A colourful history of progress

The development of synthetic dyes was a mini industrial revolution.

Pierre Desrochers


Going back at least to the Romantics and the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement, we have repeatedly been told that local, artisanal and renewable products are inherently more desirable than more distant, large-scale and ‘artificial’ ones.

In practice though, while small and local might sometimes seem beautiful, bigger and more distant has typically proven better for both people and nature. Natural dyes, which are seemingly rediscovered every generation by idealistic, environmentally minded individuals, are a case in point. Take the following laudatory piece, written by Sarah Bellos in PERC Reports earlier this year. As the Cornell-educated ‘enviropreneur’ sees it, her goal in life is to replace ‘synthetic dyes derived from imported, non-renewable raw materials, such as petroleum and coal tar, with a more sustainable and renewable plant dye source’.

Yet she still needs to overcome some major hurdles, including ‘achieving uniform colours from sampling to production’ and increasing local supplies of dye crops. And what Bellos seemingly doesn’t realise is that these are exactly the issues that demanded the development of synthetic dyes. This raises the obvious question: if natural dyes were so great, why were they so completely displaced by synthetic alternatives?

A brief history of natural dyestuff production (1)

From ancient times up to the middle of the nineteenth century, all dyes (or dyestuffs) were made from a variety of natural sources, ranging from plants (roots, berries, flower heads, or leaves), minerals and trees (especially barks) to lichens, insects, mollusks, and guano (desiccated bird excrements). For example, most red dyes were derived from plants such as madder, beetroot, cranberry, safflower, and orchil; and a few more valuable ones from insects such as cochineal (from Central America and, for a time, southern British North American colonies) and Kermes (from Southern Europe and the Middle East). Yellows were extracted from Persian berries, weld, dyers broom and saffron. Despite its seemingly natural abundance, green could only be obtained by double-dyeing with yellow (fustic or annatto) and blue (indigo).

While dyers historically settled on the large-scale use of a dozen main sources, plants were by far the most important. Among these, common madder and true indigo, while not the most valuable on a unitary basis, stood out in terms of volume produced and overall importance.

The roots of what was historically the most important source of vegetable dyes, common madder (Rubia tinctorum), contain 28 colouring matters, including red (alizarin), orange (rubiacin), purple (purpurin) and yellow (xanthine). From at least 2000 BC, common madder was cultivated on a large scale and in various locations. By the middle of the nineteenth century, large volumes of madder were produced the world over for local consumption, while perhaps as much as 90 per cent of the world madder market relied on the work of growers in the Dutch province of Zeeland and the French regions of Alsace and Provence.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, dyes were extracted from madder roots by drying, beating and pounding them to remove the rough parts, in the process yielding the cruder ‘umbro’, ‘munch’ or ‘bunch’ madder and the more expensive ‘crop’ or ‘grade’ madders, which were later matured in casks for two-to-three years. Despite what would now be touted as its ‘organic’ nature and ‘human scale’, madder production and use often had significant environmental impacts. Reminiscing on advances made in previous decades, the Scottish chemist Lyon Playfair observed in 1852 that the ‘large quantities of spent [or used] madder constantly accumulating were found exceedingly inconvenient. It was not valuable enough for the manure heap, and the rivers became polluted in carrying away the waste material.’ (2) Wrestling with the problem, some creative chemists eventually noticed that one third of the colouring matter was thrown away in the process. In time, a simple treatment with a hot acid was devised and again rendered it available as a dye. Following this breakthrough, ‘waste heaps [were] now sources of wealth, and the dyer no longer [poisoned] the rivers with spent madder, but carefully [collected] it in order that the chemist may make it again fit for his use’ (3).

