Mauve was one of the first dyes derived from a synthetic process rather than from natural materials and its availability prompted a fad for purple in Europe in the 1850s.
One of the most significant contributions of modern chemistry to a colorful world was the creation of synthetic dyes and colorants. The textile industry no longer had to rely on the availability of natural materials to dye fabric. The development of the color mauve is an excellent illustration.
In the mid-1850s, as the Industrial Revolution surged and coal was king, a number of chemists explored the composition and use of coal tar, which was the by-product of converting coal to coke as a reducing agent for the production of iron from iron oxide ore. One of the extracts of coal tar was aniline, which showed promise as the basis for coloring agents since it was a known extract of indigo. William Henry Perkin, who at age 18 was already enrolled in the Royal College of Chemistry, was assigned to work with aniline, but rather than focusing on colorants, his goal was to find a synthetic route for the preparation of quinine, which was much in demand in Europe for the treatment of malaria.
Working in the laboratory he set up in his family’s garden shed, Perkin treated aniline from coal tar with potassium dichromate, a strong oxidizing agent. Most experienced chemists would have viewed the resulting black solid as a failed reaction, but Perkin’s youthful optimism prompted him to investigate the product. He found that when the black product was dissolved in an organic solvent, it produced a purple solution. This discovery itself was not entirely new; rather, it was Perkin’s determination to commercialize this reaction that proved important and new. One of the biggest challenges Perkin faced was that while coal tar was abundant, extracting the aniline was expensive. Perkin had to find an economical method of synthesizing the colorant to keep the cost of the purple dye to a reasonable price. He also had to find the right mordant to allow the dye to color cotton effectively. Ultimately, Perkin was so successful at mastering these challenges that by 1859, mauve-colored textiles were all the rage in Europe. Aniline would go on to be the basis of a new class of synthetic dyes that provided brilliant shades of red and blue as well as Perkin’s popular purple, mauve. Even Queen Victoria made an appearance in a mauve-colored silk gown at the Royal Exhibition of 1862.
More information about mauve can be found at http://www.ch.ic.ac.uk/motm/perkin.html