Dye-Making A Judaic Traditional Art
Fact Paper 21
© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved
- The Ancient Fullers and Dyers
- The Fullers and Dyers of Judah
- Judaic Dyers of Rome and Byzantia
- The English Dyeing Industry
The Ancient Fullers and Dyers
The science of producing colorants and dyes was a significant factor in the technological evolution of civilization. The use of substances that would mark, stain or color surfaces and materials are central to literacy and art, and to the development of the textile, paper, printing and other basic industries. The Jews were integral to these basic disciplines from the most ancient times.
The history of the Judaic involvement in the art and industry of producing and using inks, colorants and dyes begins with the progenitors of the Jews in Mesopotamia. The Semites entered the historical picture in the 25th century BCE when the Sumerian city-states of the region were superseded by the world’s first empire, Akkadia, under King Sargon I. Sargon had come from the Aramaic region around Harran, where civilization was born, a region that was likewise the ancestral cradle of the Jewish people.
The patriarch of the Jewish nation, Abraham, was presumably nurtured in Akkadia, the most advanced civilization of its time. It is written that Abraham and his entourage emigrated from Akkadia (Biblical Shinar) to establish himself and his posterity in Canaan.
Mesopotamian statues and iconography, dating from earlier than 3000 BCE into the Akkadian period, depict woolen textiles of diverse weaves, some richly patterned and others with looped fringes. The cleansing and coloring of these textiles was a sophisticated and secret art. The Jews became privy to those secrets, and that knowledge was one of the mainstays of the textile industry as it was practiced by the Jews in the Diaspora into the modern era.
Before the dyeing of wool can take place, the oils have to be removed, a process called "fulling." A number of bleaching and detergent substances ("soaps") were used in ancient Akkadia. The bleacher or "fuller" took his Akkadian name from the azalog (soapwort plant). He also obtained the necessary caustic alkalis from wood ashes (potash) or plant ashes (soda).
Potash and soda were also used in the production of glass. These alkalis were fluxes that reduced the temperature by which pulverized silicates such as quartz could be vitrified, or melted. Thus the trail of the Judaic glassmakers through the Diaspora paralleled that of the Judaic fullers and dyers. Both these disciplines, glassmaking and dyeing, were largely, and often exclusively, practiced by Jews. One of the ways by which the trail of the Jews through the Diaspora is made visible is by examining archival sales records of soda and potash.
For example, documentation of the fact that the Crusader, the Marquise de Montferrato, brought Judaic glassmakers from Palestine to the village of Altare in his fief in Piedmont, Italy (an offer they could not refuse?), was found in the archival records of soda being imported through the nearby port of Savona. Inasmuch as soda was used for both the production of glass and of soaps, the only question remaining was whether the alkali was used for either or both purposes.1
In Akkadia, at the time of King Hammurabi (c. 1750 BCE), fulling and dyeing became distinct and specialized full-time trades with distinct equipment and social organization.
Under the famous code of Hammurabi, wages were regulated by statute. The code of laws under Hammurabi, incised on a stone slab now in the Louvre, encompass a social organization on a national scale, with labor laws covering conditions of employment. The workers of the textile trade were classified separately as fullers, spinners, dyers and weavers. The practicers of each of the arts were graded as apprentice, craftsman and masters. Both freemen and slaves were engaged in these arts and at every level of employment. The unpaid slaves were maintained by the factory-owning masters under conditions and protections prescribed by the code’s statutes. The wages of independent workers were regulated by the statutes.
Thus the tenets of the social system under Hammurabi were far more advanced and humane than was that of the United States before the Civil War. The labor laws of the code of Hammurabi contain elements that could well be emulated today. Some industrialized countries (Italy for example), have national laws in which jobs are graded according to skill and difficulty and for which minimum wages are prescribed for each category. It appears that the United States has still to attain that level of civilization.
The root of the word "alkali" stems from an Akkadian adjective describing the ashes of the glasswort plant, kalati, meaning "burnt." The word likewise became the root of and component in many ancient glassmaking and fulling formulas.