Indigo dyes date from before 3000 BC and were produced from leguminous plants of the approximately 800 species-large Indigofera genus. While dyeing matter had been extracted from a few of these plants, the tropical and sub-tropical ‘true indigo’ (Indigofera tinctoria), usually thought to have originated in India but long cultivated over much of the Sub-Indian continent, South-East Asia, the Middle East and Africa, was historically the most important and valuable variety. Arab traders eventually introduced it to the Mediterranean region during the eleventh century where, after centuries of political resistance, it eventually displaced woad (Isatis tinctoria) as the most commonly used blue dye plant in Europe. Indigo plantations based on both true indigo and sometimes other local varieties were then created from the second half of the sixteenth century onwards in the Americas, in areas ranging from Southern and Central America and the West Indies to Louisiana and the Southern British North American colonies.

Like madder production, the manufacture of indigo dye was also a messy business. According to one 1775 Florida account: ‘The stench of the work vats, where the indigo plants were putrefied, was so offensive and deleterious, that the “work” was usually located at least one quarter of a mile away from human dwellings. The odour from the rotting weeds drew flies and other insects by the thousands, greatly increasing the chances of the spread of diseases. Animals and poultry on an indigo plantation likewise suffered, and it was all but impossible to keep livestock on, or near, the indigo manufacturing site.’ (4)

In the following decades, a combination of factors ranging from high export duties and increased international competition from more lucrative alternatives enticed New World producers to switch to others crops, such as sugar, cotton and coffee. By the late-eighteenth century, Indian regions (originally Bengal and later Bihar) had emerged as the dominant indigo producers, at first under the leadership of the British East India Company (which itself followed earlier initiatives by other European traders and entrepreneurs) and later under independent British capitalists, planters and traders. At one point India dominated nine tenths of world trade in indigo, with the remainder produced in Java, the Philippines, Central America, Venezuela, Brazil and China.

The rise of synthetic dyes

The raw material upon which the numerous synthetic dyestuffs that hit world markets in the late-nineteenth century were to be fashioned was an abundant and cheap waste product of coal-gas manufacture: coal tar, a substance once referred to as the ‘abomination and nuisance of the gas works’ (5). As Playfair put it: ‘[Coal tar was] once the most inconvenient of waste materials. It could not be thrown away into rivers, for it polluted them foully. It could not be buried in the earth because it destroyed vegetation all around. In fact nothing could be done with it except to burn or to mix it with coal as fuel.’ (6)

The first commercially successful, large-scale breakthrough in synthetic dye production occurred in 1856 when a British teenage chemist by the name of William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) obtained a brilliant purplish substance while oxidising some crude aniline. After much developmental work, Perkin and his associates offered the world ‘mauve’ in 1859. This new dyestuff triggered much chemical research in the preparation of aniline-based dyes and, in the process, launched the modern organic chemical industry and prompted the development of coal-tar based products ranging from explosives, medicines and perfumes to flavouring materials, sweeteners, disinfectants, antitoxins and tracing and photographic agents.

The supremacy of British dye manufacturers, however, was shortlived. From the 1870s, German producers began to take over this branch of manufacturing and soon achieved almost complete dominance, accounting for almost 90 per cent of the world production of dyestuffs by 1913. Under the direction of Heinrich Caro (1834-1910) of the Badische Anilin and Soda-Fabrick company (better known as BASF), the development of large-scale manufacturing techniques for the production of synthetic alizarin and other colouring substances quickly put madder producers out of business. The road to synthetic indigo, however, proved much more arduous because of the absence of a suitable ‘carbon skeleton’ in the coal-tar hydrocarbon molecules. In time, though, Adolf von Baeyer (1835-1917) eventually succeeded in producing synthetic indigo in three different ways from various coal-tar derivatives. After much investment and developmental work, scientists and engineers working for BASF were able to market naphtalene-based synthetic indigo in 1897.

The triumph of synthetic dyes

Synthetic dyes quickly put their natural competitors out of business, despite government protectionist policies. This was not achieved because of some ‘Big Coal’ conspiracy, but because the advantages of synthetic dyes were too obvious to overlook. Most significantly, they offered a much greater range of colours (along the lines of a 10-to-one ratio by the turn of the twentieth century) and they were much cheaper. For example, the value of the amount of alizarin used in the world in 1880 was around $8,000,000, while the cost to manufacture the same amount of dye from madder roots would then have been near $28,000,000 (7). This price difference could be explained by the abundance and reliability of the coal-tar supply and by the fact that the preparation of synthetic dyes was much less labour- and input-intensive than the cultivation and extraction of colouring matter from plants.

