Abstract: Coloring Markets: The Industrial Transformation of the Dyestuff Business Revisited

Alexander Engel


The choice of dyestuffs is an important aspect in the production of fashionable textiles. In the nineteenth century, that choice was dramatically widened whenever new industrially produced coal tar dyes accompanied the handful of traditional natural dyes. According to common wisdom, the natural dyes lost out quickly, and the decisive factor was a cost advantage due to the "scientification" of production. This paper uses British and German price and trade data to revise these suppositions, and to put the rise of the artificial dyes in the context of the long-term development of the European dye markets in the industrialization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It shows that traditional markets were divided into a commercially relevant segment of premium dyes and a low-cost segment of bulk dyes for mass consumption. The rise of artificial dyes came later and was more long-drawn than commonly assumed. Initially they competed in the premium segment, and entered the mass market not before the 1880s, but without achieving significant cost advantages over the bulk natural dyes. Their success, it seems, was more due to their producers' ability to out-maneuver traditional producers and merchants in the newly created action framework of industrial markets.