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Perkin and the “Mauve Decade”

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In the year of 1853, William Henry Perkin, a 16-year-old student at the Royal College of Chemistry in London, began studying under August Wilhelm von Hofmann. Hofmann and Perkin were both attempting to find a way to synthesize quinine for treating malaria. But while Perkin was interested in the pursuit of quinine, he was more interested in photography and colors in the chemical world. It was this love that led him to discover the first aniline dye: mauveine.

While working one day on his assigned experiments, Perkin discovered a wonderful purple color emerging from aniline extracted with alcohol. He wanted to continue following this trail of color, but it would not have been accepted by Hofmann. In order to further research, he continued the studies in secret with his brother Thomas and friend Arthur Church (in his garden). And after much work, the men decided that the color could be used as a large scale dye. This dye was extremely stable and fairly cheap compared to many dyes of the era. Admittedly, purple dyes were the most expensive at the time due to the complex processes used in making them. A new purple dye could bring a new, commercially successful path for Perkin.

Samples of the color were sent to a dye works in Perth, Scotland and Perkin then filed for a patent August of 1856. After much persuasion with his father, he received the capitol to build a factory for mauveine dye. Everything that occurred afterwards seemed to be random chance and luck in favor of Perkin becoming rich! Soon after his start, Queen Victoria began wearing similar colors and the public demand shot upwards. A similar demand arose when the wife of Napoleon III, Empress Eugénie, also began wearing mauve as it matched her eye color. So many people used the color during the 1890s that it has become known has the Mauve Decade.

Perkin very quickly rose to riches, but never gave up on experimenting with color. Throughout his life he would receive awards and recognition for his works, including being knighted in 1906. That same year however he was given an award in chemistry named after him: the Perkin Medal. In American industrial chemistry, this medal is today considered the greatest honor to receive and has been given out every year since 1906.


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