Colours Design

Diluted Bluing Dye For Brighter Whites

Doing the laundry is a centuries old cleaning task that evolved exponentially over the years. It evolved from rocks to washboards to washing machines the technology changed with time. The products used to wash your clothes are just as important. Ever since the artificial dye was invented there was more flexibility to use these new products.

In The Laundry

In the Victorian era, people became more obsessed with being clean. New laundry machines were invented, like the mangle which was a laundry press that had open gears and no safety covers in active areas.

Old Advertisement of Reckitt’s Blue

It was used by wallpaper manufacturers and laundry workers to add to the rinsing water to brighten your laundry. The blue dye offsets the yellow in the fabric making the fabric appear whiter. This predates laundry detergents and was only for the wash not for washing machines. Diluted blue dye is a part of multiple laundry tasks. Most are non-toxic, biodegradable with pH balancers with biocides to prevent algae and bacteria growth. This would have been used on natural fibre clothing like cotton clothing.

Early products used finely grounded blue glass which contained cobalt. Later on in the 1850s, the mixture used French ultramarine or Prussian blue (blue iron salts a.k.a. ferrous ferrocyanide) to whiten cloth. Cotton is naturally an off-white which is in the warmer tones of colours. This liquid would turn the fabric a bluer white in the cool tones. Over time the textile will fade since the bright finish was artificially inserted in the cloth. Also, a build-up of dirt, sweat and grime would eventually change the initial colours of the clothes. There is a risk of using a bluing agent to brighten clothes could stain clothes blue.

Other well known products were Dolly blue, Bluette, Mrs. Stewart’s Blue Laundry and Reckitt’s Royal blue dye. A lot of these dyes were used with a washing board against fabrics or in a separate pail with the watered down blue dye. A quarter of the blue liquid with three fourth of water could be added in the final rinse of your clothes but if there are instructions stated on the product, it best to follow that to avoid contradictions.

Side of a vintage box that once held Reckitt’s Blue Muslin Laundry Blue.
(Photoshopped to vibrate the graphics on the box)

Nowadays, Detergents Use Other Things

Today detergents use things that evolved from the bluing agents from yesteryears like optical brighteners. These chemicals are fluorescent whitening agents which are synthetic water soluble added to detergent. They work by absorbing the ultraviolet light in the fabric then re-emitting light within the blue range by fluorescence. These brighteners are used in multiple things beyond detergents like in paper, fibres, textiles and advanced brightening formulas in cosmetics. They are added in detergent to help make the clothes look cleaner. The downside to these brighteners is that they are not bio-degradable and could be harmful to aquatic life.

On Your Hair

The same idea was used for the hair but with different hair care products suitable for people. The phrase, “the blue hair woman”, came from people how would use blue hair rinse to offset the grey colour of their hair to be brighter. The browns, blacks and blondes are brighter by taking out the yellowish tint from the greying hair by offsetting it with the blue rinse.

Between the 1930s to 1970s, women would rinse their hair with these types of products. One of the first people to start doing this cosmetic trend was Jean Harlow in the 1930s to maintain her platinum blonde hair. Notable people like The Queen’s Mother would be known to use this rinse. Like the laundry blue, if too much was used on the hair people would be walking around with bluish hair or purplish hair. An extreme example of this would be Mrs. Slocombe from Are you being served? from 1970’s BBC television.

The grey hair would be a whiter grey or a vibrant grey uniformly over the hair. The colour is only temporary and can wash out of the hair.

Difference between warm white and cool white

Double chart of Kelvins from daylight to candlelight
Double chart of Kelvins from daylight to candlelight

There are three types of whites visible to the eye: warm white, cool white and daylight white. Warm white can be defined as light under 4000 Kelvins and daylight white is any light over 6000 Kelvins. The in between in this case is cool white which is the equivalent to an electronic flash or direct daylight.


Old And Interesting – History of laundry – after 1800

Old And Interesting – Laundry Blue

The Spruce – Why Optical Brightening Chemicals Are Not Needed in Laundry Detergents

WISEgeek – What is a Blue Rinse?

The Telegraph – End of the blue rinse

Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing – History

Remodelista – DIY: How to Whiten Your Sheets with Laundry Bluing

The Tingle Factor Box – What Is It? Reckitts Blue

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