To die for: The Science History Institute shows us how we dye

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In 1864 Princess Eugenie of France attended the Paris Opera wearing a dress of such vibrant green that it made the newspapers the next day. It was a color that had not been possible through natural dyes, only by a new synthetic dye that would later be called Paris Green. It became a fashion rage.

Unfortunately, Paris Green contained arsenic, which poisoned laborers in textile factories and even wearers of green clothes. It was also used to color wallpaper and bookbindings.

When it became understood that green clothes were causing sickness and skin lesions, and even death, some fashionistas decided they were OK with that: the color was so compelling they found ways to mitigate the risk.

A cartoon that appeared in ”Punch” in 1862 is titled ”The Arsenic Waltz.” Certain dyes of the 1800s, like Paris Green which was made with arsenic, poisoned the people who wore them. (Emma LEE/WHYY)

“If I sweat in the green dress, I’ll vomit. So I’ll only wear it when it’s cold out and I won’t sweat,” said Elizabeth Berry Drago, a curator at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, describing justifications for wearing clothes dyed with arsenic. “We found out that it gives me rashes on my fingers: I’ll wear glove liners.”

“Talk about an illustration of how powerful color is culturally,” she said. “This color is fashionable so people don’t immediately get rid of it.”

Ultimately, Paris Green would be discontinued as a pigment, and re-branded as an insecticide. It got its name not for its royal debut at the Paris Opera, but because it was used to kill rats in the Paris sewer.

Paris green, a dye that contained arsenic, was repackaged as pesticide after it was discovered that it was poisoning the people who wore it. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Drago curated “BOLD: Color from Test Tube to Textile” at the Science History Institute, an exhibition tracking the scientific and cultural revolution created by synthetic dyes, including their impact on Philadelphia, once a major hub of the textile industry.

The first synthetic dye was discovered accidentally. In 1864 an 18-year-old chemist was trying to tease quinine out of coal tar, a black sludge byproduct of coal production. William Perkin discovered his test tubes had turned mauve, a color that had never before been possible in textiles.

William Henry Perkin was 18 when he accidentally discovered the color mauve. He started a dye works and spent the rest of his life working with colors. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Perkin abandoned his quest for quinine and introduced mauve as a commercial dye, which caused a sensation. As more synthetic dyes were developed they offered seemingly unlimited color variations.

“We don’t have every color of the rainbow when it comes to natural dying. There’s saffron for yellow. There’s indigo for blue. There’s a madder for soft reds,” said Drago. “One of my favorite obscure pieces of colonialism trivia: Brazil is named for Brazilwood dye.”

Lisa Berry Drago curated ”BOLD: Color from Test Tube to Textile” at the Science History Institute. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Brazilwood, a native tree to what is now Brazil, was highly prized for its ability to produce a vibrant red pigment. It is named after the Portuguese word for a red glowing ember, “brasa,” and in the 16th century they exported so much of it they named the region after that color.

In the United States the indigo flower became an important commodity crop to make blue dye; it was mostly grown on Southern plantations and often by enslaved people. The petals must be collected by the tens of thousands, fermented for a long period of time to make a dyeing vat, and the dyed fabric will only become blue after a period of oxidation. The process of turning something blue could take months.

  • December 26, 2023
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