Sunday, November 1, 2020

Weekend Review: Mauve


Mauve / Simon Garfield
London: Faber & Faber, c2000.
224 p.

I first read this book a decade ago, but while reading Fibershed recently, I starting thinking about dyes and natural vs aniline options, local vs. corporate and so on. And that reminded me of this fascinating book all about the origins of aniline dyes, so I picked it up and skimmed through it again. Enjoyable once more! 

It tells the story of William Perkin and his discovery in 1856 of the first successful aniline dye (made from coal tar derivatives) -- the colour 'mauve'. He made this discovery accidentally; what he was really trying to do was to create a synthetic form of quinine to treat the malaria that was still rampant across the British Empire. His willingness to experiment with the actual results lead to mauve.

I always enjoy science history, and this was a good example of a popular science read. But additionally, a large part of Perkin's success was due to the fashion world taking up this colour, leading to competition from French textile makers and fashion designers. I thought that this was an entertaining and thorough book, both times! It focuses on William Perkin, but goes beyond simply his life, his discoveries and his business to show how the new colours (and the new industry) shaped fashion, economies, and even wartime innovations, including explosives.

The writing is clear and relatable, making the life of this young chemist fascinating and the world of academic vs. commercial chemistry actually quite intriguing. Garfield covers the specific science of the dyes, but also the relevance to society as a whole, in so many areas. He also shows how it was both Perkin's actual discovery and his willingness to risk a scientific career on making a commercial success of his colour that changed the way chemistry was perceived, making it a more obvious choice for students who wanted to make money at their work. (Perkin was 18 when he discovered mauve, and his father staked everything to create a factory in which William, his brother Thomas and their father all worked -- and they made a LOT of money.)

Garfield even talks about the environmental effects of this surge in dye-making. He records that the stream outside Perkin's factory would change colour every week, and that a factory in France was convicted of poisoning villagers downstream with arsenic. He follows the industry from the moment that mauve became a fashionable mania (shortly followed by another chemical dye from France called magenta) to our present day experience of taking multiple colours for granted. Influences such as war (the desire to dye uniforms surprised me), or fashion, or hard chemistry all have a place in this story, and keep it from being too narrow or dull.

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to anyone curious about how such aniline dyes came about, or how our need to colour our world in a multitude of hues has shaped so many areas of our societies. There is one section, in which Garfield is sharing a list of registered colours via the National Bureau of Standards, Washington DC, that sounds like poetry. A gorgeous and evocative list of names and sources of colour!

Well-written, not complicating the story with overly scientific explanations and yet not minimizing the importance of the science, this is a great general read. Lots of great "dinner party tidbits" in this one -- I always love a science book that makes you sound smart in general conversation ;) I know that I am looking at all the colours in my environment a little differently now.

(parts of this review come from my thoughts over at The Indextrious Reader the first time I read this book)


  1. Hi, I just want to thank you for your Weekend Review series. I have found some great reads upon your recommendations. All the better if I stumble across them second hand, but I have ordered some specifically because they sounded interesting from your description.

    1. Thank you for letting me know! I'm so glad you enjoy this series, I hope you have enjoyed the titles you've read :) I so love sharing good reading.


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