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What Engels’ (Least) Favorite Color Teaches about Capitalism

Blog Post | Manufacturing

What Engels’ (Least) Favorite Color Teaches about Capitalism

"Any one not Aniline"

This article was published at Matzko Minute on 8/28/2023.

Did you ever receive one of those 90s chain emails in your inbox? You know, the kind where you fill in your favorite band/animal/team/color/etc. and then send it to ten friends or else you’d have bad luck for the week?

I recently stumbled across a 19th century version, a “confession” filled out by Friedrich Engels, the original champagne socialist who is now best known for popularizing Karl Marx’s ideas.

Frederick Engels "Confession"

Little on the list is truly surprising. Engels wouldn’t be the first notorious womanizer (and accused rapist) to declare his love for women even while evincing a base misogyny.

But the answer that immediately caught my eye was Engels’ favorite color: “Any one not Aniline.” Now, if you’re an ordinary, well-adjusted denizen of the 21st century, odds are that you immediately considered opening a new tab to ask Google, “What color is aniline?”

There’s no need to click away. Aniline was mauve. And it is hard to overstate the extent to which various shades of the new purple swept the world of fashion in the 1850s and 1860s.

A mauve piece of silk dyed by Sir William Henry Perkin

That’s because aniline was the first commercially-scalable synthetic dye, invented at a time when chemists were unlocking the secrets of the universe by distilling, vaporizing, and generally futzing with every substance they could get their hands on.

Aniline was actually the product of a failed British attempt in 1856 to synthesize quinine in hopes of making anti-malarial treatments cheaper and easier to produce than the old way of grinding up the bark of a hard to acquire Amazonian tree. The result wouldn’t especially help imperialists expand their empires over mosquito-infested jungles, but it did produce a particularly vivid shade of purple.

The researcher, an eighteen year old college student named William Perkin, was also an amateur painter, and immediately saw the value of a cheap, easy to produce dye that was more durable than existing alternatives. Seeking capital investment, Perkin partnered with Robert Pullar, a Scottish dye entrepreneur who would later become a radical pro-free trade member of Parliament. By the end of the century, Perkin and Pullar owned a global network of synthetic dye factories that brought color to the masses.

This meant that purplish, pinkish, and reddish dyes were suddenly this cheap and widely available for the first time in human history. Tweaking the distillation process could produce mauveine, fuchsin, and safranin, which are the synthetic forerunners of the colors we call mauve, fuchsia/magenta, and saffron today. It may have been the single most significant moment in modern fashion history.

Prior to this, many of the dyes used for clothing and paint had to be ground up from natural ingredients. For instance, if you lived in 4th century Rome and wanted to wear purple clothing, you needed someone to find and grind up twelve thousand snails of a particular species that lived mostly in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Doing so would yield 1.4 grams of dye, which was barely enough to color the trim of a single piece of clothing. The cost of purple was thus astronomical; pound for pound, “Tyrian purple” was worth three times as much as pure gold! And purple dye was so hard to acquire, at any price, that sumptuary laws often prohibited anyone except royalty from wearing purple clothing.

But after 1856, the ability to synthesize aniline meant that purple hues were suddenly everywhere. What had once cost pounds of gold now cost mere pennies. Mauve was all the rage — people were contracting “mauve measles,” as British wags put it — a fact that would not have been lost on Engels’ when he wrote out his list in 1868 since his family fortune was tied up in textiles. (He properly capitalized “Aniline” since it was then still a proprietary product.)

When you see televised depictions of Victorian era fashion, like middle class women wearing acres of brightly-colored fabric, you are looking at a byproduct of the synthetic dyes revolution.

Purple Victorian era dress

And that wave of color cascaded step-by-step, class-by-class, down throughout society. Cheaper, more durable, and more vivid products abounded, from housepaints to wallpapers. Today, we take for granted the idea that color is near costless. It would strike a 21st century consumer as bizarre if they were told that a bright purple dress or mauve house paint would cost 10x (or 1000x) the price of one that was white.

Even so, the rise of synthetic purple sparked a sartorial reaction. Purple, as long as it was rare and inaccessible to the plebeians, was considered dignified, elegant, and noble. But once purple became commonplace, it was gauche and uncouth. A century later when cultural critic Paul Fussell summarized the ways that dress signified class status, he lumped purple in with polyester fibers and sports jerseys as markers of belonging to the grubby “proles.”

