Dye hard: the race to revolutionise the colour red

How the dye industry evolved through history and shaped it

Practical handbook of the printing of textilesThe National Library of Israel

More than a colour

Since the days of antiquity, the colour red has had a unique standing in human culture. Associated with passion and power, red clothing was a sign of status and wealth. Accordingly, dyes have always been in widespread demand. The madder root, the kermes insect, cochineal and brazil wood are but a few of the natural sources of red textile dyes. Control of the raw materials and knowledge of efficient dyeing techniques had major economic and political implications. 

Practical handbook of the printing of textiles (1887) by Lauber, EduardThe National Library of Israel

A selection of unique texts from the Sidney Edelstein (1912-1994) Collection at the National Library of Israel reflects the interplay between the economic development of red color materials and the development of human knowledge.

This exhibit focuses on the madder plant, the cochineal insect and the beginnings of the synthetic dye industry in an effort to show how the dye industry evolved through our history and helped shape it.

The artifacts displayed offer a colorful invitation to explore the world of dye materials and the treasures of the Edelstein Collection.

Collection of what belongs to the bouquet of the blonde, or granza in Spain (1779) by Don Juan Pablo Canals y MartíThe National Library of Israel

Turkey Red (rouge d'Adrianople or roude des Indes)

For Europeans, one of the great wonders of the East was Turkey Red, a hot color that was used for dyeing cotton and which was highly valued for its durability and stability. Turkey Red originated in the Islamic world of the Near East, and from there it spread all the way to India. The material was produced from the roots of madder plants (Rubia tinctorum)

On the cotton fibre and on the manner in which it unites with colouring matte (1863) by Crum, WalterThe National Library of Israel

The mastery

The dyeing processes were known to be long and difficult and only the finest cotton could be used. Olive oil and Gallipoli oil were used to prepare the cloth before it was dyed, and smearing the cloth with animal dung would lend it a wool-like texture. Although textile colors from Greece began to reach Europe in the early 18th century, and certain European dyers even sent spies to the East, the Europeans were not able to master these processes until about 1745, when Greek dyers based in Marseille started using Turkey Red.

Treaty of the culture of the nopal and the education of the cochineal in the French colonies of America (1787) by Thierry de MenonvilleThe National Library of Israel

A creature that changed the game...

The insect known as the cochineal, which originated in the New
World and could be found on the Opuntia cactus, was the source of a red dye
used by the Maya and Aztec cultures before the conquest of Mexico in

Illustration of the cochineal insect (dactylopius coccus) and the cactus plant it inhabits (Opuntia), both endemic to Mexico and Latin America. The carminic acid found in the female insect's body provides a brilliant red dye used first by the native cultures before it became an important source of revenue for the Spanish empire.

Treaty of the culture of the nopal, and the education of the cochineal in the French colonies of America (1787) by Thierry de MenonvilleThe National Library of Israel

... and the reddest shade of all

When it reached Europe, this bold dye, produced by grinding and boiling cochineal insects and mixing the result together with salt, aluminum and sodium, was considered a more attractive and finer option than the shades of red produced by madder plants and other scale insects that had been used by European dyers up till that point. It came to be known as carmine.  Because of the great demand for this dye, the Spanish jealously protected their exclusivity when it came to its production.

Enlarged picture of the male Cochineal insect (1787) by Thierry de MenonvilleThe National Library of Israel

In this book, the French botanist and adventurer Thierry Menonville (1739-1780) recounts how he succeeded to smuggle cochineal insects out of Spanish-ruled Mexico and attempted to breed them in the French colony of Santo Domingo. Menonville's untimely death thwarted his efforts to provide France with its own supply of cochineal dye

The dyer in the nineteenth century (1860) by Théophile, GrisonThe National Library of Israel

A French practical handbook on natural dyes. As the samples demonstrate, different concentrations of cochineal dye resulted in different shades of red on woolen textiles.

Friedrich Bayer & Co. Dye Label (1865) by Friedrich Bayer & Co.The National Library of Israel

The red that started a revolution

The year 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the first synthesis in a laboratory of a complex, naturally occurring organic chemical product. This was the important red dye known as alizarin, obtained from the root of the madder plant, just like Turkey Red.

The chemical synthesis of alizarin was achieved in 1868 by Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann (a relative of the artist Max Liebermann), who were research assistants of the chemist Adolf Baeyer.

The application of the benzidine colours in all branches of printing (1898) by Farbenfabriken vorm. Friedrich Bayer & CoThe National Library of Israel

The significance of this achievement lay in the tremendous industrial importance of the natural dye, which was often applied using high-speed printing machines that colored millions of yards of cloth.

As an outcome of the synthesis, alizarin was manufactured on vast scales in Britain and Germany, which in a flash, almost wiped out much of the cultivation and trade in the natural dye.

This success was the main stimulus for the emergence of the synthetic dye industry, which transformed coal tar waste into alizarin and a myriad of other colored textile dyes.

Aniline dyes on half wool (1910) by Badische Anilin & Soda FabrikThe National Library of Israel

Red sky is the limit

By 1874, Adolf Baeyer had discovered the molecular structure of alizarin, indigo followed soon after and within a few years it was possible to create color by design. This was a high point of the second industrial revolution, based on chemical industry and electricity. Synthetic dyes represented the very first high-tech science-based industry.

Practical handbook of the printing of textilesThe National Library of Israel

This revolution in the production of textile dyes, which began with synthetic alizarin, and its implications for global industries and economies, as well as for progress in science and technology, is recorded in the magnificent collection of books, pamphlets, recipes and archival documents gathered together by Sidney M. Edelstein.

Today these documents are preserved in the Sidney M. Edelstein Library for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine at the National Library of Israel

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