of England wore purple to connote status and power.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Sir Gerald Kelly (Public domain)
caption: Sir William Henry Perkin—you can thank him for your affordable purple tied-dyed T-shirt.
source: Wikimedia Commons: unknown (Public domain)
caption: Mardi Gras royalty still rocks the purple.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Derek Bridges (CC by SA 2.0)