An Experiment Gone Awry

ENGLAND
Dress (c. 1865)
silk, cotton lace
(a) 139.0 cm (centre back) 30.0 cm (waist, flat) (dress) (b) 81.0 x 67.0 cm (overskirt)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The Schofield Collection. Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the Government of Victoria, 1974
D146-1974

The development of gas lighting transformed the streets and homes of 19th century England. The gas, distilled by burning coal in an anaerobic environment created large amounts of oily sludge known as coal tar. Coal tar was used in the 1820s by Charles Macintosh to waterproof fabric, and was of great interest to chemists who noted that its constituent elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur had the potential to be combined to form a great number of compounds.

 

In 1857, 18 year-old William Perkin was at home in his amateur laboratory intent on synthesising quinine to treat malaria in distant parts of the Empire.  Natural quinine, extracted from the bark of a tree native to Bolivia and Peru was in short supply and becoming prohibitively expensive. Applying a hypothesis developed by his mentor Dr. August Hofmann, William began his synthesis using naphthalidine a compound derived from naphtha, a solvent present in coal tar.  Expecting a clear solution of colourless quinine, Perkin was surprised to see his experiment result in a reddish powder.  Intrigued, he repeated the experiment using a slightly different constituent of naphtha; aniline.  The resulting black product, when dried and dissolved in alcohol gave a mauve dye.  Mauveine, or Perkins purple had been discovered. Mauve became a popular fashion colour and Perkin’s discovery led to the rapid development of aniline dyes in numerous colours.

 

In an effort to ascertain the presence of aniline dyes in the NGV collection of nineteenth century costume, fibre samples from four dresses were analysed by Dr. Jeff Church of the CSIRO. Thin layer chromatography and surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy identified that the silk in this dress was dyed with methyl violet, a dye synthesized from an aniline base in 1861 by chemist Charles Lauth, four years after Mauveine.

 

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