Bolling Crest Silks -- Dyes in World War I

Dyes in World War I

When the US entered the war on the Allied side in April 1917, anti-German feeling was rampant.  Many companies owned or managed by men with German-sounding names abruptly changed their names or merged with other firms under new names, to avoid harassment or discrimination. Among these was National Aniline & Chemical Co., of Buffalo, NY, which was formed in 1917 from the merger of Schoellkopf Aniline and Chemical of Buffalo, NY, Beckers Aniline and Chemical of Brooklyn, and the Benzol Products Company. National Aniline, and other American dye companies—all of whom produced pharmaceuticals and other chemicals as well as dyestuffs—received a gift from the US government in November 1917, when Congress passed the Trading with the Enemy Act. This allowed American companies producing goods that contributed to the war effort to confiscate enemy-owned patents and use the technology in their own manufacturing. Through what has been called “compulsory licensing,” the dye shortage ceased.

The first synthetic dye, aniline purple (also called Perkin’s Mauve) derived from coal tar, was discovered in England by then 18-year old chemist William Henry Perkin in the spring of 1856. Perkin was trying to synthesize quinine, the anti-malaria drug. British and German chemists competed through the late nineteenth century to create new dyes, extending the color range and making dyes that would not fade or run when exposed to light or water. True to its roots in the search to make quinine, dye chemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry went hand in hand. By the early years of the twentieth century, German firms such as I.G. Farben and BASF had become the leaders in both fields.

In March 1919 Germany offered dyestuffs as one of the products it could export to both Britain and the US in payment for the import of foodstuffs into Germany, through the “Brussels Agreement.” Textile manufacturers, and others who relied on German dyes, were in favor of this agreement. American dye manufacturers opposed it, asking instead for import tariffs on German dyes to encourage American industry to use American-made dyestuffs.