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The Hidden Labor Behind the Luxurious Colors of Purple and Indigo

The history of Tyrian purple, indigo, and other dyes is a fascinating reminder of how we forget the people and the labor behind the products we use everyday.

Late second or early first century mosaic likely depicting a murex shell; from Rome, and now in Centrale Montemartini (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Perhaps no other color in history has been so celebrated and so reviled as the color purple. Although it has come to be known as the shade of royalty, the workers who labored to make the dye in the Roman Mediterranean were often viewed as lowly. During the later Roman empire, these workers were even subject to state control. From diamonds to coal to Tyrian purple, the workers who create luxury goods often do not enjoy the same status as their products.

In ancient Greek, purple had a number of names. The noun πορφύρα (porphyra) was frequently used to refer to purple cloth, and is still the root of the name for the purple-hued porphyry stone that Greeks and Romans prized for sculpture, sarcophagi, and even the bath tubs of the ancient world. Our word “purple” is derived from the Latin word purpura, which was often applied to the dye used to turn clothing to a rich blueish-red shade. Unlike today, there was a more profound hierarchy of color that could and did advertise status to others. Purple was one of these aesthetic markers, though there were many shades to choose from.

Porphyry “Bathtub of Nero” now at the Vatican Museums in Rome; the tub dates to the first century CE. (Photo via Wikimedia)

The most prized and expensive dye was called Tyrian purple, which came from small mollusks called murex snails. The natural historian Pliny remarked on the rather unpleasant smell of the murex conchylium — one of the marine gastropods often used to produce the prized purplish-red dye. A number of mollusks in fact contained hypo-branchial glands whose secretions could be used to turn fabrics various shades of purple. Pliny and Aristotle note that it wasn’t until the snails died that it was secreted. Consequently, for the production of the pigment, we should imagine thousands of rotting shellfish laid out in purple dye workshops along the coasts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Early twentieth century experimentations in trying to recreate the purple dye in fact led to the conclusion that eight thousand mollusks produced a single gram of the substance.

A ninth century CE gospel lectionary made during the reign of Charlemagne, this lectionary was not made with Tyrian purple, but was likely dyed with an imitation purple made from lichens (Rhein-Meuse region), now at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California (photo by the author for Hyperallergic).

Purple dye production was a gritty and often conspicuous, seaside business for those doing the intense manual labor required to harvest it. Although there are few other references to it, the Roman poet Martial alludes to the fact that Tyrian purple, named after the city of Tyre, retained a distinct, rather fishy smell even after it had been made into a garment. He mentions a certain Philaenis, who enjoyed wearing the luxurious textile for its smell rather than for its color. The poet also composed a list of bad smelling things that he would rather smell like than a woman named Bassa: sulphurous waters, a fish pond, an amorous goat, the old shoes of a veteran soldier, the breath of a Jew who had been fasting, ointment made from Sabine oil, and fleece twice dipped in Tyrian purple (‘bis murice uellus inquinatum’). Smelling worse than even a double-dipped fleece of Tyrian purple was quite the slur against the woman. One wonders if Romans could detect the use of imitation purple by Mediterranean dyers made based solely on the smell of the clothing.

Purple page from the sixth century CE Codex Argenteus (“silver codex”) that transmits the translation of the Bible into the Gothic language (image via Wikimedia)

Lower-level dye workers in Roman workshops were often slaves, and probably had stained hands in addition to a distinct odor attached to them. However, like the business of tanning leather, ownership of the business itself appears highly lucrative. The economy of the ancient city of Tyre was partially dependent on the selling of purple dye, and a number of inscriptions etched on stone proudly attest to the activity of purple traders there and nearby.

Other cities and areas in the East, such as Berytus, also depended on the precious dye, until the state consolidation and tighter control of Tyrian purple that perhaps began under the Roman emperor Severus Alexander and intensified up to the reign of Justinian. During the late Roman empire, laws restricted the wearing of purple to the imperial family, and purple dye workers became relegated to a labor caste that became hereditary and overseen by the state. Tyrian purple and imitation dyes were also used to make expensive bibles and to denote their value with purple pages written upon with gold and silver inks.

It was not until after 1453 that a serious blow to the Byzantine and ecclesiastical use of purple (particularly purple silks) to denote high status was dealt. It was in this year that Constantinople was captured by the Turks and the supply of purple to the Church in the west was cut off. A papal decree of 1464 written by Pope Paul II dictated that cardinals within the clergy would now wear a scarlet hue derived from kermes, a dye procured from scale insects.