Soap was used in antiquity only by the Mesopotamians! Soda (found in Egypt in its natural form, nitre) was plentiful in Egypt, and washing with water was prescribed for Egyptian priests, but soap was unknown to the Egyptians. Lack of this knowledge led the Egyptian priests to condemn clothing made of greasy wool as unclean. Textiles made from flax were, in contrast, declared to be the first things that the gods created before moving in to live in the secular world.
Europe had no knowledge of soap into medieval times, and soap was rarely used in Europe until the modern era. The value of perfumes to the Egyptian, Roman and subsequent European rulers can well be understood as the reason for the existence of a great market for glass perfume vials produced by the progenitors of the Jews in Akkadia, and thereafter by glassmakers in Judah and throughout the Diaspora.
We find in Jeremiah that the Judahites had a full knowledge of both the production and use of soap: "For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord God."
Diderot, Plate 311.
The Fullers and Dyers of Judah
The fulling and laundry industries of ancient Jerusalem were combined. Thus association, as the Mishnah states, were important for hygienic reasons. Launderers were permitted to work until midday the day before Passover to supply their patrons with fresh garments for their festivities. Another interesting, and politically important, concession of the Rabbinate was that the Judaic laundrymen were permitted to wash the clothes of non-Jews in the interest of neighborly relations.
This accommodation was necessary because the secrets of soapmaking was strictly kept within privileged Judaic families. Restrictions on the passage of trade secrets carried on into the modern period. One example of the closeness with which the secrets were guarded over several millennia are the first statutes regarding the activity of the dyers and fullers of Bologna, drawn up in 1582. They were devoted in large measure to which secrets may be passed on to the dyer’s children, uncles, cousins etc., and under what circumstance a close relative would be allowed to become a guild member and thereby become privy to all the secrets. Official statutes of this type were common to many trades, and were the rule, not the exception.
Before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, certain districts, markets and streets were inhabited by artisans of the same trade and they had their own synagogue. The fullers, dyers, and weavers occupied prominent and extensive districts, for they were a large portion of the proletariat. Josephus draws attention to the synagogue of the Tarsim, belonging to the weavers of "tarsian" cloth, and to a synagogue of the weavers in Lydda. The weavers and dyers also had their own burial grounds.
The Judaic artisans were recognized wherever they went by the distinctive badges they wore. The tailor had a needle stuck in front of his dress; the wool carder displayed a woolen thread, the leather worker was recognized by his apron; the weaver sported a small distaff behind his ear; the carpenter wore a ruler; the scribe nested a pen behind his ear. The dyer was more colorfully attired; he wore differently colored threads from which prospective clients could select his preferred shade. The scholar Eleazar ben Azariah (First c. BCE) points out about this practice: "There is something grand about artisanship; every artisan boasts of his trade, carrying proudly his badge in the street."
The extent to which the Judaic art and technology of producing textile colorants had advanced was revealed by an extraordinary find in a cave near the ancient settlement of en-Gedi on the Dead Sea. A joint Israeli Army/Hebrew University expedition discovered within the cave the remains and artifacts of followers of Simon Bar Kochba, the heroic leader of the revolt against the Romans some 1800 years ago. Among the artifacts was a considerable assortment of dyed textiles.
The Israeli archaeologist, Professor Yigael Yadin, identified the fabrics as clothing or shrouds used by the Bar Kochba rebels who retreated into the cave in the Judahite desert in 135 CE. The fabrics and a skein of dyed unspun wool were excellently preserved; the colors were relatively bright and fresh looking after a mild cleaning. Professor Yadin requested the Dexter Chemical Corporation to study the colors of the fabrics.
"Never before," stated the astonished Dr. Sidney Edelstein, the principal of Dexter and chairman of the Archives Committee of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorants, "had such a large varied, old and precisely dated collection of dyed materials been available for analysis."2
Dr. Edelstein, together with Dr. David Abrahams, developed a new "positive" technique of separating the elemental dyes from the old fabrics and subjected the dyes to infrared spectrography. They produced several fascinating conclusions; one held that:
"The people of en-Gedi, and perhaps of all Judea had created a range of colors that compare favorably with the variety of our present-day with dyes for the three primary colors, that is, red, indigo (or blue), and yellow. One variant brown shading was derived from mixing alum and iron. With only natural resources available to them, the people of En-Gedi matched in fastness and clarity the best of present-day dyeing with synthetics. A spectrograph of an ancient blue made from the indigo plant matches one taken of synthetic indigo."
