You probably remember the color Indigo from your crayon box as a child (or adult). Indigo is that lovely purplish blue. Think Blue Jeans. Indigo dye used to be very rare. At one time only nobility had access to the dye. This earned Indigo a status similar to that of other rare goods such as silk and even gold.
Indigo is one of the world’s oldest dyes. It was used in India and Egypt as early as 1600 BC. Indigo grew wild throughout the Mississippi River Valley. Along with tobacco it became one of Louisiana’s earliest cash crops dating back to the early 1700s. This was during the earliest days of the colony, long before sugar. The French planters’ need for African labor and expertise to cultivate the Indigo crop put Louisiana squarely on the path towards becoming a plantation society based on racial slavery.
Creating Indigo Dye
The process of turning the leaves into blue dye was complex and smelly. The blue color comes from the green part of the plant, not the flowers. First, slaves cut and steeped the plants in water until the leaves started to ferment. This step could last more than a day and smelled like rotting vegetation. This turned the water covering the plants blue.
Second, the water was drained into a new vat and stirred to add oxygen. The liquid was then again transferred adding lime. The lime caused the indigo sediment to settle at the bottom of the tank. After draining the water the indigo stayed behind. Finally, it was dried and cut it into cubes or rolled it into balls to sell.
The industry thrived in Louisiana until the end of the 1700s. Competitors in other states and plant diseases caused the decline. In 1897 a German scientist created a synthetic indigo dye, a version of which is still used today.
Jack D. L. Holmes. “Indigo in Colonial Louisiana and the Floridas.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 8, no. 4, Louisiana Historical Association, 1967, pp. 329–49, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4230975.
“Slavery in Louisiana.” Whitney Plantation, https://www.whitneyplantation.org/history/slavery-in-louisiana/
The Savvy Native is a group of experienced local tour guides who were either born in New Orleans or wish they had been.
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