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  • William Tyler

Sea Snails, Cleopatra, and Purple Squirrels

This is just a short piece around the history and folklore of the colour purple.


The Phrase 'born to the purple' meaning born into privileged circumstances gives a clue to the original use of purple. Purple is a colour traditionally associated with royalty, especially the Emperors of Ancient Rome. This custom subsequently spread to the Eastern Emperor in Byzantium, where Empresses customarily gave birth in a purple room, literally 'born in the purple'. However, after the Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks in May 1453, the method of producing purple dye was lost and the greater use of scarlet replaced purple in The West, especially after the discovery of red cochineal dye from The New World.


Purple was seen as exclusive because of its cost, directly related to its means of manufacture. The mucus of two types of sea snail was required to produce the colour, and then set fast in urine. The smell must have been horrendous given that literally hundreds of thousands of snails had to die to produce a single ounce of the dye. St Clair writes in her book 'The Secret Lives of Colour', 'The odour of rotting snails, ageing urine and the fermenting mixture must have been overpowering'. Quite!


Pliny the Elder in his 'Natural History' informs us that the richest purple colour, obtained by a process of double dyeing, should be the colour of clotted blood. He also tells us that the best purple of all came from the seas off of Tyre, hence the description of Tyrian Purple. Other sites of purple dye manufacture says Pliny were ' the best African at Meninx (Jerba in Tunisia) and on the coast of Gaetulia (Southern Algeria), and the best European in the region of Sparta'.


Perhaps it was African purple that Cleopatra liked so much and persuaded Caesar to use, after she had seduced him by being presented to him rolled up in a carpet (or was that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor - history can be so confusing at times). Before Caesar purple had been used by senior officials and generals of Rome, but by the 4th century only Emperors could wear the colour.


Purple returned with a vengeance in 1856 when an artificial colour, 'mauve',was launched.

Various shades of purple and mauve were then produced, and the Victorians used purple and the lighter mauve in their staged release from the strict 'lockdown' colour of black in mourning rituals.


Our word 'purple' in modern English comes from the Saxon 'purpul', which in turn comes from the latin 'purpura', and that from the Greek 'porphura', one of the names for the sea snail at the basis of the colour.


Various phrases incorporating the word 'purple' have entered our language from 'purple prose/purple patches (used by the poet Horace so many centuries ago in Ancient Rome) through to the year 2000's new phrase 'purple squirrels'. The phrase was coined by employment recruiters to describe an applicant who had all the requirements for a job, and did not need any further training. As unlikely a scenario as finding a purple squirrel in nature.


PS Red


If enough of you are interested I will pen another piece at some point about the colour red. But just a little trailer. A study published in 2012 by the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research advised waitresses to wear red. Their study had found that waitresses wearing red had larger tips (by a factor of 26%) than waitresses wearing another colour. However, the survey also found that this only applied to male customers.

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