A colorful history

The Science History Institute presents BOLD: Color from Test Tube to Textile

4 minute read
A museum display of small glass vintage chemical pigment jars, including blue, yellow & red arranged on white blocks.
What changed when we discovered how to make colors in the lab? Vials of chemical pigments from earlier days of color-making. (Photo by Meredith Edlow, courtesy of Science History Institute.)

Though other animals may have sharper senses, most don’t share the colorful range of visual diversity gifted to humans. We take for granted the huge range of colors we enjoy everywhere and every day—in our clothing, our homes, our gardens, our foods. Now we can look closer thanks to BOLD: Color from Test Tube to Textile at Philadelphia’s Science History Institute.

This new exhibition is a history of color that dives into the creation and impact of synthetic dyes. Creatively curated by Elisabeth Berry Drago and designed by Keith Ragone, it’s an engaging exploration of how and why we’ve naturally colored our clothes, bodies, and environments for thousands of years—and what changed when we created color in the laboratory.

Nature’s rainbow

Divided into four sections, this small but mighty exhibition (in the institute’s elegantly reconfigured Old City bank building) is packed with tantalizing visuals and fascinating nuggets of social, political, scientific, and art history. Section One: Nature’s Rainbow shows organic dyeing—the creation of color from the plants, insects, or minerals in the natural world—as one of our oldest technologies. Utilizing processes passed down over generations and civilizations, colors became the product of the region where they could be sourced and where there was labor to produce them.

Saffron, used for more than 2,000 years, requires more than 100,000 hand-harvested Crocus sativa flowers to make a single pound of this golden dye. Indigo, made from the leaves of the Indigofera family, has been used globally for millennia, its use perfected more than 1,000 years ago in the elegant blue hues of fabrics from West Africa. Natural dyes became integral trade commodities, and because of their geographic specificity and environmental rarity, they created wealth, status, and power for the civilizations that harvested and processed them.

The birth of Perkin’s purple

Section Two: The New Synthetics leaps to 1856, when William Henry Perkin, an 18-year-old British chemistry student, was attempting to use coal tar to make synthetic quinine. His malaria treatment experiment was unsuccessful, but when he washed out his test tube, he found a residue of vivid purple stain. He immediately patented this synthetic color and quit school to open a dyeworks. By 1861, “Perkin’s Mauve” had swept fashionable England, and he became so famous that just one decade later, Perkin was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

Museum display of a crumbling 19th-century book with dots of color on its pages, and a faded red cloth.
A color recipe notebook from an Italian wool dyer of the early 1800s. (Photo by Meredith Edlow, courtesy of Science History Institute.)

This chemical process took the world by storm. Now that dyes could be inexpensively made in a laboratory, colors could be created rather than sourced. Though Perkin patented his creation, his English patent wasn’t recognized internationally, and soon, other countries—especially France, Switzerland, the United States, and Germany—became leaders in this new technology. In America, dyes were often sold at pharmacies, and many pharmaceutical companies, including Bayer, Pfizer, and Novartis, were originally dye manufacturers.

The colors of commerce

In Section Three: The Business of Color, the exhibition explores the global commercial scope of this color phenomenon. There’s a Victorian day dress in Perkin’s Mauve and a contemporary Korean hanbok, an elegant garment whose colors are both symbolic and vibrant. An early 18th-century “color sample book” from an Italian wool dyer contrasts its subdued natural hues with a similar (and later) German book of bright aniline dye swatches. Color became widely available: in tubes (for artists) and in boxes (Rit and Tintex) for easy home use.

The exhibition also dives into the often-harmful impact of these dyes in Section Four: Toxic Legacies. Citing their often-dangerous beauty, BOLD here ranges from “Paris Green” (an arsenic-derivative color that poisoned its wearers) to the consequences of dye technologies both current and historical, delving into the toxic legacies with which we still grapple. A large vitrine filled with scores of denim jeans charts the path of indigo from a rare hue to its ubiquitous use and environmental impact today.

Display of 2-inch vintage glass vial of indigo against artfully arranged indigo-dyed patterned West African-style cloth.
Back when blue was a rarer hue: indigo pigment and cloth on view in ‘BOLD.’ (Photo by Meredith Edlow, courtesy of Science History Institute.)

For tech nerds, there are quirky machines, including the Xenon Fade-O-Meter Ci3000 that tests the wearability of car upholstery, and the Crockmeter, an odd 1949 device that tests fabric wear. Fascinating facts include the surprising information that green (so abundant in nature) is not a natural dye color, and so when it was able to be created chemically, the hue sprouted everywhere.

Color as science and art

Stressing the vast artistic influence of color, the exhibition features quotes from across the centuries, from the ancient poet Homer to Andrew Wyeth (“If one could only catch the true color of nature—the very thought of it drives me mad”) to Charles Dickens (“the apotheosis of Perkins purple … like so many birds of purple paradise”) to Duke Ellington (“You ain’t never been blue, till you’ve had that mood indigo”).

Creating and using dyes has always been an expression of culture, belief, and tradition that radiates selfhood and personal choice, setting us apart and bringing us together. For as long as we can plumb our history, making color has been both a science and an art. Here, they elegantly interact with social history. Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky aptly sets forth and sums up the exhibition’s theme and impact: “Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” For its range and excellence, BOLD: Color from Test Tube to Textile is well worth a visit.

What, When, Where

BOLD: Color from Test Tube to Textile. Through August 2024, at the Science History Institute, 315 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. Free admission. (215) 925-2222 or sciencehistory.org.


A wheelchair-accessible pedestrian gate is available at the parking lot entrance on 3rd Street between Chestnut and Market Streets. There are elevators throughout the building with wheelchair-accessible restrooms and water fountains on each floor. All videos on display in the museum include closed captioning. Service animals are welcome.

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