Teacher's Essay

True Colors

The biological and chemical methods of cloth finishing (called "wet processing" by people in the trade, and bleaching and dyeing by everyone else) present interesting problems for teachers of American history. Dyeing, for instance, is a very ancient art, so the time span

"Dyeing," 1750. Denis Diderot, A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia
of Trades and Industry,
v. II. (Charles Gillespie, ed.
New York: Dover Press, 1959).

of the subject is enormous. Besides, the most dramatic changes came as a consequence of discoveries in organic chemistry that occurred in Europe, not in this country. Thus, the study of bleaching and dyeing forces the student of American history to look at the place of the United States in world history and economics. Another obvious difficulty of the topic is the scientific and technical knowledge associated with it. How can teachers and students of history master enough to understand the processes? And there is yet one more problem in presenting this subject that, though somewhat less apparent, is also a hard nut to crack. By their very natures, science and technology seem progressive and in discussing them it is difficult to avoid a Whig interpretation of history --that we got to the present, inevitably, by choosing the paths that would lead us to it.

From The Progress of Cotton, 1835-40. Courtesy of Slater Mill
Historic Site, Pawtucket, RI.

Avoiding a "progressive" view of history is a special challenge in the case of large technical changes that appear to define a watershed in human events -- as, for example, the "chemical revolution" of the 19th century, inaugurated by the discovery of the coal-tar dyes. The shift from natural materials to synthetic chemicals, and from craft techniques to machine processes, seems a sudden, dramatic, and complete transformation. Everything becomes a "before and after" story, as if there were no connections between the two stages, and it is easy to imagine that whatever came "after" worked better than what came "before." This interpretive tendency is exacerbated by the "magical" character of chemical reactions, particularly as they appear to people not already knowledgeable in chemistry.

The picture of chemistry as magic not only masks historical reality, it also mystifies the science and technology, making them into abstract ideas with no vital human connections. A good, alternative way to deal with these problems is through the analysis of the historical context of science and technology. The object of this essay, then, is to identify the central social, economic, political, and cultural elements that help explain the history of bleaching and dyeing in America. To do that, we have organized the subject in terms of phases that are characterized by their knowledge base, their materials, their social organization, and by their economic implications. One might even think of a phase as an "ecology," in the sense that its elements are all interrelated, and that a change in any one element affects the others. First, we'll discuss natural dyeing and then move on to chemical dyes.


Craft Skill

On the eve of European colonization of the Americas, bleaching and dyeing depended on craft skill gained by lengthy apprenticeship, and each was the work of male specialists who usually carried out their labors in separate establishments. Because the preindustrial, presynthetic phase of the wet processing of textiles depended upon natural ingredients, the men who practiced these arts had to know (even if not in a formal sense) as much biology as they did chemistry to understand the properties of their materials-- which came from plants, minerals, and animals. The manufacture of natural dyes required a good deal of skill, especially the more complicated dyes like indigo. Indigo was produced through a process of controlled fermentation over a number of days. Like the brewer, the dyer learned sophisticated ways of managing bacterial action without any knowledge of bacteria. Similarly, bleachers used their sense of taste to test for acidity, without more "modern" methods of chemical analysis. The mechanical equipment of bleacheries and dye houses was relatively simple but the processes were complex, difficult to control, and in the case of exotic colors, expensive to produce. Illustrations from Diderot's Encyclopedia and other early texts (see the examples included at the end

18th century dyeshop, 1750. Denis Diderot, A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia
of Trades and Industry,
v. II. (Charles Gillespie, ed. New York: Dover Press, 1959).

of this essay) give a pretty good sense of the high level of European practice in the 18th century, but they don't show that these crafts also involved harsh, smelly materials that polluted the water supplies they used.

While most European dyeing took place in specialized shops, the setting changed when colonists came to the New World. Technologies are closely adapted to their social and economic environments and it proved impossible to transfer these crafts to America in their highly articulated European forms. Bleaching and dyeing could not stand by themselves as craft activities, and were usually incorporated into the work of the fulling mill, a place where woolen cloth was finished. At the same time, however, the household dyeing of textiles by women flourished, encouraged by the availability of a range of natural dyestuffs the colonists learned about from native peoples. As early as 1630, one of the Salem, MA settlers reported "also here be divers roots and berries where whith the Indians dye excellent holiday colours that no raine nor washing can alter." In America, then, bleaching and dyeing were carried on both in craft shops and at home, by both men and women, and in both large and small batches.

