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Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That…

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World (2000)

by Simon Garfield

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6911921,410 (3.62)34
In 1856 eighteen-year-old English chemist William Perkin accidentally discovered a way to mass-produce color. In a "witty, erudite, and entertaining" (Esquire) style, Simon Garfield explains how the experimental mishap that produced an odd shade of purple revolutionized fashion, as well as industrial applications of chemistry research. Occasionally honored in certain colleges and chemistry clubs, Perkin until now has been a forgotten man. "By bringing Perkin into the open and documenting his life and work, Garfield has done a service to history."—Chicago Tribune "[A]n inviting cocktail of Perkin biography, account of the dye industry and where it led, and social and cultural history up to the present."—American Scientist "Garfield leaps gracefully back and forth in time, as comfortable in the Victorian past as he is in the brave new world of petrochemicals and biochemistry."—Kirkus Reviews starred review. "[T]he delight of this book is seeing parallels to present-day trends."—"New York Times Book Review… (more)

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» See also 34 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
My first book by Simon Garfield. His approach is facts embellished with imagination to lay the context for his subject matter. I enjoyed this book and learned a lot about a subject I might never have pursued. ( )
  beebeereads | Feb 9, 2017 |
This is why I love Garfield so much. This book is interesting, funny, moving, and very well written. Garfield takes something that I knew next to nothing about and does all that with it. Garfield is a wonderful writer. He makes the very technical world of chemistry and makes it readable. In addition to uncovering Perkin and his discoveries, he interviews people in the different industries that were affected by his work. Going from birth to his death Garfield then goes beyond Perkin into the future that he helped create. The way that Garfield blends the past and the present to make one story is brilliant and just like him. I love the way that he makes the subjects of his books so normal by showing how it intercedes with our own lives.

I give this book a Five out of Five stars. I get nothing for my review and I borrowed this book from my local library. ( )
  lrainey | May 25, 2016 |
A slim but broad-reaching tale of the beginning of artifiical dyes. At the time Perkin made his discovery that coal-tar could be transformed into mauve dye, chemistry was thought of like philosophy--a gentleman's pursuit with no worldly or industrial value. Perkin's discovery and subsequent ability to make money off of it changed that perception forever. By the time he died, chemistry was a roaring industry.

The history of artificial dyes is a fascinating one. Before Perkin discovered mauve, all dyes came from natural sources like plants or sea creatures. The array of colors was small, particularly for the poor. But chemical processes created not only a wide variety of colors, but made them available to everyone. Soon, bright, vibrant colors were a sign of being low-class instead of rich. Trying to cut corners in the chemical process led to colors that bled (even upon people's skin as they wore their clothes), or colors that were actually poisonous. Bright green was particularly likely to be rife with arsenic (could this be part of why the poison cake in Peter Pan is colored bright green?). Meanwhile, analine dyes were being used to discover the microbial world and eventually, even treat diseases. The tale of how mauve came to be is a fascinating one, and fairly well encapsulated herein. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
More chemistry than I cared for. ( )
  lkarr | Feb 6, 2016 |
If anyone epitomized the societal changes the Victorians hoped to make, it was William Perkin. Born in the East End of London one year after Victoria came to the throne, he was not off to an auspicious start. Luckily for him, his father had steady work as a carpenter and was successful enough to employ others. This meant William was able to stay in school and go on to the progressive City of London School in Cheapside. This school was critical to Perkin's development, as it taught chemistry, an elective subject costing extra money and deemed to be next to useless.

Although two institutes in Glasgow taught practical chemistry, Oxford and Cambridge only included it for historical purposes in other science classes. Germany, by contrast, was making huge advances in the science. There were those in England who thought it was time to follow suit. Led by Prince Albert, a group funded and established the Royal College of Chemistry, headed by the German August Hofmann. This was just before William finished school. His chemistry teacher convinced Perkin Senior that this new institute was the place for his son.

Hofmann had to quickly prove to doubting English sponsors that chemistry was a useful pursuit. One of his goals to accomplish this was to create synthetic quinine. At that time, plant based quinine from Bolivia and Peru was the only effective treatment for malaria, a disease whose cause wasn't known, that killed millions around the world each year. Perkin was selected as Hofmann's assistant.

In Perkin's words:
I was attempting to convert an artificial base into the natural alkaloid quinine, but my experiment, instead of yielding the colourless quinine, gave a reddish powder. With a desire to understand this particular result, a different base of more simple construction was selected, viz. aniline, and in this case obtained a perfectly black product. This was purified and dried, and when digested with spirits of wine gave the mauve dye.