Synthetic dyes were also better quality because plants often exhibited weather-related changes of colour and contained many impurities. Growers and natural-dye makers also had much more incentive to adulterate their products because of their raw materials’ lack of uniformity.

Plant supplies were also less reliable, as they required a significant growing period and were only harvested periodically. They were also regularly prone to failure or lower yields because of diseases, insects or bad weather. In some cases, they might not even be planted at all if other crops proved more lucrative.

Furthermore, synthetic dyes exhibited several technical advantages. One lb of artificial alizarin had the tinctorial power of at least 90lbs of madder. Their application was also simpler because their quality was more uniform. Materials coloured with synthetic dyes therefore tended to be of a much higher quality.

One other important benefit of synthetic dyes not lost on commentators at the time was that they ‘liberated’ large swathes of agricultural land, which could then be used for producing food or fibres, or else be allowed to revert to a wilder state or used recreationally. Overall, it has been estimated that, at their peak, madder cultivation required between 300,000 and 400,000 acres in 1868, while indigo plants required more than 1,583,808 acres in 1897. Among other cases of land-use conversion, in Avignon (France) madder plantations were replaced by grapevines, while in India and Java, indigo cultivation eventually gave way to sugar plantations and other tropical crops. Closer to us today, the Masters Golf Tournament, held annually in Augusta (Georgia), is staged on a former indigo and cotton plantation. Interestingly, with the annual worldwide consumption of synthetic indigo now approximating 20,000 tonnes, several million acres would be required to manufacture the equivalent using traditional methods.

The same land-use changes were also observed for other natural dyes. For instance, the introduction of artificial scarlets resulted in the abandonment of the cultivation of cochineal in the Canaries and its replacement by sugar and tobacco, while pressures on dyewoods and logwood in other parts of the world were significantly relieved.

Bigger (and more distant) is better

Although the early German supremacy in the synthetic-dye industry has often been attributed to a better educational system, patent monopoly and strong marketing techniques (8), German producers also benefitted from what urban and regional economists refer to as ‘agglomeration economies’ (that is, economies based on the close geographical proximity of several producers active in different lines of work) and production linkages between different firms.

In short, dye preparation in the early years of the twentieth century involved some primary constituents of coal tar, such as toluene, benzene, phenol, xylene, naphthalene, anthracene, cresol, and catchol, which were converted into some 300 intermediate compounds through the action of various chemical reagents such as sulphuric acid, nitric acid, caustic soda and chlorine. By combining these in various ways, usually through manufacturing processes that involved three-to-six steps, but sometimes as many as 15 to 20 (anthraquinone vat dyes), almost 900 commercially successful dyes were prepared by the outbreak of the First World War.

As one observer put it on the eve of the First World War: ‘The problem of working up, completely and remuneratively, without waste and without overproduction, all the by-products formed in the manufacture of the intermediates, is one of the utmost importance for the success of the industry. Owing to the enormous development of her organic chemical industry, embracing the manufacture of dyes, drugs, perfumes, and “fine” organic chemicals generally, the solution of this problem has become more easy for Germany than for any other country.’ (9)

When asked at the time about the possibility of manufacturing locally the more-than-700 synthetic dyes previously imported from Germany, the American chemist Bernhard Hesse commented that the German synthetic-dye industry could not be isolated from its local connections to other lines of work. The coal-tar industry could thus be best understood as being organised along three divisions: 1) products obtained from coal tar through distillation and other operations; 2) productions obtained from 1) by chemical transformation, although not themselves dyes; 3) dyes made from 2). In Hesse’s opinion, the crucial fact was that German producers controlled much of the second division of the world’s markets. This control was due to the fact that while the growth of this division had been relatively slow, it had become tightly interwoven, with ‘each of its hundred-or-more products being dependent upon or made up of one or more other products, so that no one of them is of use without still others’. These commercial and industrial relations had grown to such an extent over time that ‘the coal-tar dye industry is really a conglomerate of many separate parts acting and reacting upon each other, commercially and industrially’ (9).

