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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"

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.

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

Blog Post | Leisure

When the Surgeon General Warned About Pac-Man

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy published an op-ed in the New York Times advocating for a “Warning Label on Social Media Platforms” to address possible risks to adolescent mental health. Despite the nation’s top doctor suggesting harm, the causative effects of social media on teen mental health is still uncertain, the science is not in.

This isn’t the first time a Surgeon General jumped the gun in response to concerns about technology and children.

In 1982 then Surgeon General Dr. Everett Koop would sound a warning about the risks of video-games to youth and resulting “aberrations in childhood behavior.” He would note the risks weren’t proven, but ensured scientific proof would inevitably emerge:

Koop said he had no scientific evidence on the effect of video games on children, but he predicted statistical evidence will be forthcoming soon.

Associated Press report, 1982

Pac-Man Panic

The Surgeon General’s comments came amidst a boom in arcade machines and the first of many panics about video-games. Children would swarm the machines, feeding them coins obtained from parents: sometimes covertly. Where comic books and television were blamed for corrupting the youth in prior decades, video-games were the new boogeyman. The Surgeon General’s comments only added fuel to the fire:

Age limit laws would be proposed, one police department blamed burglaries on the rapacious demand for quarters and one Massachusetts town even outlawed the commercialization of arcade machines. Dr. Everett Koop’s implication that his opinions would soon be proven scientific fact were quickly denounced by psychologists and the burgeoning video game industry.

One industry rep. wrote to the Surgeon General saying: Respectfully, we must remind you that your only official mandate and authority is to develop scientific evidence. Another said emphasis should be on proven harms to kids – like cigarettes – not speculative harms. Dr. Everett Koop would in turn issue a statement that made clear these were opinions only:

My off-the-cuff comment was not part of any prepared remarks. Nothing in my remarks should be interpreted as implying that videos are per se violent in natures, or harmful to children.

It turned out the scientific evidence didn’t emerge. In retrospect it seems clear Dr. Everett Koop – as a medical authority – had the opportunity to quell unsubstantiated panic that distracted from more empirical threats to kids – like smoking. A few years later Dr. Koop would wade into the TV violence debate, citing the 1972 Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee coming to a unanimous conclusion that violence and TV increased aggression.

That correlation is now long debunked.

This article was published at Pessimists Archive on 6/18/2024.


Thailand to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

“Thailand will become the first nation in Southeast Asia to legalize same-sex marriage after the kingdom’s Senate approved a marriage equality bill on Tuesday, with supporters calling it a ‘monumental step forward for LGBTQ+ rights.’

The Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of passing the bill following a final reading, with 130 senators voting in favor. Only four members opposed the bill.

The bill still requires endorsement from the king before marriage equality can become reality in Thailand, but this process is considered a formality. The law will then come into effect 120 days after it is published in the royal gazette.

The result of the vote means that Thailand will become only the third place in Asia to allow for marriage equality after Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage in 2019 and Nepal in 2023.”

From CNN.

Blog Post | Leisure

The New York Times Banned Word Games Before Embracing Them

In April it was revealed subscribers to the New York Times played its selection of games more than they read its editorial content – in 2022 it acquired Wordle – leading people to joke it was now a gaming company.

The amusing irony? The Times once turned its nose up at word games.

When crossword puzzles first swept across North America in the mid-1920s, the New York Times sneered, calling them “a familiar form of madness” and the next fad after MahJong. Claims these puzzles were good mental exercise and a way to expand one’s personal lexicon, via a dictionary, were dismissed.

In another piece published the following year titled “See Harm Not Education,” the Times argued that learning obscure three-letter words was useless — but it didn’t stop there. “The indictment of the puzzles goes further and deeper,” it said, citing The New Republic, which posited that there wasn’t a worse exercise for writers and speakers due to it fixing “false definitions in the mind.” 

This piece prompted a letter to the editor by a reader who retorted, “I am afraid that a good many of your readers will disagree with the views expressed,” pointing out that it was generally agreed that crosswords were educational.

Crossword Puzzles: A National Menace

This animosity makes more sense when you understand the origins of crossword puzzles in America: They were popularized via the pages of the original tabloid, The New York World, the “new media” of the day. As far as the journalistic establishment was concerned, crosswords were another mindless fad used as a substitute for good editorial, to keep readers coming back. Tabloids were looked upon as trashy, childish, and plebeian. These publications were labeled the “yellow press” after one of the numerous comic strips contained within them – another childish novelty. The New York Times would refuse to publish crosswords for another two decades.

Across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, the Times of London reported on the U.S. crossword craze with similar disdain, using an ironically tabloidesque headline “An Enslaved America.” Published in 1924, it read:

All America has succumbed to the allurements of the cross-word puzzle. In a few short weeks it has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution and almost a national menace: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society.

