Archeological evidence shows that purple dyes were used in Crete around nineteen hundred B.C. Legend credits the discovery of purple dye to Heraklos’ dog, whose mouth was stained with purple after chewing on snails. Heraklos gave a purple robe to the king, who decreed that rulers of Phoenicia should henceforth wear this colour as a royal symbol. Rome, Egypt, Persia, all used purple dye from Tyre as the Imperial standard.
The first purple dyes were produced from the mucus of various marine mollusks. It took some twelve thousand shellfish to extract one and a half grams of pure dye. Later, purple dyes came from a wider variety of fish and insects. Nevertheless, these dyes remained rare and only the rich had access to them. Emperor Aurelian refused to let his wife buy a purple silk garment because it cost its weight in gold.
Many insect and snail based dyes were likely used in colouring the textile furnishings of the Tabernacle described in the Old Testament.
The birth of the synthetic dye industry didn’t occur until 1856 when William Perkin, a British chemist, discovered mauveine by accident. This aniline-based purple dye made the royal colour available to the masses. The clamour to wear mauve clothes made Mr. Perkin a very wealthy man.
So next time you choose a fashionable colour, thank chemistry for making it available at a reasonable price.