Mauve, an unexpected discovery

Detail  of Doll's dress showing colour mauveine, 1863-1870. Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Detail of Doll’s dress showing colour mauveine, 1863-1870. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Mauveine, the first synthetic organic chemical dye, was discovered serendipitously by William Perkin in 1856. Perkin was 18 and working with Professor August Wilhelm von Hofmann, attempting to synthesise the anti-malaria drug quinine. One experiment yielded a solid black deposit. While washing the glassware with alcohol, Perkin observed a purple colouration and realised that the black solid was dissolving in the alcohol.

This discovery was in reality the first synthetic dye, called aniline purple, Mauveine or Perkin’s mauve. Perkin patented it and, in 1857, opened a dye works to mass-produce it at Greenford on the banks of London’s Grand Union Canal. Mauve came into great vogue in 1862, when Queen Victoria appeared at the Royal Exhibition in a silk gown dyed with mauveine. By 1870, its great demand had succumbed to newer colours developed by the industry that had been launched by mauveine.

A10799 Doll, female, bisque / kid leather / cotton / silk / leather / metal, maker unknown, Germany, 1863-1870
A10799 Doll, female, bisque / kid leather / cotton / silk / leather / metal, maker unknown, Germany, 1863-1870. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

An exhibition called Oopsatoreum soon to be opened at the Museum will include this doll (made in Germany between 1863 and 1870) with aniline-dyed dress. The dye was identified using a Fourier Transform Infra Red Spectrometer (FTIR) with UATR attachment by the Conservation department. The FTIR identified the distinguishing organic components of this dye: the aromatic and amine groups. Confirmation was carried out using a comparison scan of a standard sample of wool dyed with Perkin Mauve, which was a good match with the dye in the doll’s dress.

Written by Sue Gatenby, conservation

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