History of Dyes

Three thousand years ago the Phoenicians were the world's great traders. They sailed their ships far and wide from their home at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. One of the goods they had to trade was a dye called Tyrian purple. "Phoenicia" is Greek for "land of the pur­ple." The dye carne from a small sea snail. The color was so beautiful—it was really crimson instead of purple—that rulers wanted it for their robes.

Long before the time of the Phoenicians people had found they could make dyes from some of the plants and animals around them. A person did not have to be very clever to get the idea of coloring cloth with the juices of beautiful berries. But it took years of experimenting to get good dyes. Some quickly faded. Others changed color in sunlight. Some of the best dyes must have been discovered by accident. Tyrian purple is a good example. The dye came from a thick, bad-smelling white liquid just back of a snail's head. It turned green when exposed to light. Then it turned blue. Not till it was treated with weak lye did it turn to a beau­tiful red color.

Through the centuries dyes were made from bark, flowers, berries, nuts, roots, insects, shellfish, lichens, and plant galls. ín­digo (blue), logwood (black), and saffron (yellow) were a few of the dyes.

In 1856 an English schoolboy made a great discovery. The boy, William Perkins, was carrying on an experiment during his Easter vacation. He was trying to get quinine from coal. He did not succeed. But he did get a lavender dye from coal tar. Soon scientists found that dyes of all colors can be made from coal tar. Dyes made from coal tar are called aniline dyes.

Aniline dyes are far more common than any other dyes today. How strange it seems that many of the beautiful colors we see around us come from black, sticky coal tar that used to be thrown away as useless!