"A yellow produced with saffron from crocus bulbs precisely matches, in frequency and wavelength of light, the saffron available from the grocery store spice shelf today. It was previously thought that the Biblical people of the Fertile Crescent were unaware of saffron as a dye source."
"In the hand-bag of one of the en-Gedi Jewesses was found a ball of purple wool with no bromine content. Tyrian (or "royal") purple, created by Phoenicians from indigo and a red-producing bromine compound, apparently was ‘faked’ by mixing cochineal instead of the bromine compound with indigo."
"The lasting intensity of the blacks found matches the blacks of the 17th Century Gobelin tapestries of France. Apparently the en-Gedi people had developed a method of dyeing black by a three-color process involving a heavy blue, a red and a yellow, thereby improving upon the "ancient ink" method of combining iron salts and tannic acid."3
Judaic Dyers of Rome and Byzantia
Dyeing was one of the trades carried on by Judaic masters in Trastevere ("Across the Tiber"), the Vicus Judaeorum (Judaic quarter) of ancient Rome. "Roman" industry was concentrated in this exclusively Judaic quarter. It was a dreary, sooty area with crooked streets and dingy workshops. Smoke from the furnaces of the smiths and the glassmakers filtered across the Tiber to darken the skies above the forum on the other side of the river. Also carried on in the vicus Judaeorum was the manufacturing of unguents and the tanning of leather. They were industries whose odoriferous by-products assailed the nostrils of the Roman overlords who had to pass over the pons Judaeorum ("The Jew’s Bridge") through the vicus Judaeorum to reach the seashore resorts and ports to the west.
Dyeing was likewise one of the trades carried on by artisans in the Chalkoprateia ("Brass Market"), the equally Judaic quarter of Byzantium. The arts of fulling and dyeing continued to be practiced in that quarter into the eleventh century by Judaic masters under the city’s new identity as Constantinople. The fifteen or more thousands of Constantinople’s Jews of the Chalkoprateia, were not the unskilled peasants who had flocked to the city from the hinterlands, but were generally artisans and merchants who had come to or were brought into Byzantia because of their superior technological or commercial attributes.4
Judaic dyers, tanners, weavers and other craftsmen worked alongside the Judaic bronze, copper and glass-making artisans of Constantinople’s fiery industrial district.5 Significantly, no church existed in the industrial area in the early Christian period. The first Christian presence can be discerned in Constantinople’s industrial zone only after the Jews were expelled by either Theodosius II or Justinian II. The synagogue was then seized and converted into the "Church of the Mother of God."6
The Byzantines attempted to throttle Judaism over many centuries, but despite a recurrent cycle of edicts directed at conversion or expulsion, a highly productive core of Judaic artisans remained in the Chalkoprateia district of Constantinople throughout the Byzantine period. The Judaic dyers, glassmakers, tanners, metal-smiths, silk-makers, weavers and other Judaic artisans, not only of Constantinople but of Thessalonica, Thebes and Corinth and of a number of smaller Judaic communities, were essential to the Byzantine economy. Waves of emigration inevitably followed each reversal, but the attempts to obliterate Judaic religious and social precepts gave way each time to pragmatism, and the Jews were encouraged to return, at times with enticing conditions.
The English Dyeing Industry
A recurrent cycle of repression, expulsion and pragmatic re-introduction of skilled Jews took place in every part and period of Christendom. Jewish entrepreneurs and craftsmen carried the art from Asia into Alexandria, Byzantia, Sicily, Tuscany, Genoa, Bologna, Venice, and to the Piedmontese region of Italy. Silk production, textiles and the dyeing of silk were industries the Jews had introduced in each of those regions.7 For example, Jewish dyers were brought to Sicily from Byzantium by Roger II, who had been crowned king of Southern Italy and Sicily by the antipope, Anacletus in 1130. They were exclusively the dyers in that Mediterranean island when Frederick II became King of Sicily in 1198. "The emperor Frederick II brought Jews to Sicily in order to introduce plants and crafts that the country had not known before. These Jews came from the Balkans, as well as from the isle off Jerba off the coast of North Africa."8
The emperor took steps to nationalize the silk and dye industries in 1231. An exodus of Judaic craftsmen took place after 1290 when the Kingdom of Naples spurred a massive emigration by forcibly driving the Jews into Baptism.9 Most important among the arts the Jews carried with them into Northern Italy and Europe was glassmaking, sericulture (silk production) and dyeing. The road from Milan to Casale Montferrato was traditionally referred to as the "Jew’s Road," and was once lined with Mulberry trees."
