The synthetic organic chemical industry began in 1856 when English chemist William Henry Perkin prepared the dye mauve from coal-tar
chemicals. Perkin built a factory near London to supply the world's first synthetic dye.
Synthetic versions of alizarin and indigo, dyes previously derived from plants, followed. Although England had the early lead, Germany
soon became the leading global supplier of a rainbow of brilliant colors.
Dye manufacturing in the United States was hampered by a lack of industrial chemists, limited availability of intermediates derived from
coal-tar, and tariff regulations that favored imports. The first efforts are attributed to European chemists who setup rudimentary
facilities in the Green Point area of Brooklyn, along the Newtown Creek.
In the early 1860s, Dr. August F. W. Partz, a German chemist, attempted to manufacture magenta in a small wood building on the banks of
Newtown Creek. The venture failed but in 1864 Thomas and Charles Holliday, sons of Read Holliday, who began making dyes in
Huddersfield, England in 1860, came to the U.S. and successfully made magenta at a plant in the same area. The Holliday plant produced
the first aniline in the country, in addition to nitrobenzene, picric acid and a range of dyes.
Three larger scale companies soon followed. The Albany Aniline and Chemical Company was founded in 1868 by A. Bott, a cardboard
manufacturer. Bayer became financially involved with this company in order to manufacture magenta in the U. S.. The Schoellkopf
Aniline and Chemical Company was setup in Buffalo in 1879. The Hudson River Aniline Color Works was established in 1882 in
Rensselaer; this site was acquired by Bayer in 1903, seized by the U.S. government in 1917 as enemy property, and eventually become
a leading dye producer under General Aniline and Film Corporation and later BASF.
By the time World War I erupted in 1914, there were still only a handful of U. S. companies making dyes; the market was totally
dominated by imports from Germany. But the German dye factories now had to switch to making explosives and Britain blockaded
German shipping, cutting off imports. This resulted in a dye famine that quickly drove prices up. Dye manufacture suddenly became an
attractive investment. U. S. companies, large and small, built plants to capitalize on the opportunity.
In 1912 Dr. William G. Beckers, a German chemist, had started a small dye works in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. This plant was
wrecked by an explosion in 1914 that killed two chemists. The strong demand for dyes, along with financial aid from capitalist Eugene
Meyer, Jr., convinced Beckers to build a much larger plant in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn.
The company was known as the Beckers Aniline & Chemical Works and employed 1,200 men. The Beckers firm merged into the
National Aniline & Chemical Company in 1917. Dr. Beckers became one of the wealthiest industrialists of the era and retired in 1920 to
a palatial estate in Lake George, New York. But pollution from the Brooklyn plant contributed to the end of oyster harvesting in Jamaica
Bay. This was an early warning sign of the environmental problems that would taint the dye industry and erode public support.
The Calco Chemical Company was founded in 1915 at a site near Bound Brook and the Raritan River in New Jersey. Initially Calco
manufactured coal-tar intermediates. After 1918 the company also produced synthetic dyes. Calco was acquired by American
Cyanamid in 1929 and the Bound Brook site became a leading manufacturer of dyestuffs, sulfa drugs and resins.
The General Aniline Works plant in Grasselli (Linden), New Jersey traces its origins to 1915 when Caesar A. Grasselli, head of the
Grasselli Chemical Company, built a dye plant there. The initial product line consisted of sulfur dyes, alizarin dyes and intermediates.
During World War II, U. S. government seized control of the company from owner I. G. Farben of Germany. The plant became the largest
producer of vat dyes in the U.S.
ColorantsHistory.Org discusses many other dye and pigment companies that were established around the time of World War I. These
companies include Pharma Chemical of Bayonne, New Jersey, Verona Chemical of Newark, New Jersey, Harmon Colors of Haledon, New
Jersey, Beaver Chemical of Damascus, Virginia, Federal Dyestuff and Chemical of Kingsport, Tennessee and Standard Ultramarine of
Huntington, West Virginia. Some large, well capitalized companies failed in just a few years, while some smaller companies starting with
limited resources prospered for many years. Other companies were absorbed by large domestic or international firms.
The emerging dye industry had significant impact on the development of the chemical industry in the U.S. Dye chemistry was the
foundation for pharmaceuticals, fibers, plastics and many other products. But after peaking around 1970, the U.S. dye industry declined
in importance and relevance. By the early 1980s, the four largest companies, Du Pont, Allied Chemical, American Cyanamid and GAF,
dropped dyes. All of the plants discussed here, except Standard Ultramarine, now known as BPS Printing Systems, have been closed
and demolished. The European dye industry lasted longer but is now almost gone. Clayton Aniline, a Manchester dye maker since 1876,
was shutdown in 2007.
ColorantsHistory.Org provides reasons for the deterioration of an industry that was once considered high technology. This web site is
also dedicated to giving chemical industry historians and the public access to the documents and photos associated with the history of
the colorants industry.
Colorants Industry History
General Aniline Works, Grasselli, NJ 1945
|William Henry Perkin (1838-1907)
with Mauve-Dyed Silk. Image:
Chandler Museum, Columbia University
|Industries on Newtown Creek, Separating Brooklyn and Queens, ca. Late 1800's.
Image: Greater Astoria Historical Society
|Hudson River Aniline Company, ca. 1915
Photo: E. Verg et al, Milestones: The Bayer Story (1863-1988), Leverkusen: Bayer AG, 1988
|Beckers Aniline & Chemical Works, Brooklyn. Image:: The Washington Post, July 5, 1916
Copyright © 2011 by ColorantsHistory.Org. All Rights Reserved.
Schaefer Brewery in Brooklyn, WW I Era
|Calco Chemical Company 1915.
Photo Courtesy of Cathy Rouse.