Old Dryers, Old Books, and Old Methods

Sidney M. Edelstein, American Dyestuff Reporter
Old Dyers, Old Books and Old Methods
Remarks on the History of Dyeing and Finishing 1


Sidney M. Edelstein (1912-1994)


Dexter Chemical Corporation

The paper abstracted below was presented to the combined meeting of the Lowell Textile Institute Student Chapter and the Northern New England Section held on May 16, 1947 in Southwick Hall at the Institute in Lowell, Mass.  Mr. Edelstein had on display a number of old books and manuscripts which he had accumulated over a period of years.  Included in his collection were books on chemistry and alchemy and all of the books on dyeing and related subjects published in this country from 1798 to 1890.  There were over 2000 items in his collection at the time.

Edelstein was a boy genius who entered MIT at age 16.  Following graduation, the job prospects were slim.   Nevertheless, he succeeded in convincing local industry in his native Chattanooga, TN that the scientific approach would solve problems.  He worked with Dixie Yarns and introduced microscopy to the investigation of textile fibers.  In 1945, he founded Dexter Chemical Corporation.  2


The Program

“Just a few months ago, many of us assisted in the celebration of the founding of our Association,” said Mr. Edelstein as he began the evening’s program, while referring to the silver anniversary of the founding of AATCC celebrated in 1946.  Over 300 pages of the Association’s proceedings were devoted to the many accomplishments of the members.  Edelstein wondered how many pages would be required to document the history of dyeing and finishing that extended some 4,000 years.  In the following compilation, I will attempt to distill his main thoughts.

“History maketh a young man to be old, without either wrinkles or grey hairs; privileging him with the experience of age, without either the infirmities or inconveniences thereof.  Yea, it not only maketh things present, but enableth one to make a rational conjecture of things to come.  For this world affordeth no new accidents, but in the same sense wherein we call it a ‘New Moon’, which is the old one in another shape, and yet no other than what hath been formerly.  Old actions return again, refurbished over with some new and different circumstances.” Quoted possibly from a New York State Medical Examination publication. 2


Dyeing and Alchemy

In the language of earlier times, we might say: ‘Dyeing begat alchemy, which begat chemistry, which begat modern dyeing.’  The practice of alchemy which sought to turn base metals into gold, “undoubtedly began in Egypt –in that country where for forty centuries or more, a civilization had grown up on the banks of the Nile.” “Al Chemi” literally means “the black.”

If Greece was the cradle of philosophy and Palestine the cradle of (western) religion, then Egypt was undoubtedly the cradle of the arts.  The works of art found in the numerous tombs speaks volumes. Tombs contained fabrics dyed to the royal purple and fabrics interwoven with threads of silver and gold.  The early artisans joined two coloration techniques in their shops.  They were first of all, fabric dyers and secondly, colorers of metals.  They wished to make base metals look like silver and gold.  These early alchemists did not deceive themselves.  They knew they were not transmuting metals, they were simply coloring them.  Edelstein explained that as the art passed from the Egyptians to the Arabians, and on into Western Europe, various false theories crept into the trader.  Those alchemists sought to speed up the transition from the well-known base metals into the perfect metal – gold.  In spite of all the false knowledge, the experiments yielded new chemistry.  The development of the thousands of synthetic dyestuffs, and modern dyeing techniques are all based on this humble beginning. 4


Glauber and His Wonder Salt

“Remember the Glauber’s salt,” is as much a by-word to dyers as is “Remember the Alamo” is to Texans.   Johann Rudolph Glauber was an alchemist, a pharmacist, and a metallurgist.  He was both ignorant and learned of many things.  While in Vienna at age 21, Glauber contracted a burning fever.  Friends advised him to drink the water near a certain vineyard.  He experienced a miraculous recovery.  Glauber spent the following years studying this wonderful spring.  The result was the discovery of crystallized sodium sulfate, which he called Sal Mirabile –the Wonder Salt.  He died at age 61 leaving behind a rich legacy. 5



Lawn and Watered Silk






The Royal Society

Charles II, the illustrious king, put the Royal Society on a solid foundation.  There was an awakening interest in learning, in science, and in technology.  On April 30, 1662, Sir William Petty presented the first original account in English of the dyes, methods, and chemicals used in dyeing.  Among others interested in the Royal Society, Robert Hooke was the first textile microscopist.  His work culminated in the publication of “Micrographia”, the first book devoted entirely to microscopy (1665).  Hooke predicted the development of synthetic fibers. 6,7


