Ciba Review, Part 2: The Colorful History of Natural Dyes

By Alyssa Shirley Morein, ATHM Volunteer and Writer at Final Word Consulting

Our last blog post took a brief introductory look at the textile dye chemical manufacturer, Company for Chemical Industry Basel (CIBA), and its journal, held in ATHM’s library, the Ciba Review. To offer only one post about such an information-rich resource as the Review would scarcely be doing it justice, and yet the same might be said of exploring only a small sample of its contents. Choosing to err on the side of the latter, here we offer a second installment, surveying a topic that is, unsurprisingly, covered in quite a few issues of the Review: dyes.

In 1859, when CIBA was first established, the millennia-long age of natural dyes was coming to a relatively abrupt close. Scientists at the dawn of the industrial era had begun to discover chemical alternatives to natural dyes that were just as vivid and long lasting, but much cheaper to produce. CIBA itself was founded for the production of fuchsine, a synthetic silk dye. As its name hints, fuchsine produced a fuchsia, or strong purplish red, hue; its name was chosen for the natural source it emulates, the flowers of the plant genus Fuchsia.

The history of the natural dye industry is among the historical topics detailed in the pages of the Ciba Review. Within this subject area a full spectrum of issues is investigated, from the growth of the European dye industry to trade centers and color symbolism in various cultures. There are also entire issues devoted to the natural sources, both plant and animal, used to make dyes of all colors before chemical alternatives were found. Following is but a sample of those included.

Woad: This flowering plant, described in the Review as “the most important dye of the Middle Ages,” was grown throughout Asia and Europe. It came to be regarded as a universal dye because in its initial state of high concentration within the vat, it could be used to turn fabrics black; on subsequent dippings it lightened, turning items gradually lighter shades of blue, then green, and finally, with the addition of red, purple.

 

Isatis tinctora, commonly called woad or glastum, was sometimes also known as Asp of Jerusalem. Osborne Library, accn # 2015.36.1

Isatis tinctora, commonly called woad or glastum, was sometimes also known as Asp of Jerusalem. Osborne Library, accn # 2015.36.1

 

Madder and Turkey Red: These dyes were both sourced from the dried and powdered roots of the genus Rubia. Madder-root dyes, which were at the center of a booming industry in Europe for centuries, imbued fabrics with a deep ruby red. Turkey red dye, which originated in its namesake country, was also derived from madder-root. Giving yarns a more brilliant red than madder alone, its creation required multiple, complicated processes involving added oils and minerals.

Purple: The December 1937 issue of the Review is devoted to the subject of purple dyes. In ancient times, the color was often derived from the juice of various species of the purpura shellfish (so named for the reddish-purple shade of the shells’ inside). Purple from this source was extremely expensive to produce, as the shellfish were only useful at a certain time of year and it took very many of them to produce a small amount of dye. For these reasons, purple fabrics came to be among “the costliest articles of luxury,” and thus the color of royalty.

 

Although printed in the journal in black and white, the original of this painting showed off the color of the dye from the purpura shellfish. The creatures’ juice appeared yellow at first, but turned purple when exposed to sunlight. Osborne Library, accn # 2015.36.4

 

Scarlet: The original source for scarlet dyes, which outdid madder-root dyes in brilliance and intensity, were two different species of the shield-louse parasite: the cochineal insect and the kermes insect. Both were picked by hand from plants cultivated especially for the purpose, and then killed by drowning in a vinegar bath. As with purple dyes, the painstaking process by which these dyes were produced made them very expensive and therefore available only to the wealthiest.

 

The cochineal insect, native to Mexico, was soon recognized by Spanish conquistadors as superior to their own kermes for dye-making. Osborne Library, accn # 2015.33.3

The cochineal insect, native to Mexico, was soon recognized by Spanish conquistadors as superior to their own kermes for dye-making. Osborne Library, accn # 2015.33.3

 

 

Indigo: Once trade routes with India were established, the exceptional blue dyes sourced from the indigo plant became so popular as to destroy the gigantic woad trade in Europe. Made by soaking, drying, and then cutting up the plant’s leaves, the dye had a much more concentrated amount of pigment than what came from woad, resulting in a deeper and more vivid blue on dyed fabrics.

 

For a time, indigo cultivation reached worldwide dimensions; in the 17th and 18th centuries plantations were established in the American colonies. Osborne Library, accn # 2015.29.9.4

For a time, indigo cultivation reached worldwide dimensions; in the 17th and 18th centuries plantations were established in the American colonies. Osborne Library, accn # 2015.29.9.4

 

Eventually, synthetic dyes replaced all of these, with companies like CIBA developing hues that were as rich and color-fast as their naturally-sourced forebears (although some of the dyes described above are still produced in small amounts for use by artists and craftspeople). As time went on, the Review focused more and more upon the chemical processes by which synthetic dyes were produced and fabrics themselves, modernized.

 

This photo of CIBA’s factory equipment, from the journal celebrating the company’s 75th anniversary, gives a new meaning to the term “dye plant.” Osborne Library, 2015.33.91

This photo of CIBA’s factory equipment, from the journal celebrating the company’s 75th anniversary, gives a new meaning to the term “dye plant.” Osborne Library, 2015.33.91

 

Stay tuned for more in the third and final blog post of the series.

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