When Purple Cost A Lot Of Green

Go to a store like Sherwin-Williams and you’ll be greeted by countless colors on neat little cards. Do you ever think about how those colors are created? A lot of colors today are made in a lab by mixing various chemicals together, but in ancient times, all colors were made using materials from nature. One color, known as Tyrian or Royal purple, came from shellfish and was so expensive only the wealthiest in society could afford it.

The mucus of mollusks was exposed to the sun for a certain period of time to create purple dye

As far back as 1570 B.C.E, the Phoenicians discovered purple. Legend says that while going for a walk, a god’s mistress noticed her dog’s mouth stained purple after he bit on a mollusk. Loving the color, she asked for a dress to be dyed in that shade. The Phoenicians were famous for purple; their name is even close to the Greek word “Phonios,” which means “dark red.”

To get the color, you have to catch shellfish like Purpura lapillus and Murex brandaris. After crushing them, extracting the mucus, and drying it out in the sun, the resulting material was used to dye fabric. Depending on the type of shellfish and manufacturing process, the colors ranged from pink to dark red. The most desirable shade back in the day was a very dark purple, almost black. The best part was that the color wouldn’t fade with time; weathering and age actually made it more vibrant.

To this day, purple symbolizes royalty

Who wore purple? The richest of the rich. According to a 4th-century B.C.E historian, purple clothes cost their weight in silver because getting just one ounce of dye could take as many as 250,000 mollusks. The most senior Roman magistrates wore a white toga with a single purple stripe, while generals who won a battle wore all-purple robes. Purple became such a status symbol that only certain people were allowed to wear it by law. Phrases like “born in the purple” meant that someone had been born in royalty. Today, synthetic purple exists and there’s no shortage, but it still evokes the feeling of authority and confidence.