n 1856, during Easter vacation from London’s Royal College of Chemistry, 18-year-old William Henry Perkin (1838–1907) synthesized mauve, or aniline purple—the first synthetic dyestuff—from chemicals derived from coal tar. Like Friedrich Wöhler’s accidental synthesis of urea, Perkin’s chemical manipulations were designed to produce a quite different product—quinine.
Perkin set up a factory (Perkin and Sons) on the banks of the Grand Union (then the Grand Junction) Canal in 1857 to produce mauveine. This small dyeworks was located on a 6-acre site just south of the Black Horse public House, in Greenford, West London. This pub survives to this day, and remains a “local” for the pharmaceutical giant, Glaxo SmithKline, which has its world headquarters nearby.
At the Royal Exhibition of 1862, Queen Victoria made an appearance in a silk gown dyed with mauveine. In the Imperial College chemistry archives, there is a sample of silk (approx 5 x 10 cm in size) dyed with a batch of the original dye synthesised in the 1850s, and a “penny lilac” postage stamp originally thought to have been dyed with the same compound.
The new colour fell of of fashion in the late 1860s, but out of one of the world’s first chemistry “R&D” laboratories, Perkin discovered two new dyes, Britannia Violet and Perkin’s Green (the water in the nearby Grand Union Canal was said to have turned a different colour every week- depending on what dyes were being made at the time). In 1869, Perkin synthesised the vivid natural red dye called Alizarin.
You may also find this book interesting: Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, by Simon Garfield