One day, as the story goes, the Greek hero Hercules was strolling along a Mediterranean beach with his girlfriend, a beautiful nymph named Tyrus, and his dog. As the hero and his honey whispered romantic nothings to each other, the dog ran around and played with shells, one of which belonged to a sea snail known as Murex trunculus. One particular snail raised its stalky little head – not a wise move, as things turned out, because the dog grabbed the snail and gobbled it up. When the canine ran back to Hercules and Tyrus, his mouth was stained purple.
Far from being grossed out by weird-colored dog drool, Tyrus was fascinated. Have a robe made for me in this color, she told the eager Hercules, and I’ll spend a night of passion with you.
What could Hercules do but labor on his ladylove’s behalf, gathering enough snails to produce the fantastic garment she demanded.
The shaggy dog story isn’t true, of course, but it contains one incontrovertible fact: Making purple required a lot of snails – about 12,000 of them to yield just 1.5 grams of dye. A gram and a half measures out to a bit more than a quarter of a teaspoon, which is about enough to color a toga. Some 250,000 of the slimy critters had to meet their end for a mere ounce of dye.
Calling purple expensive was, for centuries, an understatement. Only the ruling classes could afford it. (Though even they had their limits. The Roman Emperor Aurelian once refused to let his wife buy a purple silk shawl because it was literally worth its weight in gold.) In some cultures, only kings and priests were even allowed to wear purple, sometimes on pain of imprisonment or death for upstart commoners.
That, hundreds of years later, an aspiring musician from Minneapolis could make purple his signature color owes everything to an 18-year-old English chemist who discovered a synthetic dye quite by accident while trying to develop an anti-malaria drug.
Unlike violet, which has its own place in the spectrum of light (wavelength 380-420 nanometers), purple is a secondary color that exists only as a combination of red and blue. Tyrian purple – the kind made in the Phoenician city of Tyre after Hercules’ supposed discovery – ranged from almost crimson to a deep bluish-purple, depending on the particular manufacturing process.
The word purple still applies to a variety of hues that encompasses everything from lilac to eggplant, mauve to amethyst and petunia to fuchsia.
Royal purple (hex code 663399) is the shade most people think of when someone says purple. The color can also be deeper and redder (#80080) or brighter and bluer (hex code X11) or vibrant and eye-catching, such as Pantone hue #268+, which is the official school color of Kansas State University.
No matter who really discovered purple, the people of Tyre (now a city in southern Lebanon) were quick to spot the industrial and commercial possibilities. As early as 1800 B.C., they had perfected the process of turning snails into high-quality luxury apparel.
Though the color was associated with elegance and sophistication, the production process – which began with crushing the shells and letting the snails decompose – was downright disgusting. No wonder the factory was 14 kilometers south of town.
Tyrian purple, as it became known, was used to dye wool, linen and silk and was celebrated for its durability and resistance to fading.
Alexander the Great wore purple, as did the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. Julius Caesar is thought to be the first Roman leader to wear an all-purple toga. Other members of the upper crust soon followed suit. Unfortunately, the aroma from the dyeing process was as persistent as the color itself, so Roman patricians likely strutted around the city reeking of fish.
The raw materials and dyeing process changed through the years, rendering purple less odiferous but still pricey.
During the time of Henry VIII, only the king and his close family (and the clergy) could wear purple silk. Members of European royalty still wear purple on special occasions and politicians, from former President Barack Obama to newly elected British Prime Minister Theresa May, sport purple in the form of ties for men and dresses or accessories for women.
Purple also came to be associated with mourning, especially in the Victorian period, and bravery. The Purple Heart, established by George Washington in the waning days of the American Revolution, is awarded to military personnel wounded or killed in action against an enemy.
The big change in purple’s status came in 1856. English chemist William Henry Perkin was looking for a way to make quinine, an anti-malaria drug, when he stumbled on a compound that could be used to dye fabrics purple. He quickly obtained a patent. With help from his father and brother, he set up a plant to manufacture the aniline dye he called mauveine. Purple became all the rage in Victorian England and Perkin made a fortune selling it to the masses. He also unwittingly sparked the synthetic dye industry.
Without him, Jimi Hendrix could not have sung about Purple Haze and Barney, the big purple dinosaur beloved by toddlers, might have been a different color. And Prince, of course, would have had no Purple Rain, a 1984 hit that became his defining song.
Both Prince’s name and his fondness for the Minnesota Vikings football team, whose colors are purple and gold, played into his choice of purple to represent his persona. In addition to purple performance wear, he also painted his first house purple and drove purple cars and motorcycles.
In the corporate world, purple is rare. People either love it or hate it. And though it still carries a cachet of luxury, it can also come across as anti-establishment.
Purple, at least when used alone, is not a common color for products and is the least used hue for corporate branding. Of the 100 most successful companies, only about 1 percent use purple in their logo design. By contrast, some 39 percent of companies use blue and about 37 percent choose black.
Companies brave enough to use purple include Cadbury (and its candy-making competitors Wonka and Milka), Crown Royal, Taco Bell, the job-search site Monster.com, Yahoo, FedEx and Hallmark.
Common uses for purple in plastics include PVC pipes designated for reclaimed water, eyeglass frames and cosmetics containers and accessories.
Purple is no problem for Plastics Color. Whether you want mauve, plum, thistle or aubergine, the experts at the Plastics Color Solutions Center can develop or match your ideal shade.