The last stage of the process can be illustrated with the history of the re-introduction of Jews and their arts into England.
The story of the Levinstein family, dyemakers extraordinary, exemplifies the saga of the dyemaking Jews, and the manner in which the ancient skills passed down through the generations into the modern age. Two-thirds of a massive, authoritative work, Dyemakers of Great Britain, published by the Imperial Chemical Industry of Great Britain, revolves around this remarkable family, and other Judaic chemists and entrepreneurs. The book states at the outset:
"The development of the British chemical industry, and especially that part of it dealing with the production of dyes and dye-intermediates in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, owes much to the German-Jewish family of Levinstein."
"...Those interested in industrial history," continues the author of the work, W. R. Fox, "will certainly recall the names of Ivan Levinstein (1845-1916) and Herbert Levinstein (1878-1956), father and son respectively. Their names feature in most of the accounts which have been written about the rise and fall, and the eventual rebirth, after World War I, of the synthetic dye industry of Great Britain. They are remembered not only for the development of a thriving industrial concern and for their struggles to improve technological education in Manchester, but especially for the improvements their efforts brought to British regulations related to chemical manufacture."
The same could be said of the Levinsteins about the role they played in the development of the German dye and chemical industry prior to their emigration to England.
Although referred to by Fox as of Prussian origin, the family had emigrated to Germany from the area of Poland during the 18th century. There is no record of the activity of the family in Poland, but it is evident that they brought a long heritage of expertise with them from Poland to Germany. The earliest Prussian record of the family is of the birth of Jacob Levin Levinstein in 1772. Jacob had five children by his first wife (Susanne, nee Sachs); the oldest, Levin Jacob Levinstein was the father of Ivan Levinstein, who contributed so enormously to the English dye and chemical industries.
Levin Jacob first operated a cotton mill in Berlin, and then took on work for the house of Rothschild. He was involved in the movement to democratize Prussia, a family pattern of liberal reform which was carried into England by his grandsons. Prussia’s King Frederick William, IV (1840-1851) reigned in a period when the aim of the liberals was to secure constitutions in the then separate states of Germany. The middle classes hoped to dislodge the autocratic Junkers from power, while the unemployed were hungry and the nationalist faction dreamed of a united Germany.
After the Paris revolution of 1848, turmoil in Germany led to the declaration by Frederick that he was ready to lead a united Germany. Levin Jacob was much in his favor and carried out several secret missions for him. He also played an active part in the courts of the German states and served the Prime Minister on confidential matters. The Levinstein home became the meeting place of diplomats, bankers, newspaper correspondents, and political lobbyists. On two occasions, Levin Jacob had an audience with Emperor Louis Napoleon in Paris.
The privileged status of the Levinsteins in German affairs continued until the advent of Bismarck in 1862. Bismarck vehemently disliked the Poles, and especially the influential, liberal Jews among them. In 1861 Bismarck had already written, "I have every sympathy with their situation, but if we want to exist we cannot do anything but exterminate them. The wolf, too, is not responsible for what God made him, but we kill him, nevertheless, if we can."
The Levinsteins became a prime target of Bismarck and his entourage. A distinctly anti-Semitic German encyclopedia printed in 1880 quotes Bismarck as referring to Levinstein as a spy, banker and diplomatic agent.
The dictatorial Bismarck was pointedly bitter about, and took strong public exception to Levinstein’s humanitarian concerns and writings; He resented in particular Levinsteins acrid criticism of the ministerial administration.
