What’s waste got to do with organic chemistry and queen victoria’s mauve dress

Mauveine is a purple coloured dye. Before it was invented purple materials were very rare.

Roman emperors used to wear togas that had been dyed purple. But more than ten thousand molluscs had to be crushed up to get enough purple dye for just one toga.

Purple cloth was so hard to get that owning something purple became the ultimate display of wealth and power and ordinary people could never use it.

All that changed in 1856 when William H. Perkin (then just 18 years old) invented mauveine.

Perkin wasn’t trying to make mauveine. In fact he tried for a long time to make the anti-malaria drug quinine, but never got anywhere.

One of the reactions he tried involved coal-tar and an oxidant. It didn’t give quinine….. just a horrible black mess.

Perkin tried to wash this ‘waste’ down the sink using a little bit of ethanol. To his amazement, the black ‘waste’ dissolved in ethanol to give a beautiful purple solution. Perkin poured some of the solution onto colourless cloth, and when it dried, the material was dyed purple. He had invented mauveine.

Perkin recognised the potential of the dye, and patented it at once.

He set up a factory that made mauveine and became exceedingly wealthy.

For the first time in history, ordinary people could afford to have purple coloured clothes. And paper could be dyed purple too, so companies such as Cadbury’s could wrap there goods in purple paper.

Queen Victoria was so impressed that she wore a mauveine dyed dress to the Royal Exhibition and mauveine became so popular that the 1890’s is often called the mauve decade.

Mauveine was the first ever synthetic dye, and it started the entire organic chemical industry. This industry makes many things we take for granted, including highly coloured clothes. And amazingly, it all started with ‘waste’!

By Chris McErlean, School of Chemistry, University of Sydney

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What’s waste got to do with organic chemistry and queen victoria’s mauve dress