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Rich reds, pretty pinks, and velvety violets: Valentin dyes for Valentine's Day
Valentine is a name not just for a saint, but also for a fabric dyer!
I gingerly lifted a stiff cardboard case out of its cold, gray cabinet and set it on the table. Slowly, I pulled from the case a book stacked high with folds. In gold lettering, the cover reads: Musterkarte für Valentin Emmerling aus Geisa 1845, Pattern card for Valentin Emmerling from Geisa. As I unfolded it, a stunning multitude of colored woolen threads emerged from within the mottled paper backing. Hundreds of shades extended beyond the length of the table. To look at the entire expanse at one time was impossible. This discovery made my heart beat fast as if Cupid's arrow had stung me!
What I held was a sample book compiled by Valentin Emmerling, a fabric dyer hailing from Geisa, a tiny town in central Germany. Multiple books of his were donated to the museum by his granddaughter in 1979. A dyer is someone who mixes the color and then dyes fabrics and threads for textiles. The exacting business requires knowledge of chemistry, as a multitude of chemical reactions go into making brightly colored fabrics whose colors do not fade with washing, sunlight, or kissing in the rain.
Emmerling's large sample book demonstrated to clients the range of options available to them for coloring their fabrics. The book is over 10 feet long and holds more than 1,000 individually numbered samples, categorized by the hue on the color spectrum. Regina Blaszczyk explains in her 2012 book The Color Revolution that in the late 1800s, "these cardboard folios were slick marketing presentations created by dye manufacturers for distribution by their sales offices, by resident agents, or by traveling salesmen." Clearly, Emmerling's knack for neat presentation was a forerunner of what his countrymen would produce a few decades later.
In the 1840s when Valentin Emmerling was dyeing, he would have used natural dyes sourced from plant and animal material that need metal-based mordants (from the Latin for "to bite") to set the color. A small black leather notebook of his contains recipes and samples of his colors. For instance, he wrote that he used materials such as cochineal (an insect used to dye fibers a brilliant scarlet), logwood (a black dye extracted from bark), and alum (a mordant made of potassium aluminum sulfate crystals). These recipes record the amount of each ingredient needed in the dye bath, the appropriate water temperature, and the fiber (wool, silk, cotton, etc.) on which the dye should be used. Without these recipes, creating thousands of samples would have been the cause for a head and heartache.
Emmerling originally learned the dye trade from his father, and then he set off for 12 years as a journeyman in cities including Berlin, Hamburg, and Venice. He presumably apprenticed with master dyers in each city, continuing to educate himself on the intricacies of fancy dyeing.
Tucked inside the black leather notebook is a folded document. It was written in 1847, likely by two master dyers, with glowing accounts of Emmerling's success as a dyer and of how he should be welcomed "in a friendly manner" as "a practical industrious worker." After receiving these recommendations, in 1849 Emmerling left Germany for the United States and opened his own business in Utica, New York. He retired from the business shortly after due to ill health and eventually settled in Fulton County, Ohio.
Emmerling owned another personal sample book full of individually dyed yarns that features colors grading seamlessly from one to another like a rainbow, and a German reference book that translates to The Art of Color. Written by Dr. F. F. Runge, The Art of Color includes 108 dyed samples and recipes in a wide range of colors that served as a basis for Emmerling's own creations. Together, Emmerling's collection would have been instrumental for him, to reference his past recipes for dyes, create new ones, and collect samples of yarns perfectly colored to his liking. They were key to creating a color match made in heaven!
These sample books were essentially a display of what colors were possible to produce. They eventually transformed into smaller color cards that attempted to forecast the most popular colors fashionable people would be wearing in the next season or year. Similarly today, Pantone, a color-matching company, annually introduces the Color of the Year to reflect the needs of the world through a single color (2018 is Ultra Violet for its inventiveness). Violet will certainly be popping up in stores this year—like sales on red roses on February 15.
If Valentin Emmerling had been commissioned to dye a piece for Valentine's Day back in the 1850s, the client might have wanted to follow Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1840 book Theory of Colours and express "an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness," making the color red a standout choice. If you'll use color to wow your valentine this year—perhaps with an attractive card, gift, or hint of vivid lipstick—let Emmerling's careful attention to color inspire you.
Theresa Miles recently completed an internship in the Textile Department. She is a senior Anthropology and Theatre double major at Smith College.