How did the color purple come to be?
Purple has always been associated with the most regal elements of our society. This goes as far back as the ancient Persian empires when the famous King Cyrus wore purple tunics as part of his royal regalia.
The use of purple as a color can feel like a relatively new fad, but it extends far back into Ancient Roman history. In Ancient Rome, purple was often seen as a color worn by the richest and most powerful within the Empire itself. At the time, it was an extremely expensive color for people to wear because the creation of purple dyes involved the use of snails. Wearing purple outside of the very elite of Roman society could have been punishable by death!
This has long been the case, with many forms of purple being associated with the rich and the famous. For example, the Byzantines wore purple and signed all of their most important edicts using purple ink – a further display of their glorious opulence. The main reason why purple is so revered as a color for the rich, though, was because it was so rare.
Classic Tyrian purple was created using marine snails collected en masse. They would be boiled in vats and then left in heat and light to transform their blueish tone into a vibrant purple. It would take as many as 250,000 mollusks to create a single ounce of purple dye – so it was an extremely rare color to have present.
This remained one of the most common methods of creating purple dyes until the 1850s when William Henry Perkin created a concept that could help to develop purple dyes.
A young chemist, he intended to try and synthesize the creation of an essence known as quinine. A chemical found within cinchona trees, quinine was often used to treat illnesses such as malaria. After many failed experiments, he managed to dissolve his synthesized form of quinine in alcohol. The result? A stunning and rich purple liquid!
Not only did this make purple a color that was more accessible to the rank and file of society, but it ensured that thousands of snails were no longer boiled to death in vats to make a color for the rich and the famous.