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There is a lot of misunderstanding about the color puce. The American definition is a middle tone brownish purple-pink, however, in France, where the name originated, puce describes a much darker and sterner red-brown. Other fashion sources occasionally also use the word puce to describe a murky shade of green horror created by mixing orange and blue (although I personally regard such a concept as misguided on many levels).
The dreadful sounding name has an equally vile origin. The French word for a flea is “une puce”. Puce was the term used for the brownish red dried blood stains left on sheets or clothing when a person was badly bitten by fleas: so puce has its origin in bloodstains. I suppose we are lucky it isn’t called “crime scene” or “parasite”. Despite the confusion regarding the nature of the color, it has had periods of real popularity. Marie Antoinette”s favorite color was said to be puce (although I can’t find any portraits of her wearing it). The color seems to be favored by the great and powerful–it is also the boss’ favorite color in Dilbert.
Dioscorea alata is a naturally occurring species of yam from tropical Asia. Yams are perennial vines which are widely cultivated for their starchy tubers—a dietary staple in great swaths of Africa. Dioscorea alata is different from the African yams in that it is principally used as a dessert or a dessert flavoring. The yam, which goes by other names such as “water yam”, “winged yam,” “ratalu”, “purple yam” or, perhaps most characteristically as “ube” (in the Phillipines, where it is highly esteemed) is also different from virtually every other food stuff in that it is a shocking shade of bright lavender.
Although Ube is valued for its high starch content and esteemed as a folk remedy for various ailments, it is principally a foodstuff and has the highest distribution of any yam—being the principle yam of South Asia, Indochina, and the Pacific. Even in Africa, it is the second most popular yam. Although sometimes cooks stir fry it as chips or cook it as a curry, ube is most famous for its sweet flavor and is a main flavor and ingredient of all sorts of pastries, ice creams, cakes, jams, and confections.
I am blogging about ube because of the striking color—and indeed ube has given its name to a bright hue of lavender. I would love to describe the flavor, but I have never had ube anything—a particular shock since one of the most critically lauded restaurants in my neighborhood is named “The Purple Yam”. Perusing the online menu makes me particularly regretful that I have never dined there since the menu is filled with deep fried pork belly, mussels in curry, duck, goat, and shrimp in addition to pomelos, jackfruits and, of course, purple yam themed sweets.
In the 1860s the formula for making pressed glassware changed. Manganese was substituted for lead to act as a stabilizer and to make the glass brighter and clearer. Nearly every major American glass manufacturer used manganese dioxide for such a purpose until 1915, when industrial chemists realized that selenium made for a better stabilizing/clarifying agent.
Because of the nature of manganese, the glassware manufactured during the late nineteenth century has some unique properties. Original manganese glassware glows brightly under a blacklight (although vaseline glass, glass tinted yellow with uranium does the same thing). When exposed to the sun over the years, as in a bright kitchen or a window, manganese glass takes on a slight amethyst purple cast. Glass objects with a faint hint of sun purple betray their provenance, but they also lose some value–since antiques dealers regard the effect as “discoloration”.
However, some people became obsessed by the sun purple effect and put their antique glassware outside for months in order for it to fully turn cloudy purple in the sunlight. This “solarized” glassware could then be sold to novice antiques collectors (often with a little card explaining “sun-purpling”). Dealers realized that the causative factor behind the color change was ultraviolet radiation, and so instead of putting glass outside they exposed it to radiation from UV sterilizers (a common anti-microbial tool in bio labs and hospitals). As you read this, somewhere out there is a room full of ornate glass pitchers, sugar dishes, and goblets being irradiated with blistering ultraviolet waves!
Seasoned glass dealers are aghast at the practice, which leaves everything a murky washed-out pale purple. Additionally there is glass currently being deliberately manufactured to resemble the manganese purple solarized glass. To confuse the issue even further, there is also glass manufactured in a robust shade of purple (for people who like purple) which is named “amethyst” glass.
Today is Mardi Gras, the hedonistic final day of the carnival season! Tomorrow, practicing Catholics take up the austere self-privations of the Lent, but today is given over to parties and spectacle.
Every year, I vow to go down to New Orleans and look for exiguously clad replacements to the smoldering Delta flame of yesteryear, but every year I end up in some gray northern office celebrating with nothing more than an unhealthy sandwich and a stack of paperwork. This year…well the same thing happened, but at least I can celebrate the flamboyant colors of Mardi Gras–green, gold, and purple.
The official colors of Mardi Gras go back a long way. It has been claimed that the colors were chosen in 1872 by Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch Romanov, a naval officer who was on a goodwill tour of America–although it is possible that the Grand Duke, a famous bon vivant, was instead trying to describe and order a cocktail made of lemon, lime, and purple bitters (a reliable history of carnival is obscured by the mists of time and a generous fog of alcohol). In 1892, Rex, the ceremonial king of carnival, ascribed a symbolic virtue to each color and equated them with Christian holy days. Purple represents Justice (and Lent). Gold stands for power (and Easter). Green is symbolic of faith (and Epiphany).