All during this period the Levinsteins were creating new dyes. Two of the Levinsteins, Gustav and Alexander, launched an enterprise in Berlin; A patent was issued for the invention of "aniline green" to L. J. Levinstein of Berlin on February 8, 1864. It was one of the earliest patents for an aniline dye.
An exodus of Jews from Germany began in the 1860's because of the burgeoning anti-Semitic atmosphere. Hugo Levinstein (1832-1878) was the first of Levin Jacob’s sons to leave Germany to pioneer the Levinstein dye industry in England. The first of an extensive series of patents was granted to Hugo in 1861 in Milan, Italy; another was issued in that same year in Lyons, France. Both patents related to sericulture, the silk industry.
It was natural for Hugo to apply for patents for silk dyes in the Piedmont region of Italy, and in the region of France, for, as was noted above, silkmaking had long ago been established there by Judaic artisans. The first of the English silk patents was issued to Hugo Levinstein of London in 1852. Other patents continued to be issued to Levinstein & Company of Italy, and its exhibit at the 1862 International Exhibition in London received a medal for "sewing silk dyed in every color." The Levinstein establishment in Milan was a complex industry comprising dye-making, silk dyeing and finishing.
The development of a substantial silk and silk textile industry between Milan and Lake Como can be attributed to Hugo Levinstein. It is still a major industry in that region, famous for the superb quality of its products.
The first English dye patent was issued to the Levinsteins in 1864; it concerned "improvements in the preparation of purple, violet and blue aniline dyes," in which the dye magenta was heated under pressure with "nitric ether." The method is still in use today.
The other two brothers, Alexander and Gustav, worked with Hugo until it was decided to set up branch offices elsewhere in Europe. Gustav returned to Germany in 1883 and established a factory in Trier. Trier was also one of the towns in which Jewish glassmakers introduced their art in the Roman period. A Jewish enclave persisted in that city for centuries despite numerous traumatic episodes.
Gustav also established leather tanning factories in Corsica and Southern France. Patents were issued to Gustav for bleaching leathers and tanned hides. Again we note the involvement of the Levinsteins in an art dominated by the Jews from the early Roman period. As was noted above, it was in Judaic sector of Rome, Trastevere ("across the Tiber"), and in the Chalkoprateia of Constantinople for example, that glassmaking, smithing, dyeing, tanning, leather work, and other basic industries were carried on by Jews.
By 1865 the Levinsteins had factories in Milan, London and Manchester, with branches in Glasgow, Leicester, Huddersfield, Bradford, and New York, and were exporting to China and the West Indies. Alexander opened a branch office in Paris at the end of 1870. Gustav retired in 1890 at the age of 48; his last years were devoted to literary work, mostly of a Jewish religious nature.
Another Levinstein, Ivan, was the master chemist and best businessman of the family. Ivan made the greatest impact upon the English dye and dye-related chemical industry. Before he left Prussia, the young chemist had built up a special expertise not only in the making of magenta by an arsenic acid process, but knew much about the handling of waste products. This intimate knowledge was put to beneficial use later in its application to English ecology.
Ivan was in Salford for a mere seven months when he applied for his first English patent. Ivan’s great triumph came about in 1869-70 when he presented the market with "Blackley Blue," a water-soluble dye with wide applications. It was especially successful in dyeing paper pulp. Wool dyers also employed it and it became a valuable export. Blackley Blue remained a standard for the industry well into the 20th century. By 1885 more than 8000 tons of it had been produced at a sales value of 1,000,000 English pounds. Ivan launched "Manchester Brown" in 1871, "Manchester Yellow" shortly thereafter.
The company burgeoned with patents, products and commercial successes. Ivan is credited with most of the more than 80 British patents issued to Levinsteins, a large proportion of all English patents on dyemaking issued during the latter half of the 19th century. These dyes, together with those dyes invented by the other Levinsteins outside of England, cumulatively made up a considerable portion of the then extant standard dyes.
The family became well established internationally. From 1880 on Ivan was its sole representative in England. After 1901, Herbert, his son, followed with significant contri-butions of his own as an inventor and businessman. Bayer, Agfa, Dupont, and I, G. Farben all made agreements with the Levinstein companies by which they gained chemical and dyemaking technology. I.G. Farben repaid its debt to the Levinsteins by playing a heinous role in Hitler’s Germany.
