A version of this story by Summer Gonsalves is published in Public Lab's Community Science Forum, Issue 17. Read more from this issue here.
What goes into a dye maker’s recipe? The simplest answer would appear to be various dyes, time, trial and error. This response, however, does not even begin to scratch the surface of textile dyeing. As shown in the dye recipe journals, dated 1847-1876, and left behind by Mr. Richard Crompton, the superintendent for Cranston Print Works in the 1800s. These dye recipes included complex calculations of colors, used in certain doses and added in specific orders. Additionally, chemicals such as madder, arsenic, lime, tartaric acid, and lead nitrate, among others, were added to dye recipes, each serving a specific purpose.
As the oldest textile printing company in the country, Cranston Print Works pioneered the industry in calico printing and chemical bleaching. Skilled laborers, primarily men, were used to run machinery, whereas unskilled laborers, mainly women and children, were used in the cotton mills, bleaching, and dyeing rooms. Chemical bleaching involved the use of chemicals to discolor fabrics by dulling their natural color. Substances such as chlorite, lime, soda ash, ash water, liquor, and vitriol, all referenced in the dye journals, were used in chemical bleaching—the most dangerous of these substances being vitriol, otherwise known as sulfuric acid. It is known to cause skin irritation and burns, organ damage, blindness, and even death. Women and children faced the highest risk of injury based on their jobs working in the bleaching rooms.
In the dye rooms, workers used synthetic dyes laced with substances such as madder, potassium chloride, nitrates, various acids, and heavy metals including arsenic, chlorine, tin, and lead. These substances were used to bond or “fix” color to cloth, making colors appear faded or brighter, and to decrease the rate at which the color would fade from the material.
Madder, a chemical agent used to bind color to cloth is known to cause cancer, miscarriage, and birth defects. The most commonly used: nitrates, lead, iron, and copper — all used to enhance the dye process — cause a range of health ailments. This includes, abdominal pain, skin irritation, kidney and liver damage, seizures, shock, and, in severe cases, death. Sulfuric, oxalic, and tartaric acids, all present in the dyeing process, are known to cause severe skin burns, difficulty breathing if inhaled, stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Additionally, the heavy metals used in the dye process present the most severe reactions, including rashes, vomiting, abdominal cramps, headaches, severe illness, and even death.
Recipe from an early dye recipe book from Cranston Print Works. As transcribed: Steam Work, Black red on No 1.5 H, Purple black page 29, Red page 02, No 1.5 H purple take, 9 quarts barley gum, water at 20 (unsure of symbol) and 6 quarts strong F+E, purple mix well, strain and ringle.
The effects of the substances used in textile printing reach far beyond the health outcomes that the workers were subjected to. As seen in other New England factories, textile mills had negative impacts on the land and water around them. Prior to government laws and regulations, chemicals and dye byproducts were typically dumped into the water system or in pits surrounding factories. During the actual dye process, only about 80% of the dye solution would adhere and stay on the fabric. The remaining solution went into the waterways. From there, not only were Print Works employees and their families at risk from the negative effects of these chemicals, but anyone living downstream and in the watershed were also at risk.
While we are aware of some of the various chemicals, metals and acids that Cranston Print Works used in their dye processes, we are less aware of where the leftovers and waste materials went. One could easily speculate that it ended up in Print Works Pond or buried on the Print Works’ sprawling property. However, to date, no ground or water testing has been done as a large-scale effort to see what exactly is has been left behind from nearly two centuries of textile printing. The time has come to consider the next steps for the future of the Cranston Print Works property.
Summer Gonsalves is a Research Associate in the Superfund Research Program's Community Engagement Core at Brown University