Edward Schunck and the History of Dyeing

Dr James Peters writes:

As reported in a recent blog post, the Library has acquired the archives of the ICI dyestuffs division. This provides a vital record of the synthetic dyestuffs industry in Britain, and some of this archive will shortly be on public display in the Rylands Gallery. These dyestuffs were a novel industry of the Victorian age, and their development depended heavily on expert chemists and laboratory research.

Traditional dyes were vegetable-based; not much was known about their chemical make-up until they were systematically analysed in the mid-19th century. The resulting findings on their chemical composition played an important part in creating synthetic dyes.

Edward Schunck (right) with Henry Roscoe, Dmitri Mendeleev, and Georg Hermann Quincke, British Association meeting, Manchester 1887.

One of the most important figures in this field was the Manchester chemist, Edward Schunck (1820-1903). Of German origin (his grandfather had fought with the British in the American War of Independence), Schunck started work in his father’s calico printing business. Unlike other Manchester businessmen of the time, he received an excellent scientific education in Germany, studying at the universities of Berlin and Geissen.

On completing his Ph.D., Schunck  returned to work at the family firm. He became sufficiently wealthy to be able to spend time in private research, and his laboratory at his Kersal residence was considered one of the best in the country.

Schunck’s special interest was the chemistry of colouring matters found in natural products. He successfully identified the chemical constitution of dyes yielded by plants such as madder and indigo, and although Schunck did not manufacture dyes himself, this research was commercially valuable to the dyeing industry. His work on alizarin, the colouring agent present in madder, paved the way for the synthetic dye alizarine in the 1860s and 1870s.

In the late 1880s, Schunck became interested in the dyes used in ancient fabrics. Flinders Petrie, the leading Egyptologist of the time, gave him fabric samples he had excavated at Lahun, Egypt  in the late 1880s, which Petrie dated to the 7th century AD. Several such textile samples are present in Schunck’s analysis book (Eng Ms 1552), which has recently been uncovered at the Library.

Egyptian cloth sample, English MS 1552.

The samples are likely to be similar to those discussed in  Schunck’s paper, “Notes on some ancient dyes”, delivered to the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society on 8 March 1892  (Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 4th series, volume 5, 1892). The paper reported his analysis of the Egyptian fabrics , and he concluded that madder had been used for red and maroon dyes  and indigo for blue dyes, with various combinations of both combined with mordants to produce other colours. Schunck’s research was testament to his passionate interest in the history of dyestuffs

Schunck left generous legacies to the University for  scientific research. He also bequeathed his laboratory, which was moved to the University campus in 1904, and a fine library, and it seems likely that this volume of samples was part of that collection. Images of both the laboratory and the library are available on Luna.

I am grateful to Dr Alice Stevenson, UCL Institute of Archaeology, who provided information for this article.

1 comment on “Edward Schunck and the History of Dyeing

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