Mercantilism: Locally Occurring but of International Importance

While natural dyestuffs had been used for thousands of years, bleaching and dyeing began to change in the 17th century, as new materials became available to Europeans. Their colonization of distant continents opened up a whole different range of plants and insects that greatly expanded the palette of colors and called on dyers to learn new techniques in order to utilize the new dyes. The indigo plant from India produced

Harvesting indigo, India 1900. Courtesy of Anthony Travis.

brighter and more varied shades of blue; the root of madder, from India and Africa yielded brilliant reds, as did the dried cochineal beetle from Central and South America. Logwood from Central America gave greens. The colonists themselves discovered the excellence of brown shades from black walnut hulls and yellows from the bark of the American black oak.

Natural dyes were based upon plants and insects that lived in specific climates and locales. European imperialism was fueled by the desire to secure natural materials that did not thrive in northern climates. The settlement of America was part of this push to annex territories and acquire such climatic resources as beaver pelts, tobacco, cochineal, logwood, and indigo, the last of which soon became an important crop in Georgia and South Carolina, (cultivated African slaves who were themselves victims of these same forces). The allure of exotic products in a natural resource-based economy gave the colonial raw materials great economic value. These dyestuffs thus fit neatly into the mercantilist theory of trade, which posited that the colonies should supply natural resources for the industry of the mother country, and then provide markets for the finished goods.

Besides colonial possessions, natural resource economies required naval power and an extensive merchant marine for successful trading in a variety of natural materials. This trade early found its own logical organization, like the old "three corner trade," and it involved dyestuff as well as rum. Consequently, one colonial American dyer lamented that, although cochineal came from Central America, he could legally obtain it only if it was shipped back to the Americas from a European port.

Commercial Economy and Home Production

In many early American communities, craft dyers existed side-by-side with home dyers. The equipment in both cases was simple--a vat or iron pot, and perhaps a copper kettle--and both used locally available natural plants. Both groups also shared a certain amount of information; by the late 18th century, published recipes for a number of dyes were available to the craftsman and the home dyer. However, there were distinct differences between the two. Craft dyers were men, they represented a commercial economy, and they sought to maintain control over their work by guild organization and the protection of trade secrets. Household dyers were women and their work reflected an economy based on home production that was less sensitive to shared information. Craft dyers were more likely to employ imported dyestuffs and to attempt a wider array of colors. Colonial women, whose household duties often included spinning thread and weaving cloth for their families, were naturally led to perform some of the finishing processes, using soap they made and dyestuffs they had grown.

The technology of dyeing with natural materials is much alike throughout the world, with comparable levels of achievement at any given time. So, for instance, using essentially the same techniques as those employed by craft dyers in the colonial period, though developed independently, American Indians produced a vivid array of colors which they applied to a variety of materials.


The Industrialization of Bleaching and Dyeing

Mechanization and the factory system of production, which so altered the manufacture of cloth, also changed bleaching and dyeing--and increasingly these processes were incorporated into the factory itself. In fact, the widespread use of chemical products in cloth finishing directly followed the industrialization of textile production, reinforcing the shift from craft to factory methods.

The craft of bleaching involved repeated and complicated stages that included steeping yarn or cloth in water, scouring them in caustic solutions (usually made from wood ashes), "souring" them in buttermilk, and then exposing them to long periods of sunlight to whiten the material. In other words, it was a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. Scheele's discovery of chlorine in the late 18th century, its application to bleaching, and the subsequent industrial production of alkalis, made bleaching into a factory process and created a chemical industry whose chief customers were textile manufacturers. The use of chlorine-based bleaching powders, and later pressurized containers, substantially speeded up bleaching so that a job taking months in the 18th century could be accomplished in hours by the late-19th century. Even so, the successful use of chemical bleaching technologies still depended on a foreman's experience and skill.

A young William Perkin, 1852.
Courtesy of the American Association
of Textile Chemists and Colorists.

The industrialization of dyeing came much more quickly and dramatically when William Perkin created a synthetic purple dye from coal tar. The brilliance of the new shade, which Perkin called mauve, and the prospect of a host of new artificial colors produced in a laboratory, transformed the dyestuffs industry everywhere in the world.

