The History of the Color Purple: A Discovery Worth More Than Gold

Princess in a royal luxury purple colored dress swirling in smoke

This post will take you on a journey through the history of the color purple. We’ll be looking at how the color was first created and how it has evolved throughout time. But we’ll also look at the deep emotional connection we have with this color and try to uncover where it originates from.

Colors often evoke a wide range of emotions from those who gaze upon them. Of course these emotions are usually guided in part by our own experiences. We often associate the most meaningful moments in our lives with specific colors. We might fall in love with the color blue as we develop those same feelings for someone with blue eyes. A hiker pushing himself on a quest of discovery and self improvement might associate the colors of a forest with feelings of success. We might even carry over an appreciation for specific colors from otherwise forgotten moments in childhood.

Culture itself can be said to have a type of memory. What’s more, the people living within that culture partake of that inherited memory and aesthetic appreciation. We sometimes associate specific feelings with various colors due to the actions of people hundreds or even thousands of years in the past. There are few better examples of this phenomenon than our associations with the color purple.

Purple’s Emotional Resonance

Golden crown and sword over delicate silk fabric in a dark royal purple color

We typically associate the color purple with royalty, power and sometimes even unearthly entities. It’s not always an easy feeling to put into words. What’s more, we’re often not even aware of the fact that we make those associations. We might feel particularly moved by a picture, painting or even a movie. It’s only on later reflection that we consciously realize just how often purple is used within those works.

Why Purple Feels Almost Otherworldly

Of course noting our feelings leads to an important question. Why do we place so much significance onto the color purple? To answer that, take a moment to think of all the natural life around you. Forget about everything artificially created by humans and instead remember all of the plants and animals which live in your environment.

Think about all the colors you find appearing in your natural surroundings. The vast majority of people will go through a wide variety of colors in their minds. However, one color will usually be conspicuously absent. Purple certainly does appear in nature. But it’s quite rare in most parts of the world. However, the scarcity of natural purple dye has also made it highly sought after.

The First Steps Into Civilization

Primitive prehistoric neanderthal child creating cave art painting with hands

Our first records of humans using the color purple date back to prehistory. Ancient humans made a momentous discovery about 16,000 to 25,000 years ago in the region we now call France. We’ll never know how they made the discovery. But we do know that they somehow determined that mixing manganese and hematite powder together would create a purple compound. They then used this substance to draw animals, and even trace their own hands, onto cave walls.

It’s truly amazing to think about these early humans venturing into the total darkness of a cave. At best they would have only had the light of makeshift torches to guide their way. And when they found the perfect spot these intrepid artists would use their painstakingly created pigments to draw the most important aspects of their life. They’d create images of the prey they hoped to take down so that their friends and family could eat. And these same people left us images of the hands they used to create those representations.

A Color Worth Its Weight in Gold

Purple Dye Murex aka Bolinus Brandaris at the beach

This important color would be lost to history for a long time in many areas of the world. We wouldn’t really see much use of purple coloring in the West until the bronze age. Around 1,500 BC a resident of the Phoenician city of Tyre made a momentous discovery. Legend has it that Tyre’s patron deity, Melqart, was taking a walk on the beach with his mistress Tyros. She had decided to take her dog along with them on their stroll. The dog decided to play with a mollusk which had washed ashore. When he returned to them the couple was startled to find that the dog’s mouth had been stained the same color as the purple mollusk.

As with any legend we have to expect a mix of fact and fantasy. But whatever the true origins of the discovery, we know that Tyre would go on to make an entire industry centered around purple dyes. Our oldest verified records go all the way back to the 14th century BCE. We even have records describing how the dye was created thanks to Pliny the Elder. Pliny’s Natural History describes a truly arduous process.

The process would begin by crushing the correct shellfish. The resulting mush would then be salted over the course of three full days. This mixture was then boiled down into a final product. It’s estimated that thousands of shellfish were left exposed to the elements at any given time. And it would take about 10,000 shellfish to produce just one gram of dye. This would really only serve to dye the hem of a garment. Dying a full piece of clothing required a significant investment. The demand for this dye became so extreme that many species were driven to near extinction due to overfishing.

Historical portrait of Pliny the elder

It should be clear just how much work was needed to create even a small amount of purple dye. As we might expect the cost of Tyrian purple dye was extravagant. Surviving records show that the Roman emperor Diocletian paid three pounds of gold to buy one pound of Tyrian purple dye. Do you recall the old saying about something being worth its weight in gold? We have a historical example of a substance worth more than three times its weight in gold. And that substance was purple dye.

Purple dyes would stay incredibly rare in the West for some time to come. This helps show why we associate purple with royalty and power. For hundreds of years the only people who could afford purple adornments were those blessed with both riches and power.

The lure of Tyrian purple is so strong that we’ve even tried to fully recreate it in modern times. German chemist Paul Friedländer would replicate the process in 2008. The simple goal of coloring a handkerchief required 12,000 mollusks. However, by 2010 scientists perfected a method to create the dye synthetically.

The End of Purple Scarcity

Purple continued to be a precious resource in the West for a very long time. However, it finally became more common in 1856 thanks to a chemist named William Henry Perkin. Perkin tried to synthesize quinine while he was still in school. The attempt failed but in a truly marvelous way. He accidentally created a new dye called mauveine. This would quickly become known as mauve. Perkins moved with understandable speed to create a full method of sales and production for his dye. This was the moment when a dye color only available to the rich finally reached the average person.

Looking to the East

Lithospermum Purpurocaeruleum aka Purple Gromwell plant blooming with blue and purple flowers

We can also turn our eyes to the East to see how a distant culture worked with purple dyes. China certainly valued purple dyes. However, ancient China didn’t face the same level of scarcity as seen in the West. This was due to a plant known as purple gromwell.

Creating purple dye from purple gromwell was a far easier and more efficient process than what we saw in Tyre. That said, it was also more difficult to work with. Dyes made from purple gromwell didn’t adhere to or saturate fabric very well. This ensured a certain level of scarcity for purple garments. But the scarcity was still nowhere near what was seen in the West. As such, purple clothing wasn’t as treasured in China as it was in the West. However, it was still one of the more expensive choices for someone’s wardrobe.

The overall value of purple in China would go up even further during the reign of Duke Huan of Qi. The duke loved the color purple and this would lend an extra air of fashionability to it. During his reign in the Qi state, from 685 to 643 BC, a purple spoke of fabric would be worth around five times the value of a plain spoke. It’s interesting to see that even without equal scarcity purple still became associated with nobility.

Present Day

Redhead woman in luxurious modern purple dress standing in colorful lavender field

Today we’re long past the point where purple dyes are a precious and scarce resource. We’ve even managed to synthetically recreate the Tyrian purple dye so beloved by emperors. However, we still associate purple with its lofty past. It has a way of working into matters of great significance. Most people don’t consciously understand why they find purple so impressive. But that’s the interesting thing about cultural memory. We as individuals don’t always need to understand where emotional connections come from. Our culture simply instills those emotions within us as the history of the world resonates within our aesthetic preferences.