The Levinsteins contributed more than dyemaking and chemical innovations to the world. The humanitarian philosophy which the family had practiced in the first half of the nineteenth century in Germany was reflected in their activity after they had become hugely and internationally successful. They became immersed in educational and ecological concerns throughout their tenure in the upper echelons of the business world.
Only eight years after Ivan’s arrival in England, at 26 years of age, Ivan founded The Chemical Review, the first publication of its kind in England. The initial copy, issued in 1871, was prefaced by Ivan’s statement: "It is a matter of surprise that the first commercial country of the world does not have a single journal which deals with the practical appreciation of chemical science to different branches of Art and Industry." In 1874, Ivan issued The Dyers and Printers Directory in conjunction with the journal. It became an invaluable tool in the scientific and educational fields.
In that year Ivan married Hedwig Abeles of Vienna, an accomplished and beautiful woman who became the center of the professional social life of Manchester. Ivan devoted himself especially to the promulgation of technical education. His eloquent writings about the weakness of Manchester’s educational system put him at the center of controversy against the interests of the "establishment." The educational foundation he laid, however, led to his eventual recognition as an outstanding, public-spirited figure.
Articles were written in the Review in Ivan’s impeccable Victorian English over a period of 20 years. He attacked bribery, corruption, adulteration, and various other forms of "commercial immorality." He dealt with conditions of labor and wages, pollution, poisons, smoke abatement, and many other similar subjects requiring urgent social attention. His polemics could well apply to the contemporary scene!
As a member of the Manchester City Council’s Education Committee, and as Councillor of the Technical School, Ivan was a vigorous protagonist of its take-over by the Corporation of the city, the climax of a hard-fought and successful campaign for public education.
Ivan became governor of Owens college, and a member of the Court of Victoria University. His activity led to the establishment of the independent Manchester University in 1904.
As President of the Society of Chemical Industry, Ivan wrote papers for its journal. His classic paper, providing as clear review of the extensive German education system, contrasted with the woefully inadequate state of British teaching; it sparked the Education Act of 1902.
From its Mesopotamian origins to modern times, the history of the association of Jews with dyes (and soap!), has intriguing connections and connotations. The parallel routes of the Jews and that of a sophisticated technology of the art of dyemaking are evident throughout the Diaspora, from the involvement of the Jews with the "royal purple" dyes of the Roman period, to the formation of the English chemical industry in the industrial age.
The giants of the modern colorant and dye industries, I. G. Farben, Agfa, Kodak, Dupont, Bayer, et al, owe a monumental debt to the Levinsteins and to all the Judaic fullers and dyers who preceded them. It is a debt that has yet to be fully acknowledged in contemporary histories.
Thanks to Dover Publications, who preface their edition of A Diderot Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry by stating that illustrations in it may be reproduced"limited to the use of not more than ten illustrations in any one publication."
- See HHF Fact Paper 25, "The Glassmakers of Altare,"
- Sidney M. Edelstein, Historical Notes on the Wet-Processing Industry. Dexter Chemical Corporation, 1972, p.125.
- Edelstein, ibid, p. 125-6.
- Samuel Kurinsky, The Glassmakers; an Odyssey of the Jews, Hippocrene books, 1991 pp. 151-153, 367-368; Samuel Kurinsky, The Eighth Day; The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization, 1994, pp. 324-325.
- Andrew Sharf, Byzantine Jewry, 1971, p. 16.; ref. a. Galante, Les Juifs de Constantinople sous Byzance, 1940, pp. 23-25; cf. C. Emereau, "Constantinople sous Theodore le Jeune," Byzantion, 2, 1925, p. 112.
- Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews, vol. II, 1967, p. 26.
- See HHF Fact Paper 3: The Silk Route; A Judaic Odyssey; HHF Fact Paper 15:, "Silk Making; a Judaic Tradition."
- M.R. Fox, Dyemakers of Great Britain , Imperial Chemical Industries of Great Britain, 1987.
- Cecil Roth, Ibid., 76.