Perkin had been working in a lab at home. He was eighteen years old. What he had done was create a brilliant colour fast aniline dye. Knowing nothing about dyes or cloth manufacture, he sought advice from a dye works in Scotland. He was clever enough to patent his discovery immediately. Once again, timing worked for Perkin. The textile industry was the largest in Britain and was booming. Plants and animals were the only sources of dyes, yielding inconsistent results and guaranteeing eventual fading of colour. Manufacturers would welcome a proven colourfast dye.

Perkin took a huge leap. He left the Royal College and established a small commercial dye manufacturing plant, facing much academic derision for going from pure to applied chemistry. However, the synthetic dye he produced revolutionized textile production.

Mauve took over the fashion world. The Empress Eugénie wore it often. Victoria wore it to her daughter's wedding in 1858. By 1870, in his early thirties, Perkin was worth £100,000. Education and science had made a true Victorian man. The craze for mauve had passed, but by then Perkin had found a synthetic replacement for madder, the plant base for half the world's reds. Perkin eventually sold his company, but continued to be feted by industry and science.

Garfield's book ranges well beyond Perkin's life. He gives a brief overview of the colour industry, including the rise of Pantone, the company that determines what colours your paint, cosmetics, clothes, car and appliances will be three years from now. He spends time on patent laws and the way German science was able to outpace that of other European countries in the years leading up to World War I. Should you be interested in tracing the merger history of various chemical and pharmaceutical companies in the twentieth century, that's here too.

Garfield does tie all these threads together, but the thesis that Perkin changed the world seemed somewhat strained. The discovery and manufacture of aniline dyes changed colour irrevocably, but to attribute the use of these dyes in say tissue staining directly to Perkin, seems farfetched. That seems more like a natural evolution in the use of a product, but Garfield uses this and many other examples to expand a serviceable biography into a considerably longer book than required.
3 vote SassyLassy | Jan 14, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
"focuses on Perkin as a pioneer, taking research from the burgeoning field of academic chemistry and applying it to industry."
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Despite his immense wealth, Sir William Perkin seldom travelled abroad.
Sugar Ray Leanord slipped out of his red and black Ferrari Boxer Berlinetta, strode through the front door of Jamesons restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland, and made his way to the bar. Leonard always seems to be the handsomest man in the room, especially when someone calls his name and he flashes that dazzling smile, and on this August afternoon he looked as if he had stepped right out of the pages of GQ.
He wore a mauve cardigan, a light mauve shirt with the cuffs folded meticulously over the sweaters' cuffs, mauve suspenders embroidered with figures of Cupid.
'I feel great, I really do,' Leonard said. - Former World Welterweight Boxing Champion Sugar Ray Leonard, profiled in Sports Illustrated, 1986
Wandered in the town, to the Museum and Zoo . . . Reconstructions of Hausa and Sanghay villages - combination of indigo and pale calabash. Hunchback boy with staff and bowl and mauve purple jumper stretched like a landscape over his totally deformed body . . . A restaurant in a garden. I drank a beer on a red spotted cloth-covered table. Mosquitoes bit the hard parts of my fingers. - Bruce Chatwin in Niber, 1971, from Photographs and Notebooks
She said she was going to do it, and by golly,on Thursday, she did it. Because she is the first female secretary of state of Missouri, Judi Moriarty changed the color of the state manual to...mauve.
For those who don't know, mauve is a delicate shade of purple.
'I wanted a color that represents me and made a statement,' Moriarty said when introducing the new state manual. 'It's in good taste, and it has a lot of beauty.' - St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1994
Patrick mixed paints - a delicate shadowy mauve, a scarlet, a rich blue, a pale sharp green. The paintings, when they arrived, were done suddenly and fast. I watched, from inside my head. Patrick would always smile apologetically, and both of us would laugh nervously, and then his face would set into a detached, slightly furious look, and he would take a stab at the cnavas, and then a rush.
A square head appeared, and a decorative trellis of flowers. Various faces, shadowed in the delicate mauve, existed for a moment, and then were wiped away. I was fascinated by how the ghosts of the expunged forms continued to exist and to make the subsequent versions more complex and substantial. Purple is Patrick's favorite colour. It is not mine. But I became entranced by the shadowy half-depths of that particular mauve running across the canvas. - A.S. Byatt on being captured by Patrick Heron, Modern Painters, 1998
Knights of old broke each other's ribs, and let out each other's blood, dying happily among a heap of shivered armor, so that their ladies' colours still waved from their helmet, or sopped up the blood oozing from their gaping heart wounds; but you, Mr Perkins [sic], luckier than they, rib unbroken, skull uncracked, can itinerate Regent Street and perambulate the Parks, seeing the colours of thy heart waving on every fair head and fluttering round every cheek! - All the Year Round, September 1859
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