The Nature of Technical Change

The nature and pace of technical change always seems different looking backwards. Time smoothes out the difficulties and erases the uncertainties, as well as the alternatives that initially appeared just as likely. But it is exactly the opposite at the beginning of a new stage in history. For example, William Perkin, an eighteen-year-old English chemistry student, who in 1856 became the first person to synthesize a dyestuff from coal tar, actually did not understand the chemical processes that gave him his result, and he wasn't even trying to obtain a dye. Furthermore, coal tar dyes did not work well at first and Perkin spent almost two years developing production methods and working with craftsmen to achieve effective dyeing techniques.

Yet it would be wrong to imagine that Perkin's discovery was just a lucky break. Chemists had already been working along two directly relevant lines of activity. Some were investigating the properties of coal tar, a black, sticky, messy stuff left over in the production of lighting gas from coal, and from converting coal into coke. Coal tar had some medicinal qualities, but investigators noticed that it also carried colors. During the same decade or two before Perkin's discovery, chemists in Europe and America also became interested in "repackaging" or synthesizing a variety of natural substances. In Germany, Justus Liebig developed artificial fertilizers to use in place of animal manures, as well as a meat extract that provided food value in a convenient form. His American student, Eben Horsford, commercially developed similar products here. And Liebig's student, Hoffman, who became Perkin's teacher in London, had originally set the young Englishman the task of synthesizing quinine, an antimalarial drug, to provide a more reliable supply for Britain's overseas empire. Such was the intellectual context of Perkin's discovery. Bleachers and dyers long practiced in multistage, chemically-based processing, and chemical firms long connected to the textile industry though the production of alkalies and bleaching materials, provided the industrial context for Perkin's work. This rich matrix of knowledge and experience made possible the quick commercial exploitation of synthetic dyestuffs developed by organic chemists.

Capital, Colors, and Commerce

In a real sense, the 'Chemical Revolution' of the 19th century was not a revolution at all. What chemists and entrepreneurs were after, as industrial chemistry became a big business, was not to overturn things, but to control them. They wanted predictability in the processes of textile finishing (to insure uniform degrees of whiteness, and colors that always turned out the same); they hoped for increases in productivity by shortening processing time and by processing larger batches; and just as much, they sought control over the knowledge it took to achieve those effects through patent protection and employment contracts. This new kind of knowledge made the craftsman's skill less important and the technical managers more powerful. In important ways, then, the industry's agenda was essentially conservative. Or, to put it a little differently, the nature and pace of change was evolutionary, not revolutionary.

As the dyestuffs industry shifted from natural to chemically produced dyes, scientific laboratories and patents became more important in international competition than a vast natural resource base. Synthetic dyes expanded the range of colors available to the textile industry, and manufacturers soon found that color novelty proved a keen economic advantage in attracting consumers. Profits from new colors also drove the increasing capitalization of the chemical industry. Each new color that proved commercially successful showed a dramatic rise in sales early in its career, and then a sales curve that fell at a slower rate until it reached the point of unprofitability, thus pushing the company always to search for more new colors. To find them, firms had to spend more money on research laboratories, scientists, and engineers--and unlike the techniques of natural dyeing, the ability to develop this new technology was not evenly distributed throughout the world. Countries also found in synthetic dyes a competitive advantage in international trade. With a self-conscious policy that linked science and industry, Germany quickly outdistanced all other nations in the production of dyestuffs.

The new scientific basis of synthethic production practically doomed the trade in natural dyestuffs, but it did not end home dyeing. In fact, cheap and easily available packets of dyes, in widely varying hues, actually made home dyeing easier. Women were thus freed from the seasonal rhythms imposed by the maturation and harvesting times of vegetable dyes, and from the labor of preparing their own dyes. But this new commercial context linked them instead to mass marketing as well as to new conventions of cleanliness suggested by chemical company advertisements.

Individuals were often attracted to the study of organic chemistry and to its industrial applications because of the intellectual challenge they presented. But the large-scale production of bleaches and dyestuffs also created an enormously profitable industry that rested on a huge capital investment. Furthermore, this different kind of manufacturing made the workplace more dangerous and set in motion a set of environmental consequences, the harmful effects of which would take almost two hundred years to recognize. When we talk about progress, we also have to think about long-term damage as well as short-term benefit.