Dr. Francis Home and the Bleaching Industry

Bleaching using the sun took an inordinate amount of time and space.  Home introduced the scientific method of bleaching.  In 1756, he published what is probably the first book on bleaching.  He investigated the alkalies used in bleaching; he showed that sulfuric acid could be used as the sour in place of stale milk, with better control and a saving of time and money.  He detailed types of water hardness.  His work preceded the work of Berthollet who first used chlorine, and was reported some years later. 8,9


An Eighteenth Century Dyehouse

Edelstein presented an imaginary tour through a dye house of the 17th century.  He explained the procedure for achieving a scarlet “being dyed for the rich merchant of the town.”  Cochineal is shipped from South America to Spain to England; “whence we obtain it at high price.”  We learned that Spanish indigo was the best of all but for most greens and blues, “we used indigo from Carolina.” 10

Left: Dyehouse
Right: Maloney Swatches


Asa Ellis and Cornelius Maloney

The early history of the dyeing industry in the United States is intimately connected with the small town.  New England claims the origin of the first book on dyeing, published not in Boston or Providence, but in tiny Brookfield, MA in 1798.  It was 140 pages in length.

Cornelius Maloney published a book containing colored swatches in 1833.  He made certain his book would be a commercial success, by taking orders at $10/copy before the book was published.  He must have had quite a reputation for his skill to demand that price. 11,12


A Versatile Dyer

In the early days of our country, a man could be a dyer, a physician, a lawyer, and a politician and indeed needed many occupations to pay the bills.  They were the classic Jack-Of-All-Trades, so to speak.  Thomas Cooper was such a person.  He was connected with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, Joseph Priestley and even Robespierre.  He published A Practical Treatise on Dyeing and Calico in Philadelphia in 1815.  Born in London in 1759, he was educated in sciences, law, medicine, and the letters at Oxford and at other universities.  He travelled top France and eventually to the United States.  He became professor of chemistry at Dickinson College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of South Carolina. 13,14

Thomas Cooper








Perkin and Synthetic Dyestuffs

Edelstein’s long journey of that evening ended with a tribute to Perkin.  We all know the details of his great discovery of Mauve – the first coal tar color.  His work changed the art of dyeing completely.  Processes were established to manufacture the basic building blocks of dye structures, procedures were standardized.  Gone were the variations derived from the use of natural products that were subject to variations in climate, soil, and the human element.  In 1906, on the 50th anniversary of his great discovery, celebrations were held in London, New York and Boston.  This is not the end of the journey, said Edelstein; the road is still under construction. 15



  1. Sidney M. Edelstein, “Old Dyers, Old Books and Old Methods,” American Dyestuff Reporter, Sep 22,1947 P523-532.
                             Note: The following references were among those cited by Dr. Edelstein.
  2. Anthony S. Travis, Edelstein biography.
  3. William E. Goodwin, “William Osler and Howard A. Kelly,” Bull. Hist. Med., Baltimore, 1946, XX, p611.
  4. Arthur John Hopkins, Alchemy: Child of Greek Philosophy, New York 1934.
  5. Eva V. Armstrong and Claude K. Deischer, “Johann Rudolph Glauber,” Journal of Chemical Education1942, XIX, p3-8.
  6. Martha Ornstein, The Role of Scientific Societies in The Seventeenth Century, Chicago, 1928.
  7. Robert Hooke, Micrographia, London, 1665.
  8. S. H. Higgins, A History of Bleaching, London, 1924.
  9. Francis Home, Experiments On Bleaching, Edinburgh, 1756.
  10. Le Teinturier Parfait, Leyden 1708.
  11. Asa Ellis Junior, The Country Dyer’s Assistant, Brookfield, Mass., 1798.
  12. Cornelius Maloney, The Practical Dyer, Boston, 1833.
  13. Dumas Malone, The Public Life of Thomas Cooper, New Haven, 1926.
  14. Thomas Cooper, A Practical Treatise On Dyeing, and Callicoe Printing, Philadelphia, 1815.
  15. Jubilee of The Discovery Of Mauve and Of The Foundation Of The Coal-Tar Colour Industry, Sir W.H. Perkin, London, 1906.