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Snail Mucus and Purple

Purple has long been a color associated with nobility and royalty. Like many things that seem regal the reality of this shade is only a facade hiding a much more humble origin.

The main shade of purple that became so popular in antiquity was known as Tyrian purple. The dye gained it’s nobel reputation based largely on the prohibitively expensive process through which it was produced. The reddish-purple dye was extracted from the hypobranchial gland of several various species of sea snail. Hundreds of thousands sea snails would either need to be milked or crushed in order to produce even the smallest quantities of the dye.

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The secretion is used by the snails in predatory behavior either to stun prey or ward off predators. The snails will also release the secretion when agitated by humans giving dye-makers the chance to collect the pigment.


Snail milking remained the primary method of producing purple dye until the 1850’s when a British scientist working on synthesizing quinine accidentally stumbled upon a new method for producing purple.  William Perkins discovered that by dissolving the bark of cinchona trees in alcohol a thick sticky purple pigment was produced. This new pigment was known as mauveine and is still used today. Not only did Perkins produce the first synthetic purple pigment but also made a lot of happy sea snails while he did it.   

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