And that brings us back to Engels’ sneering response, “Any one but Aniline.” On the one hand, it’s not surprising that a textile manufacturer might be annoyed at the disruption to his existing (and profitable) supply chain. Engels was also a product of inherited wealth, and making fun of Aniline was common sport for his class at the time. A satirical Punch cartoon of 1877 featured a dilettante sniveling about a debutante, “She affects Aniline dyes, don’t you know! I weally couldn’t go down to suppah with a young Lady who wears Mauve twimmings in her skirt, and magenta wibbons in her hair!”

Pecuniary self-interest and class snobbery aside, Engels wouldn’t be the first socialist guilty of reflexive suspicion towards technological innovation and the capitalists that had made it possible. The Luddites you will always have with you.

For whatever reason, Engels failed to see how the invention of synthetic dyes was a boon to workers and society as a whole, a future in which the rare colors of kings would become the ordinaries of proles. Capitalist incentives had once again commissioned a technological innovation that could push back against harsh, natural scarcity. Life would become a little bit brighter and bolder because of it.

Every one Aniline.

Axios | Labor & Employment

Average Worker Now Logs off at 4 p.m. On Fridays

“Quitting time has been shifting earlier throughout the week, and it’s especially early on Friday, according to an analysis of sign-off times from some 75,000 workers at 816 companies by the workplace analytics firm ActivTrak.

Friday sign-off times have moved up from around 5 p.m. at the start of 2021 to around 4 p.m. now. Monday-Thursday sign-offs have also shifted earlier, to around 5 p.m. on average.”

From Axios.

Blog Post | Culture & Tolerance

New Years Resolutions of Yore: Vices That Became Virtues

Virtues we strive to embrace were once vices we swore to eschew.

A version of this article was originally published at Pessimists Archive on 12/31/2023.

In centuries past, things considered virtuous today; readingcyclingradio listening and chess playing were deemed unhealthy vices.

Amusingly this means some New Years resolutions set today are inversions of resolutions set in prior centuries. Where we may aspire to read and cycle more in 2023, people in 1923 may well have pledged to do them less.

As a new year beckons we explored secular sins that eventually became virtues:

Reading

As books became cheaper and more abundant, concerns about reading “too much‘’ became a heated public debate – while the religious worried about the bible competing for attention, others worried about “information overload.

Novel reading was thought to inspire women to seek risk and novelty, while inspiring violent criminal acts by children. Other complaints included the prevalence of people staring down at books on public transport:

Where today we feel guilt for playing on our smartphones in the bedroom – after we wake and before we sleep – reading books in bed was once treated as similarly compulsive, incompatible with a good night’s sleep and possibly damaging to your eyes (in a dimly lit room).

Bicycle Riding

Bicycle riding was a newly popular form of transportation in the late 19th century, thanks to the safety bicycle: cheaper and more practical iteration with inflatable tires for a smooth ride. As the bicycle rolled across the world, critics followed, calling it dangerous because it startled horses and unbecoming for women, who had to wear traditionally male attire to ride (bloomers”).

While some physicians argued cycling was healthy others linked it to insanity, deformities of the spine, face and even a cause for appendicitis. One insurance company even refused to insure avid bicycle riders, while one army recruitment office rejected applicants who were avid cyclists because it was assumed they had a weakened “bicycle heart.

Radio

The rise of the radio was a bigger deal than most realize – arguably bigger than television – which was seen as an evolution of radio. Radio’s growth in society was inevitably followed by handwringing and speculation about its possible downsides: dead birds, bad weather, poor grades and sleep deprivation were just some of the unfounded concerns.

Games (Crosswords)

Today word games are widely considered good for our brains, crosswords have survived the transition from print to digital and new word games continue the emerge – like Wordle – which was acquired by The New York Times.

Ironically The New York Times – now famous for its crossword – would refuse to publish the puzzles for many years, deeming them unworthy of a serious publication. Why? Because they were considered unintellectual and associated with distraction, earning bans by at least one professor and a judge.

Games (Chess)

In 1858 Paul Morphy became widely considered the world Chess champion, as a result national interest in the game boomed, leading to Scientific American weighing in on the matter opining: “Chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time.”

Paul Morphy’s mental health would rapidly decline in the proceeding years, Chess was blamed by some for the deterioration, when other champions met similar fates there was speculation Chess might have a negative impact on players more generally.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War

      Telegraph | Science & Technology

      AI Wine Taster Can Sniff Out Whether You’re Drinking a Fake

      “A red wine’s provenance is key to its value, taste and prestige, and now a machine may be able to protect the finer variety from pale imitations.

      Scientists have found a standard piece of chemistry equipment and a machine-learning algorithm can take any wine and show, with total accuracy, which estate made it.

      A trial on 12 vintages from seven different Bordeaux chateaux found gas chromatography was able to perfectly determine the geographical origin of a glass of French red.”

      From Telegraph.