Ever wonder why the color purple has long been known as the color reserved for royalty?

A sort-of purple cloak, favored by high-ranking ancient Romans,from "Costumes of All Nations," 1881 (via Wikimedia)

I’ve blogged before–actually a few times–about what a dismal job it was to be a textile dyer, over the course of centuries. Before the discovery of synthetic dyes in the mid-1800s, dying fabric was extremely complicated, dangerous, and smelly work. Dyers worked with corrosive acids, poisonous salts, and steaming vats of nasty-smelling muck.

Nowadays practically all fabric dye is produced synthetically in a laboratory, but prior to 1850 or so, colors could only be created with stuff found in nature. And for centuries, purple was the most rare and costly color of all.

Tyrian purple, as it came to be known, was produced by Phoenician people in the city of Tyre. They were known to the Greeks as Phoinikes, or the “Purple Men.” The Phoenicians lived in a coastal area east of Egypt on a strip of land in what is now Lebanon, from about 900 BC until 600 BC. Although the Minoans were probably the first to make purple, back in 2500 BC, it was the Phoenicians who produced enough of the stuff to trade and grow prosperous.

Tyrian purple was sought after by Roman Emperors and imperial monarchs throughout Asia. And it came from a rather unlikely source: snail snot.

Muricids are gastropods whose hypobranchial gland secretes a mucusey substance that turns different colors when exposed to sunlight. Tyrian purple was produced from a mollusk known as Murex brandaris.

The Phoenicians established beachside dye centers wherever they found significant populations of these shells.

Each Murex brandaris produces just two drops of a milky-looking secretion. Dyers had to crush thousands of shells to produce enough dye for just one toga. After being smooshed, the mollusks were left in the sun to rot. The oozy slime they secreted was painstakingly collected. By carefully timing its exposure to sunlight, dyers created colors from green to violet to red, to the most prized, an almost-black purple. The smell from the rotting mollusks was so atrocious that no one could bear to live nearby.

Eventually, Tyrian purple was replaced by a new purple dye that was much less costly to produce. The new dye was made from a species of lichen. But the term royal purple remains part of our language to this day. It’s even in the Crayola crayon box.




Lynda Mullaly Hunt says:

Sarah! I just love the topics that you choose to write about–and this is no different. This is facinating information. And how weird that I was wondering why purple ia associated with royals just a few days ago. Thanks so much for answering my question!

Sarah says:

Thanks Lynda. So glad to hear!

manjoorahmed says:

i have heard tyrian purple was discovered by a chemist in order to please his beloved one.
As they were sitting at the sea shore at that moment the girl found her dog”s mouth was covered by a beautiful colour (due to the secretion of the fluid excreted by murex brandaris). so she told her love to produce that colour which she found on the dog”s mouth.
In order to please her the boy worked hard and produce the dye.

Sarah says:

That’s one of those hard-to-prove stories that may be true or may be lore. Certainly the purple dye was known to the Phoenicians, and the person who first discovered it may have had a pet dog, although it’s probably a stretch to say he was a chemist. But a good story!

Evan karl says:

Been doing a ton of research on this stuff, and I know I’m here years after you posted this, but… that Roman’s cloak is NOT sort-of purple, it’s navy blue with a hint of green if anything. Additionally the Phoenician’s were called “the blood red men”. Phoinos, the root for Phoenicia’s name means blood red in Greek. Perhaps you were refering to some other intance or something, but what you mentioned here conflicted with all my other research thus far. Sorry to nitpick.

Sarah Albee says:

Hi Evan–I agree that the image isn’t one bit purple–as I’d hoped my jokey caption indicated. It’s a nineteenth-century artist’s rendition of a Roman, but I wanted SOME sort of visual for the post and as I recall I had trouble finding actual Roman-era color images in the public domain. And I did say that the snails produced a range of colors that included green and red. But as for translation of Phoinos–that is fascinating! I am going to consult my Greek language teacher friend and look into this. Thank you so much for commenting!

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