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The Toxic History of Color

For all of human history, our species have used both natural and synthetic dyes—but have we taken our obsession with color to an extreme?

by Alma Bartram

The narrative of human history is frequently present as one of a frantic fight for existence, one that is characterize by battle and conquest, epidemics, and empires. But perhaps the calmer language of color might tell the story just as well.

Since the beginning of time, our species has developed methods for adding color to the environment. Red ochre, a naturally occurring material mined from the ground, was use by our earliest known ancestors, the Neanderthals, to decorate cave walls in Spain at least 60,000 years ago. Even ancient artifacts imply that red ochre may have been useas a pigment by Neanderthals as early as 250,000 years ago. Since then, mankind have brought color with them wherever they have gone, from the magnificent blues of ancient Egypt to the seductive purples of China’s Han dynasty.

There is a natural inclination to pick up and examine a colorful rock when you see one, regardless of who you are or where you are on Earth. A color researcher and artist from the Pacific Northwest, Melonie Ancheta remark” And then, it’s human nature to say, What can I do with that?” The amount of information about the past that can only be learn via the prism of colors is immeasurable.

Nearly 30 years ago, Ancheta began researching the hues employed by Northwest Coast Natives, notably the Haida and Tlingit. Ancheta is a painter who makes a variety of painted objects, such as bentwood cedar boxes and regalia. Her interest in traditional pigments inspired her to conduct study on color-making techniques.While the focus of her research has been on the unique ways that people have interacted with a particular landscape, what she has discovered opens a wider window into how people have been gathering and using color for millennia all over the world. In short, they have been gathering color from naturally occurring materials in the environment around them.
On the Northwest Coast, this meant utilizing ochre that was extract from the ground for the color red, charcoal or burnt bone for the color black, and the minerals celadonite and vivianite for the colors green and blue, respectively. Distinct hues—as well as different building blocks for those hues—ruled in other regions of the planet.

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According to the book Chromatopia by Australian paint manufacturer David Coles, the Chinese used saffron to color clothing and food, while the Incan and Aztec societies prized the intense scarlet produced by grinding up cochineal insects. Britons used the plant woad to make blue, while Phoenicians in what is now Lebanon extract Tyrian purple from a sea snail.

People all around the world were similar in that they manufactured colors from components or animals that were tangible and recognized in the natural world, whether the transmitter of color was a mollusc or a rock. This was true despite the diversity of materials employ and colors created.

However, this started to alter in the 1800s as synthetic colorants became more industrialized. William Perkin, an 18-year-old English scientist, discovered how to transform coal tar sludge into a mauve dye in 1856 while trying to use coal tar, a byproduct of the coal industry, to develop a cure for malaria. Perkin’s discovery sparked a revolution in the production of synthetic dyes that altered how much of the world produced color. It didn’t take long for other scientists to discover how to create virtually all the colors of the rainbow using coal tar and other petrochemical byproducts.

British writer Simon Garfield describes how Perkin’s colleagues celebrated his discovery as a type of victory over the natural world in his biography Mauve, which is based on the life of the scientist. According to Richard Owen, president of the British Association, “it is difficult to anticipate the extent to which chemistry may finally surpass the current vital powers of nature in the manufacture of things necessary.” August Hofmann, Perkin’s chemistry professor and mentor, predicted that England would overtake all other countries in color exports: “she may ere long send her coal-derived blues to indigo-growing India, her tar-distilled crimson to cochineal-producing Mexico, and her fossil substitutes for quercitron and safflower to China and Japan.”

Hofmann wasn’t far off the mark about one thing: the introduction of synthetic dyes killed most of the natural dye trade, even if England lost its prominence as a dye-maker initially to Germany and then subsequently to China. The days of decorating everyday items using element that the typical person could find in their neighbor landscape are long gone. The era of the chemical lab as a source of color has arrived, and it has only grown since then. Over 99% of the textile dyes used today, according to Phil Patterson of the U.K.-base Color Connections Textile Consultancy, are synthetic. Other color-intensive sectors are expect to see a similar breakdown.

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