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Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World Hardcover – April, 2001

4.0 out of 5 stars 52 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

In 1856, while trying to synthesize artificial quinine, 18-year-old chemistry student William Perkin instead produced a murky residue. Fifty years later, he described the event: he "was about to throw a certain residue away when I thought it might be interesting. The solution of it resulted in a strangely beautiful color." Perkin had stumbled across the world's first aniline dye, a color that became known as mauve.

"So what?" you might say. "A teenager invented a new color." As Simon Garfield admirably points out in Mauve, the color really did change the world. Before Perkin's discovery all the dyes and paints were colored by roots, leaves, insects, or, in the case of purple, mollusks. As a result, colors were inconsistent and unpredictably strong, often fading or washing out. Perkin found a dye that would always produce a uniform shade--and he pointed the way to other synthetic colors, thus revolutionizing the world of both dyemaking and fashion. Mauve became all the rage. Queen Victoria wore it to her daughter's wedding in 1858, and the highly influential Empress Eugénie decided the color matched her eyes. Soon, the streets of London erupted in what one wag called the "mauve measles."

Mauve had a much wider impact as well. By finding a commercial use for his discovery--much to the dismay of his teacher, the great August Hofmann, who believed there needed to be a separation between "pure" and "applied" science--Perkin inspired others to follow in his footsteps: "Ten years after Perkin's discovery of mauve, organic chemistry was perceived as being exciting, profitable, and of great practical use." The influx of bright young men all hoping to earn their fortunes through industrial applications of chemistry later brought significant advances in the fields of medicine, perfume, photography, and even explosives. Through it all, Garfield tells his story in clever, witty prose, turning this odd little tale into a very entertaining read. --Sunny Delaney

From Library Journal

Since his discovery of the first synthetic dye in 1856, interest in William Perkin has undergone a resurgence approximately every 50 years. Garfield's (The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS) biography follows in the footsteps of A Jubilee Proceedings (1906) and a centenary supplement to the organic chemistry journal Tetrahedron (1956). It focuses on Perkin as a pioneer, taking research from the burgeoning field of academic chemistry and applying it to industry. The creation of a popular dye from coal-tar (a plentiful industrial waste) when the field of dyeing was beholden to natural dyes, such as indigo and madder, made Perkin very rich and fleetingly famous. The book also chronicles the influence of this discovery throughout the industry and into other fields. That the use of stains and dyes eventually transformed biochemistry and medicine is ironic, given that Perkin was originally seeking a cure for malaria when he stumbled onto the mauve dye. Recommended for science collections in academic and large public libraries. Wade M. Lee, Univ. of Toledo Lib.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 222 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st American Ed edition (April 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393020053
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393020052
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #404,516 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By J. J. Kwashnak VINE VOICE on April 9, 2002
Format: Paperback
Originally I was skeptical of a book about the origin of a color, but Mauve is so much more. It is the story of the creation of artificial colors, the industries that spawned from it, as well as birth of chemistry as a innovating science in the 19th century. The discoveries by William Perkins opened up what would be literally thousands of new colors over the years, as well as essential components of the perfume industry, flavorings industry and even the bleaching industry. Inspirational also because so much of this arose from literally castoff garbage - coal tar. In essence Perkins began a new wave of recycling. The heart of the story is less the discovery itself, but the ripples it set off that continue to today, leading to the "better living through chemistry." Yet it also spotlights one of the lamentably forgotten pioneers in science who through a combination of curiosity, determination, foresight and luck found value in others castoff. Though it is classified as a biography, it is more of a sweeping view of history - the actual materials on Perkin's life pre and post mauve are almost incidental to what was discovered. Garfield helps shed light on the color revolution and spotlights something that we today often take for granted. It was nice to walk away from a book and realized that I really learned something.
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Format: Paperback
This book pushed so many of my buttons -- science history, painting, Victoriania, chains of coincidence and hidden causality -- that I had to love it. Best popular science book I've read in a while.

A diferent kind of reader might have been annoyed at the depth of detail, much of it trivia. I gobbled it up, though.
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Format: Hardcover
I received Mauve this Christmas and loved it. It's a hybrid of a book, a primer in science, Victoriana, fashion and color. It's not so much a biography of Sir William Perkin, the man on the cover, as a history of mauve since his invention (1850s) to the present. Simon Garfield made me believe that the whole world can be seen in terms of a particular color, and he weaves in some great historical detail to support his case.
Mauve was really the first artificial dye to be made, and became the toast of London and Paris once the Empress Eugenie found that it suited her crinolines like nothing else. After mauve, any artificial dye was possible, and the world really did change. Even if it isn't your color of choice, I recommended this book as a very interesting read.
(By the way, I'm not Pat Barker the British author!)
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Format: Hardcover
In 1859 there was a real mania for the color mauve, because it had been invented only three years before. Of course the color had not truly been invented, but people then just started seeing lots of it because the process of dyeing using the color had been invented. The inventor, an Englishman named William Perkin, was someone who achieved a good deal of fame in his time, but is now largely forgotten. _Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World_ (W. W. Norton) by Simon Garfield aims to bring him back to our memories, and in a lucid and enjoyable way, manages just that.
Perkin's revolution was to use coal tar derivatives, which had been regarded as useless waste products, to make the first of the aniline dyes; textile dyes before Perkin's day came from "natural sources," and were expensive, unreliable, and subject to fading. Perkin was only eighteen years old when he was tinkering with chemicals, trying to make the antimalarial drug quinine artificially. Perkin was looking for the colorless quinine, but instead produced a reddish powder. It would perhaps have been a sensible decision to scrap what he was working on and try again, but Perkin possessed an admirable curiosity, and further purified the powder to discover the prettiest purple dye anyone had ever seen. Chemists made new colors all the time, so his fellows were horrified that he planned to abandon academic chemistry to go into business, but he decided to go with his entrepreneurial instincts. Garfield describes the grueling duties of the young man trying to make it in a commercial world about which he initially knew little. But mauve took off, becoming the fashionable color, and Perkin's fortune was secure.
Perkin was a modest man, whom Garfield obviously admires.
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Format: Hardcover
The title alone was a seller for me. "How one man invented a color that changed the World". And I think Garfield really does manage to show this. William Perkins experiments with Coal Tar not only managed to show a viable use for this waste product, but it is because of him we are now able to dress in bright, unfading colours - aniline dyes.
I found the first few chapters of this book the most interesting. I felt Garfield had a good story - showing Perkins role, his experiments, the difficulty finding someone to use the process, the expense of doing it and the competition from people also discovering the process. These first few chapters in themselves made the book worth the purchase, for me anyway.
Unfortunately after that I found my attention wandered about. For some reason which I don't quite understand, Garfield started mixing up things by putting stuff on modern use of dyes, and quotes on Mauve all around the place. This really didn't work for me at all. I found it plain distracting actually. Also I don't think Garfield has quite the talent and touch of really good historical writers such as Dava Sobel (Longitude) and Giles Milton (Big Chief Elizabeth) and I think that may have also contributed to my losing attention later on.
This book certainly has a place for those of you who enjoy reading about these small but essential bits of history which are all but forgotten in the modern age. The story is a very good one indeed. I just think it would have been much more gripping as a purely chronological history.
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