As Hesse put it in 1917: ‘Not a single one of the 22 factories in Germany is wholly independent of other factories in Germany, whereas together they are independent of sources outside of Germany, or can very readily be so should occasion arise. It would not do merely to transplant even the largest German works to this country; a part of probably each German works would be necessary to produce here or anywhere a complete and self-contained industry. Such a transplanting of the coal-tar dye industry would be comparable to an attempt to transplant to this country every single branch of say, the textile industry or any other highly ramified and diversified art.’ (10)

While the inputs, manufacturing processes and economic geography of synthetic-dye production have changed a lot since then, the reality of economies of scale and scope, along with that of interindustrial linkages, are still very much with us.

The road to green hell is paved with sustainable-development initiatives

Sustainable-development theorists’ aversion to, and environmental activists’ dislike for, synthetic products, long-distance trade and economies of scale is most unfortunate. True, manufacturing operations are not yet perfect, but the ‘green’ alternatives touted as inherently superior, from organic food to local and smaller-scale productions, are typically much worse.

Natural dyes are a case in point. What well-meaning activists and ‘enviropreneurs’ miss is that their ‘solution’ to a largely non-existent problem would come not only with a hefty price for consumers (in terms of paying a lot more for inferior products), but it would also affect the environment given that many parts of the world that have been allowed to ‘rewilden’ in the past few decades would need to be, once again, put under the plough.

Market processes are not perfect, but they constantly reward the development of more efficient and less problematic alternatives over time. Ignoring the lessons of business and technological history can only deliver a poorer and more environmentally stressed world.

Pierre Desrochers is associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto. This essay is adapted from his piece ‘Bringing Inter-Regional Linkages Back In: Industrial Symbiosis, International Trade and the Emergence of the Synthetic Dyes Industry in the Late 19th Century‘. Progress in Industrial Ecology, vol 5, no 5-6 (December 2008), pp. 465-481. (The reader is referred to this article for a more technical discussion of the issues raised and additional references.)


(1) Numerous books and websites are devoted to the topic. See, among others, Indigo, by J Balfour-Paul, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998; From Turkey Red to Tyrian Purple. Textile Colours for the Industrial Revolution, by AS Travis, Jerusalem: The Jewish National and University Library, 1993; and the research annual Dyes in History and Archeology.

(2) On the Chemical Principles Involved in the Manufactures of the Exhibition as Indicating the Necessity of Industrial Instruction, Lyon Playfair, London: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, 1852 pp173-174.

(3) On the Chemical Principles Involved in the Manufactures of the Exhibition as Indicating the Necessity of Industrial Instruction, Lyon Playfair, London: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, 1852 pp173-174.

(4) ‘Indigo production in the eighteenth century’, K. H Beeson Jr, The Hispanic American Historical Review, 44 (2): 214-218, p215

(5) ‘Utilisation of Waste Products’, anonymous, The Manufacturer and Builder 13 (4): 86, 1981

(6) ‘Waste Products made Useful’, Lyon Playfair, North American Review 155 (432): 560-568, 1892, p566.

(7) ‘The Contribution of Chemistry to Modern Life’, WA Noyes, Science NS (26): 673, 1907 pp706-714

(8) Discussions of this issue can be found in virtually every early twentieth century British essay on the topic. See, among others, Meldola (1905) and Miall (1931).

(9) Products and By-Products of Coal, E Stansfield and FE Carter, Ottawa: Department of Mines (Government Printing Bureau), 1915

(10) Products and By-Products of Coal, E Stansfield and FE Carter, Ottawa: Department of Mines (Government Printing Bureau), 1915