Revealed: The surprising reason why almost no national flags feature the colour purple


From the Union Jack to the Stars and Stripes, most national flags don’t stray too far from red, white, and blue.

And while some flags might seem extremely colourful, there is one colour that you will almost never see.

In a TikTok video, radio presenter Dean Jackson shares the strange reason that almost no country uses the colour purple in their flag. 

Of the 195 countries in the world, only three have a tiny amount of purple on their flags.

And the bizarre explanation stretches back to the ancient world and the exorbitant price of a rare sea snail. 

The reason that almost no flags around the world use the colour purple can be traced back to this predatory sea snail

The reason that almost no flags around the world use the colour purple can be traced back to this predatory sea snail 

In the video, Mr Jackson explains: ‘No country uses purple as a base for their flag or even has a purple panel on it, and the reason is all down to this little snail.

‘It’s not a purple flag munching snail or anything like that but the flags of most countries were designed several centuries ago and the only way to produce purple dye at that time was by crushing sea snails.’

As Mr Jackson explains, until the mid-19th century the only way to obtain purple pigments was from the mucus of a rare sea snail called the Murex snail.

The predatory sea snails only live in the Eastern Mediterranean and off the Atlantic coast of Morocco.

The dye was known as Tyrian purple as a reference to the city of Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon, from which the Phoenician traders controlled the flow of dye.

When countries were designing their flags purple could only be derived from the mucus of sea snails and was far too expensive to dye an entire country's flags with

When countries were designing their flags purple could only be derived from the mucus of sea snails and was far too expensive to dye an entire country’s flags with 

The snails were lured into baited traps or gathered by hand before having their mucous glands delicately sliced open with a small knife. 

It could take around 10,000 snails to produce a single gram of dye, perhaps enough to colour the hem of a garment. 

And, even if the base ingredient was widely known, the Tyrian dye makers were famously secretive and kept their complex recipes hidden.

All this combined to make purple dye one of the most valuable substances on Earth, worth more than its weight in gold. 

The dye’s association with wealth and power made it a natural choice for the colour of Royalty all over the ancient world.

The extreme price of purple dye created an association with royalty which seems to persist right up to the present day in the colour of King Charles III's first-class stamp (pictured)

The extreme price of purple dye created an association with royalty which seems to persist right up to the present day in the colour of King Charles III’s first-class stamp (pictured) 

Why was purple dye so expensive?

Before William Henry Perkin invented Mauve dye in 1856, there were no synthetic dyes available.

But the only natural source of purple dye is a species of predatory sea snail called the Murex snail.

These snails can only be found in the eastern Mediterranean and off the coast of Morocco.

Each snail produces a tiny amount of clear mucus which, with careful treatment, can be used to create a bright purple dye. 

It took 10,000 snails to make a single gram of dye, making it extremely expensive.

At its peak, so-called Tyrian purple was worth more than its weight in gold.  

Some Roman emperors even passed laws forbidding anyone else from wearing purple clothing under pain of death.   

Billions of snail shells have been found at archaeological sites around the Mediterranean, and just this month Tyrian dye was found in the UK. 

Researchers discovered a ping pong ball-sized lump of the snail dye at Carlisle Cricket Club amongst the remains of a Roman bath house. 

The archaeologist who found the dye says that the site could date back as far as 200 AD. 

And it seems that Britain’s association of purple with royalty has not yet faded, as King Charles III’s first-class stamp has been given a deep purple hue. 

Mr Jackson says: ‘That made it way too expensive to colour even one flag, let alone those of a whole country.

‘These days there are cheaper alternatives but still only two countries in the whole wide world decided to put a tiny amount of purple into their flags.’

Those two countries are the tiny island nation of Dominica, which features a purple Sisserou parrot, and Nicaragua which has a small amount of purple in a rainbow. 

Historically the flag of the Second Spanish Republic also featured a large purple panel but this was only used between 1931 and 1971.

Both of the modern flags which feature purple have been adopted fairly recently, which might explain their break with tradition.

Dominica is one of only two flags to use purple because when most countries and  features the national bird: the purple Sisserou parrot

Dominica is one of only two flags to use purple because when most countries and  features the national bird: the purple Sisserou parrot 

Nicaragua is the second country to include purple in its flag, featuring a tiny amount in the rainbow on the coat of arms

Nicaragua is the second country to include purple in its flag, featuring a tiny amount in the rainbow on the coat of arms 

The Second Spanish Republic also used a purple stripe between 1931 and 1971, but by this time purple had become much more affordable

The Second Spanish Republic also used a purple stripe between 1931 and 1971, but by this time purple had become much more affordable 

Nicaragua’s flag has undergone a number of changes in the last 200 years but the first addition of purple appeared in 1823 when the country was part of the United Provinces of Central America.

The current flag, which bears a similar design, was reintroduced with its purple components in 1908.

Dominica, meanwhile only gained independence from British rule in 1978 when purple was as widely available as any other dye. 

The reason that flags are now able to have purple also has a fascinating history which stretches back to the very first synthetic dye. 

In 1856, an 18-year-old chemistry student named William Henry Perkin was attempting to synthesise quinine, a treatment for malaria, from coal tar.

After a failed experiment left behind a blackish goo, Perkin tried washing away the mistake with alcohol only to find that it took on a brilliant purple hue.  

The world's first synthetic dye was created completely by accident in 1856 and completely changed the history of fashion

British chemist William Henry Perkin invented Mauve at the age of 18 and was a millionaire by the age of 21

We can now see purple on flags thanks to the invention of mauve (left) by British chemist William Henry Perkin (right). At only 18 Perkin invented the world’s first synthetic dye and made purple available to the masses 

Queen Victoria herself popularise the new wave of synthetic coloured clothes, such as this day dress from the late-1860s, helping Perkin's Mauve spread across the country and onto a few flags

Queen Victoria herself popularise the new wave of synthetic coloured clothes, such as this day dress from the late-1860s, helping Perkin’s Mauve spread across the country and onto a few flags

Completely by accident, Perkin had just discovered the very first synthetic dye – changing the history of fashion, and flags, forever. 

By 1856, Perkin had perfected his formula and obtained a patent for the dye which was named Perkin’s Mauve. 

This would not only make Perkin a millionaire by the age of 21 but would also supercharge the chemical industry and pave the way for all the synthetic dyes that we use today.  

No longer requiring thousands of sea snails to produce, purple garments become cheap and wildly fashionable.

Queen Victoria herself was even a big synthetic dye and helped to popularise Mauve during the 1860s.  

But as purple grew in popularity, it gradually lost its association with royalty and grandeur. 

So, by the time Nicaragua and Dominica came to design their current flags, purple was no more special or expensive than any other colour in the rainbow. 



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