The omnipresence of crosswords in the U.S. was described in detail. This “fad” was “in trains and trams on omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting rooms, in factories and homes, and even — though as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.” Along with other modern trends, the crossword had supposedly “dealt the final blow to the art of conversations.”

Crossword Puzzles: An Invasive Weed

In its estimate, over ten million people spent half an hour each day working out the puzzles when they should be working, noting “this loss to productive activity of far more time than is lost by labor strikes.” It even compared them to an invasive weed, stating “The cross-word puzzle threatens to be the wild hyacinth of American industry.” 

Judging by reports at the time, this proverbial “wild hyacinth” had invaded the UK by the following year, when reports of Queen Mary — wife of King George V — taking up the pastime appeared. Headmasters scorned them as the “the laziest occupation” and an “unsociable habit.” One British wife took her husband to court for staying in bed until 11 am doing crosswords. Public libraries fought a “war on crosswords” by blotting out the games in their freely available newspapers and limiting access to dictionaries within reading rooms.

Credit: Newspapers.com

An essay from the UK titled “In Abuse of the Cross-Word Puzzle” exonerated radio and the BBC as the reason for a dip in book sales, pointing to crosswords as the real culprit. The writer pointed out that early adopters of golf and bridge were abused for their frivolity but now appeared intellectual giants “in this era of puzzles!” The piece also reminded readers that – “Incredible though it may seem” – novel reading was once scorned by parents. Crossword puzzles (and jigsaws) lacked the benefits of previous amusements according to the author: “Was any age ever given over to such stultifying pastimes or labeled with signs of such mental degradation?” 

Credit: New York Times Machine

Less than five years after it derided them, the Times of London would give in and print its first crossword puzzle.

A Mental Illness Called “Crossword Puzzleitis”

Back in the U.S., the crossword puzzle habit was being pathologized and medicalized, the term “crossword puzzleitis” was coined — likely in jest — but it would eventually get attention from medical authorities and physicians. One doctor concluded “crossword puzzleitis” “stole” the memories of his patient​. “Crossword insomnia” was another phenomenon reported, akin to late-night smartphone fiddling, some optometrists claimed the habit caused headaches and weakened eyesight.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Magistrates lambasted  court attendants, policemen, lawyers, and their clients for “clogging up the wheels of justice” by pondering over the puzzles. Academics made similar complaints about their students, and the University of Michigan instituted an outright ban in lecture halls.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Crosswords, the Cause of All Societal Problems

Crosswords were cited as a reason for divorce in more than one case, receiving widespread press attention, including from the New York Times, which ran the headline “Crossword Mania Breaks Up Homes.” Other papers published amusing cartoons featuring weeping grooms and puzzle-engrossed brides.

Credit: Newspapers.com

American libraries had the same complaints as British ones in regard to their effect on library habits, and when the U.S. district attorney was two hours late to a speaking engagement, he blamed a crossword puzzle that he started on the train ride. Physical assault and even murder-suicide were blamed on the crossword puzzle too.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Ironically, many of these sensationalist reports appeared in the very papers printing them, sometimes right next to the crosswords themselves.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Newspaper editors defended them, insisting they were beneficial, but it was unconvincing since they were financially benefiting from the craze. Eventually the New York Times relented, as the U.S. entered World War II — editors decided people needed a distraction and escape. The Gray Lady printed its first in February 1942, and it would become the most famous and coveted crossword in the world.

Welcome, Wordle

A century later, word game manias are still happening. Scrabble saw a renaissance on the web and then mobile via Words with Friends in the 2010s. 2022 saw the indomitable rise of Wordle — a familiar madness — first gaining mainstream coverage in the New York Times. It was praised as free from the pressures of the hyper-capitalist attention economy. Its constraint of one game per day was held up as enforced digital moderation, ignoring its Pavlovian-esque nature. It was supposedly fun for the sake of fun, not profit and attention. 

Then on January 31st 2022, the New York Times announced they had bought Wordle for a figure in the “low seven figures” from its creator, promising to keep it free “initially.” Regarding the acquisition, the Times called games an “essential part of its strategy” to increase subscriptions: fun and moreish brain teasers to make the New York Times a part of one’s daily routine, just like the New York World did almost a century ago.

The following article is syndicated from a 2022 BigThink.com article we wrote inspired by the New York Times acquisition of Wordle. It was republished at Pessimists Archive on 6/10/2024.

Axios | LGBT

Study: Same-Sex Marriage in 20 Years Had No Negative Effects on Marriage Rates

“A review of nearly 100 studies examining the consequences of same-sex marriage on multiple measures of family formation and well-being found no harm to different-sex unions, a report from RAND and UCLA found.

The analysis found that after states legalized marriage for same-sex couples, marriage numbers jumped in those states at rates greater than what could be accounted for by the new marriages of same-sex couples alone. Researchers found no consistent evidence of an increase in divorce as a consequence of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. The analysis suggests that issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples had, if anything, led to a small positive impact on marriage attitudes among high school seniors.”

From Axios.