Since those days the colors have become more and more pervasive and now they can be found festooned everywhere. The beads, toys, and false coins thrown from parade floats are frequently green, gold, and purple, as are many masks, costumes, decorations, and promotional materials/goods. The lurid colors allude obliquely to royalty and many Mardi Gras objects are additionally decorated with crowns and fleurs de lis.
Whatever the historical or symbolic significance of the colors, I can’t help but notice their similarity to the colors of spring’s first crocuses which begin to pop up at the end of winter (especially during warm winters like this). Like the bright Kelly green of Saint Patrick’s day, the gold, purple, and green of Mardi Gras always remind me that the seasons are changing for the better and the verdancy and fecundity of spring is right around the corner.
In the spring of 1974 a group of farmers digging a well in Shaanxi China about one and a half kilometers (1 mile) north of Mount Li stumbled into an amazing find. A life-sized army of terracotta soldiers numbering over 8000 was entombed in the immense necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who lived from 259 BC – 210 BC. However the story of the despotic Qin Shi Huang (one of history’s most remarkable figures) and his extravagant mausoleum will have to wait. This post is not about the cruel emperor or his terracotta army, but is rather about the colors found on the terracotta figures, which were originally lacquered with a rainbow of bright colors– pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white, and lilac. One of the pigments discovered by archaeologists was Han purple, a manufactured pigment which was in use in China from about 1200 BC to 220 AD. The secret to making Han purple was lost in antiquity and could not be rediscovered until modern spectroscopy helped chemists rediscover the materials used.
Many scholars believe that Han purple was accidentally discovered by Taoist alchemists seeking to create synthetic jade. The compound was a barium copper silicate which was fired for long periods of time at temperatures around 900-1000 °C. The compound was probably produced in kilns north of the city of Xian (which was once known as Chang’an and was the capital city of China during the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties).
Han Blue was a dark bluish purple/indigo. It became more purplish over time as the barium copper silicate deteriorated and red copper oxides were formed. The pigment was used for beads, ceramic vessels, paintings, and for octagonal pigment sticks (which may have had a ceremonial value in their own right).
Han purple had a very similar companion compound–Han blue—which was also a barium copper silicate. Because of certain quirks of chemistry, Han blue was more lightfast than than Han purple and had fungicidal properties to boot. This allowed Han blue to last for the long centuries, whereas Han purple is now known mostly from faded traces. Han purple was not fungicidal and compounds (namely oxalates) produced by certain long-lived lichen caused the pigment to turn into light blue powder.
Whenever I have walked to or from the subway this last week, a particular patch of pavement stands out because it has been dyed a ghastly blackish purple. This is where the sidewalk runs beneath a mulberry tree, a medium sized deciduous fruit tree which produces copious quantities of black multiple fruit. Ten to sixteen species of trees are accepted by botanists as true mulberries. The three most commonly known species are black mulberries (Morus nigra) which were exported in great number from Southwest Asia to Europe, the red mulberries (Morus rubra) which grow wild in Eastern North America, and the white mulberry (Morus alba) which has been domesticated since ancient times in China as food for silkworms. The different species readily hybridize into fertile hybrids so I have no idea which sort I am walking under every day. The Mulberry trees give their name to the Moraceae, the mulberry family, which includes figs, banyans, breadfruits, and Osage-oranges.
Mulberry foliage is the preferred food for silkworm larvae (although the caterpillars will also tolerate foliage of the Osage-orange and the tree of heaven). An ancient Chinese legend relates that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor (himself the mythical progenitor of Chinese culture), discovered silkworm cultivation as she was drinking tea beneath a mulberry tree. A silkworm wrapped up in a cocoon fell into her tea. She removed the cocoon from her beverage and was amazed at how the fiber unwrapped around her fingers as a lovely thread.
Mulberry leaves, sap, and unripe berries contain 1-Deoxynojirimycin, a polyhydroxylated piperidine, which acts an intoxicant and mild hallucinogen (and produces nausea). However when mulberries ripen they turn black and become edible. Mura nigra and Mura rubra allegedly have the tastiest fruit which is said to resemble blueberry in taste and appearance when cooked into pies and tarts. Cooked mulberries are rich in anthocyanins, pigments which are useful as natural food colorings and may have medicinal value.
Mulberry also gives its name to a lovely purple pink which resembles the color of mulberry jams and pies. The word mulberry has been used to describe that particular shade since the 1770’s. I remember it fondly as a Crayola crayon which I always used up before the others (although apparently the color was discontinued in 2003–so today’s children will have to make do with less poetic purple pinks).
A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color. The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.
I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna. But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color? A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog. According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph. While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.
Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct. Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family. Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.
Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite. To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment. Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.
Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used. In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators. By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.
The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century. The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.