If we look to the history of another purplish hue, indigo, we see a similar regulation of the labor force — and the very bodies — of those used to produce it. We get the word indigo from the Greek Ἰνδικός (indikos), which simply means Indian. Like many dyes, it was named for the place it came from. In Latin, it became indicum, and was introduced to Romans probably around the reign of the emperor Augustus (r. 31 BCE–14 CE).

Oscar Mallitte (British, about 1829 – 1905, active Allahabad, India 1870s) “Cutting Indigo into Cakes” (1877); Allahabad, India; albumen silver print; 14.8 x 20.6 cm (5 13/16 x 8 1/8 in.) Three Indian men cutting a large cake of indigo into smaller bricks (Image via the Getty Open Content Program)

Indigo came from the leaves of fermented indigo plants, though Roman writers were often confused as to whether it was mineral based or plant based. The architect Vitruvius noted that imitation indigo came into vogue when Romans could not buy the pricey import: “Again, for want of indigo, they dye Selinusian or anularian chalk with dyer’s woad, which the Greeks call ἰσάτις, and make an imitation of indigo.”

Honors students at the University of Iowa practiced dying wool with indigo in Prof. Rosemary Moore’s ancient dyes workshop. (photo by Rosemary Moore and used by permission)

The popularity and potential for profit from indigo dye lasted into the early modern period and extended into the new world during the middle of the eighteenth century in particular. Indigo was an integral part of the transatlantic slave trade, wherein many slaves were brought from West Africa into the West Indies and the Americas in order to grow and then harvest the valuable plant.

After harvest, the dye often went back across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold to wealthy Europeans. Within what is now the United States, indigo came to be cultivated particularly in South Carolina. Indigo farming in the United States is a subject explored extensively by art historian Andrea Feeser in her book, Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life.

As Feeser points to, there was a vicious cycle of use, production, and exploitation both of African slaves and native peoples in order to produce indigo in the American South. Even here, there was a hierarchy. South Carolinian indigo was viewed as inferior to that made by the French and Spanish. Many African-American slave workers had their hands and arms dyed a shade of pale blue while making indigo cakes which would then be used to die wool, linen, and other fibers. When the American Revolution came, the British market for selling indigo went bust. As a result, many farmers turned to rice — although a few southern plantations continued to grow indigo up to the mid-nineteenth century.

Blue kerchief from Tutankhamun’s embalming cache (working Date: 1336–1327 B.C.); the linen kerchief, dyed with indigo, may have belonged to Tutankhamun when he was a child; Egyptian ArtCulture (photography by the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the conclusion to Red, White, and Black Make Blue, Feeser notes the “Janus-faced” nature of indigo: “The past is not a singular phenomenon to be recovered, but a social fabric to be woven from diverse historical strands to become a means to clothe the present with knowledge and foresight … the shrub enriched many lives but simultaneously impoverished many others.” Many white plantation owners grew wealthy off the labor of African slaves used to feed the hunger for rich dyes, just as Roman emperors used compulsory and slave labor to run the purple dye workshops of the their empires. Cheap labor has always been attractive to people in power.

This tendency to celebrate the product rather than the producer of luxury goods is one that is still common today. Few that wear diamonds, who burn coal, or who buy textiles think about the workers who produce these goods. The invisible labor of those who created luxury goods did not go unnoticed in the ancient world either. The historian Plutarch recognized the divide in his biography of the fifth-century BCE Athenian general Pericles:

In other cases, admiration of the deed is not immediately accompanied by an impulse to do it. No, quite the contrary, many times while we delight in the work, we despise the δημιουργός (“workman”) who works for the people, a skilled workman, handicraftsman workman, as, for instance, in the case of perfumes and dyes; we take a delight in them, but dyers and perfumers we regard as base and vulgar folk.

The history of Tyrian purple, indigo, and many other dyes is fascinating, but it is also a reminder of how we forget the people and the labor behind the products we use everyday. This history should also remind us that slave labor continues to be used to create products like sugar in the Dominican Republic or t-shirts in Bangladesh. This will likely not change until we value modern miners, farmers, and dyers for their workmanship in the ways that we value fine artists for their art.

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