Textile historian Jacqueline Field learned about a little-known chapter of American history, the World War I "color famine." Credit: Courtesy of Jacqueline Field

When Maine textile and dress historian Jacqueline Field was doing research for her book about the American silk industry, she learned something fascinating: a dye shortage caused by World War I led to a global problem she describes as a “color famine.”

“It was very interesting,” Field, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, who now lives in Portland, said. “You come across something and you stumble into a new rabbit hole.”

This particular rabbit hole had many twists and turns, and by following them she was able to better understand a chapter of history that until then had largely been ignored in modern times. The background of the color famine story started well before the war, with the discovery and extraction of the first synthetic dyes in the mid-1800s. Prior to that, people always had made natural dyes out of organic substances such as tree bark, roots and berries. But when British chemist William Perkin accidentally discovered that an intense purple dye could be extracted from coal tar, it changed the way the world looked at color.

“That was the beginning, really, of synthetic dyes,” Field said.

Although the industry was pioneered in England, it really took off in Germany, a country with a good educational system and a lot of trained chemists. They also had newer, more technologically advanced ovens that were able to extract oil, gas and tar from coal, which was a contrast to the old-fashioned American coal ovens that left only ash behind. By the early 1900s, Germany was producing 80 percent of the world’s dyes, which were distributed and controlled by dye cartels. Those German-made dyes were imported throughout Europe, the Americas, China, Japan, India and other places.

“Germany had a very powerful position where the distribution of color was concerned,” Field said.

But when World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, the power balance shifted quickly. Although Americans, living in a neutral country, thought that Germany could continue to trade with them as usual, that didn’t happen. The British Navy blockaded German ports and the color pipeline was suddenly shut off.

“1915 and 1916 were the real crisis years,” Field said. “Nothing was coming through. Some companies came to the consensus that they should push pale colors and use a lot of white, so that’s what happened.”

White, which previously had been mostly used by young girls, in summer clothing and to signify mourning, became trendy even as factories scrambled to figure out alternatives to German-made synthetic dyes.

“You would think they’d immediately say gosh, we’ve got to get going on the dye industry,” Field said. “But there was no real enthusiasm.”

Investors assumed that once the war ended, the German dye cartels would sell their products at low prices, flooding the market and killing any new American competitors. So instead of modernizing the synthetic dye industry here, Americans innovated by looking to the past. They searched again for sources of plant-based dyes, and imported logwood from Haiti and Jamaica to make blacks, purples, greens, mauves and other colors. They found that strong yellows and mustards can be made from osage, and good black dyes from black oak trees.

Still, white, and white with stripes or figures of other colors, remained very much in vogue. In fact, the sneaker, which remains popular to this day, had roots in the color famine.

“Because of the shortage of dye and other materials, a white canvas shoe became very popular,” Field said. “It went on to become the tennis shoe of the 1920s and then became the sneaker.”

In fact, a lot of those white canvas shoes were made at a factory in Auburn, which became known as “The White City,” she said.

The dye shortage also led to some interesting moments, including the arrival of a German submarine named the Deutschland, which ran the British blockade and brought a cargo of dye to America “by sensational means,” Field said. The Germans wanted something in return, and went home with the boat packed tight with nickel and crude rubber, material needed to help fight the war.

By 1916, though, things were changing. American manufacturers were making money by selling needed goods to England, and the profits from the war contracts helped them pay for chemical plants and modern furnaces, Field said.

“They didn’t do it because of the dyes. They did it because you could make explosives from the same thing, coal tar,” she said.

Later that year, a couple of American companies decided to turn their chemical plants to dye manufacturing, a move that was the beginning of the end of the color famine.

“By 1917, the general feeling was that America was on the path to making its dyes and becoming dependent,” Field said.

The historian, whose 2007 book “American Silk: 1830 – 1930,” looks at the silk industry from its beginnings to its decline, has found that her research into the World War II color famine has aroused lasting curiosity.

“There’s a big interest in color right now,” she said.