Writer and broadcaster

The Invention of the colour purple. The Guardian.

It’s not often that a teenager mucking about in their bedroom results in a commemorative blue plaque. But that’s what happened to William Henry Perkin in 1856.

Perkin was studying at the Royal College of Chemistry and was trying to find a way of making quinine in his makeshift lab at home. At the time, quinine was used to treat malaria, but it was expensive because it came from the bark of the South American cinchona tree. Perkin had been adding hydrogen and oxygen to coal tar, as you do, and this heady concoction left a black residue in his glass jars. When this was made into a solution, it resulted in the first “aniline dyestuff” – as the blue plaque, on his former house in London’s Cable Street, notes.

In the month he turned 18, Perkin had discovered not synthetic quinine, but synthetic purple. The mucking about in his bedroom not only made him famous, it made him rich.

At first he called it Tyrian Purple – as the original, ancient colour was known. But to make it sound more fashionable, he renamed it mauve – missing a golden opportunity to call it Perkin’s Purple and perhaps bag a slot on the Farrow & Ball colour chart.

This was a big deal because, until then, purple could only be made using natural dyes and had been so expensive to make, it had become one of the most coveted colours. Because of this, purple was used to denote wealth and power.

Tyrian purple was made from the mucous of sea snails – or muricidae, more commonly called murex – and an incredible amount was needed to yield just a tiny amount of dye. Mythology states that it was Hercules himself who discovered it – or rather, his dog did, after picking up a murex off the beach and developing purple drool.

Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, was a Phoenician city on the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea where the sea snails (still) live. Amazingly, given how many were needed to sate the appetite of emperors and kings, they didn’t become extinct. The vats used to make purple sat right on the edge of the town, because the process was a stinky one. The Roman author Pliny the Elder, not easily swayed by the fashion for purple, wondered what all the fuss was about, declaring it a “dye with an offensive smell”.

Perhaps you’re beginning to see why purple is the coolest of colours, steeped in mythology, legend, history and … mucous. No matter what other moniker it has been married with over the years – rain or deep for example – it overpowers any suffix or prefix to be absolutely itself. Not like pink, which can so easily be swallowed up by additions of powder, candy or girlie. We talk of reds as vibrant and bold, blues as calming, oranges as zesty. But purple? Nothing. Perhaps, at a push, groovy.

On the colour wheel, purple sits between blue and red. Some might call it violet, or mauve, but whatever you call it, it is the most refracted colour when light is passed through a prism; at the very end of the visible colour spectrum and the hardest colour for the eye to discriminate.

Purple was in fact, so sought after, such an obvious message to other lowly people that you were rich and important, that laws were introduced to protect its use. People were killed for not following the law, and daring to have a hint of purple about them.

Julius Caesar was particularly partial to purple. After visiting Cleopatra with her purple sails and sofas (reputedly an early influence on DFS sofa sales) he came home with a purple toga, which he decreed only he could wear. I wonder if he knew that his toga was dyed with what was basically sea snail spittle.

Many years later, when Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was tried for high treason against Henry VIII, part of the evidence against him was that he had been seen wearing purple: which only the king could wear. Though let’s face it, with Henry VIII, it didn’t take much.

Today, purple is still regarded as a bit of an “ooh” colour. Perhaps because of its heritage, it has never been a mainstream choice, but then also because of this, it’s never lost its panache either.

However, over the past 15 years, politicians have started to appropriate purple for their tie colour – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were early adopters. Purple ties spoke to a global audience, not the left (red) or the right (blue), but everyone. But still, purple was cool.

Then Ukip got hold of it. Purple has survived for centuries, has been the most legislated colour in history, has sent men to their deaths and yet still causes most people to smile when they look at it. But this may be the biggest threat purple has ever faced.


This article was first published in The Guardian on 12 March 2015, part of the “The History of Colours” series.