Synthetic Dyes, World War I, and the Modern American Chemical Industry

After the great success of Perkin's mauve, experimentation with, and then the manufacture of, synthetic dyes spread rapidly from England to France and Germany. The German states had already pioneered a new form of technical education, based on France's Ecole Polytechnique but more oriented toward industry, and they were particularly well able to provide the scientific talent upon which financial success depended. German chemists soon developed whole new "families" of colors and also learned to synthesize such popular natural dyestuffs as indigo and madder. Consequently, German scientific discoveries drove natural dyestuffs from the commercial market and Germany came to dominate the dyestuffs industry, the profits from which then allowed them to branch out into pharmaceuticals and explosives.

This early and commanding lead meant that Americans had to depend on German technology. And not only did textile dyers have to import the dyestuffs, local producers who wanted to manufacture synthetic dyes had also to import the intermediate ingredients necessary for successful production. All this was somewhat ironic since the country had plenty of coal tar left over from the production of coke. But the undeveloped state of chemical education, of skill levels in the workforce, and the interest of textile manufacturers in cheap dyestuffs, acted to prevent the emergence of an American snythetic dye industry.

BASF label, Ludwigshafen, Germany, 1900. Courtesy of Anthony Travis.

By 1914 Germany produced about 75% of the world's supply of dyes and dyestuffs, and its trading partners were responsible for half of the remainder. So the war suddenly created a huge problem for American textile manufacturers but also, since the connection between coal-tar products and explosives was apparent, for the U.S. government as well. The Allied blockade of German shipping caused a "dye famine" in the U.S., and dyestuffs that had sold for $0.15 a pound in 1913 brought $8.00 in 1916. This situation was dramatically reversed by America's entry into the war, when a series of acts allowed the government to seize German property, including dyestuffs manufacturing firms based in this country, patents, and the industrial processes covered by them. The same legislation closed U.S. markets to German products and removed all legal protection for aliens. The U.S. government then turned these assets over to a newly created agency called the Chemical Foundation, and gave it authority to manage all German patents, trademarks, copyrights, and contracts--to the immediate benefit of those large U.S.-owned chemical firms who bought them. Indeed, the Foundation became the proponent for the creation of an American organic chemical industry, arguing especially for post-war tariff protection against the possibility of a German resurgence.

Tintext Tint and Dyes, 1932. Courtesy of the Warshaw Collection of Business
Americana, Archives Center, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The American synthetic dye industry was thus catapulted into existence by sudden and dramatic government action on its behalf. Capitalizing on those advantages, the post-war industry increased plant capacity, diversified its product lines, and emphasized industrial research. In the 1920's and 1930's, that course of action led such firms as Du Pont from paints and dyestuffs into the search for synthetic fibers and a range of other products. You can read about that search and its results in Unit 8.

Summing It All Up

In many obvious ways, the techniques of bleaching and dyeing have changed enormously over time. Laborious processes that once took weeks are now accomplished by machines in minutes. But these changes were neither mysterious nor an inevitable consequence of "the march of progress." The applications of chemistry to bleaching and dyeing came out of institutional developments in science and engineering education, fostered by people who saw economic and political consequences in the new forms. The chemistry itself attempted to mimic the work of natural materials, and depended on organic substances to do that. And the profitable realization of industrial chemistry called upon huge capital investments, which then dictated the forms of production.

What we can also see from this brief survey of the subject is that certain elements of the story do not change. In the American experience, at least, dyeing has always taken place in two contexts--whether at home or in the craftsman's shop, or at home and in the factory--and that is still true. The processes themselves, despite modern equipment, are still much as they were. Furthermore, the problems are not that much different. Anyone who has ever knit a sweater knows that yarn colors vary from dyelot to dyelot, that the shift to synthetic dyes has not solved the fundamental problem of color consistency. And our museums are filled with exquisitely colored materials produced years ago by highly skilled craftworkers who had no knowledge at all of scientific principles. In this sense, then, science and technology are not so much things that revolutionize our lives, but methods of reordering the elements of our material world, and we can understand them that way.

Copyright © 1998 The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.

Comments and questions to the Lemelson Center:lemcen@si.edu

Last Revision: 6/5/98