A Dictionary of Arts: Vermilion.

A Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines; containing A Clear Exposition of Their Principles and Practice

by Andrew Ure, M. D.;
F. R. S. M. G. S. Lond.: M. Acad. M. S. Philad.; S. PH. DOC. N. GERM. Ranow.; Mulh. Etc. Etc.

Illustrated with nearly fifteen hundred engravings on wood
Eleventh American, From The Last London Edition.
To which is appended, a Supplement of Recent Improvements to The Present Time.

New York: D Appleton & company, 200 Broadway. Philadelphia: George S. Appleton, 148 Chestnut St.


VERMILION, or Cinnabar, is a compound of mercury and sulphur in the proportion of 100 parts of the former to 16 of the latter, which occurs in nature as a common ore of quicksilver, and is prepared by the chemist as a pigment, under the name of Vermilion. It is, properly speaking, a bisulphuret of mercury. This artificial compound being extensively employed, on account of the beauty of its color, in painting, for making red sealing-wax, and other purposes, is the object of an important manufacture. When vermilion is prepared by means of sublimation, it concretes in masses of considerable thickness, concave on one side, convex on the other, or a needle-form texture; brownish-red in the lump, but when reduced to powder, of a lively red color. On exposure to a moderate heat, it evaporates without leaving a residuum, if it be not contaminated with red lead; and at a higher heat, it takes fire, and burns entirely away, with a blue flame.

Holland long kept a monopoly of the manufacture of vermilion, from being alone in possession of the art of giving it a fine flame color. Meanwhile the French chemists examined this product with great care, under an idea that the failure of other nations to rival the Dutch arose from ignorance of its true composition; some, with Berthollet, imagined that it contained a little hydrogen; and others, with Foureroy, believed that the mercury contained in it was oxydeized; but, eventually, Seguin proved that both of these opinions were erroneous; having ascertained, on the one hand, that no hydrogenous matter was given out in the decomposition of cinnabar, and on the other that sulphur and mercury, by combining, were transformed into the red sulphuret in close vessels, without the access of any oxygen whatever. It was likewise supposed that the solution of the problem might be found in the difference of composition between the red and black sulphurets of mercury; and many conjectures were made with this view, the whole of which were refuted by Seguin. He demonstrated, in fact, that a mere change of temperature was sufficient to convert the one sulphuret into the other, without occasioning any variation in the proportion of the two elements. Cinnabar, moderately heated in a glass tube, is convertible into ethiops, which in its turn is changed into cinnabar by exposing the tube to a higher temperature; and thence he was led to conclude that the difference between these two sulphurets was owing principally to the state of the combination of the constituents. It would seem to result, from all these researches, that cinnabar is only an intimate compound of pure sulphur and mercury, in the proportions pointed out by analysis; and it is therefore reasonable to conclude, that in order to make fine vermilion, it should be sufficient to effect the union of its elements at a high enough temperature, and to exclude the influence of all foreign matters; but, notwithstanding these discoveries, the art of making good vermilion is nearly as much a mystery as ever. M. Seguin, indeed, announced in his Memoirs, that he had succeeded in obtaining, in his laboratory, as good a cinnabar as that of Holland, and at a remunerative price, but whatever truth may be in this assertion, or however much the author may have been excited by the love of honor and profit, no manufacture on the great scale sprung up under his auspices. France is still as tributary as ever to foreign nations for this chemical product. At an exposition some years ago, indeed, a sample of good French vermilion was brought forward to prove that the problem was nearly solved; but that is not so completely, may be inferred from the silence on this subject in M. Dupin's report of the last exposition, in 1834, where we see so many chemical trifles honored with eulogiums and medals by the judges of the show. The English vermilion is now most highly prized by the French manufacturers of sealing-wax.

M. Tuckert, apothecary of the Dutch court, published, long ago, in the Annales de Chimie, vol. iv., the best account we yet have of the manufacture of vermilion in Holland; one which has been since verified by M. Payssé, who saw the process practised on the great scale with success.

"The establishment in which I saw, several times, the fabrication of sublimed sulphuret of mercury," says M. Tuckert, "was that of Mr. Brand, at Amsterdam, beyond the gate of Utrecht; it is one of the most considerable in Holland, producing annually, from three furnaces, by means of four workmen, 48,000 pounds of cinnabar, besides other mercurial preparations. The following precess is pursued here: -

"The ethiops is first prepared by mixing together 150 pounds of sulphur, with 1080 pounds of pure mercury, and exposing this mixture to a moderate heat in a flat polished iron pot, one foot deep, and two feet and a half in diameter. It never takes fire, provided the workman understands his business. The black sulphuret, thus prepared, is ground, to facilitate the filling with it of small earthen bottles capable of holding about 24 ounces of water; from 30 to 40 of which bottles are filled beforehand, to be ready when wanted.

"Three great subliming pots or vessels, made of very pure clay and sand, have been previously coated over with a proper lute, and allowed to dry slowly. These pots are set upon three furnaces bound with iron hoops, and they are covered with a kind of iron dome. The furnaces are constructed so that the flame may freely circulate and play upon the pots, over two thirds of their height.

"The subliming vessels having been set in their places, a moderate fire is kindled in the evening, which is gradually augmented till the pots become red. A bottle of the black sulphuret is then poured into the first in the series, next into the second and third, in succession; but eventually, two, three, or even more, bottles may be emptied in at once; this circumstance depends on the stronger or weaker combustion of the sulphuret of mercury thus projected. After its introduction, the flame rises 4 and sometimes 6 feet high; when it has diminished a little, the vessels are covered with a plate of iron, a foot square, and an inch and a half thick, made to fit perfectly close. In this manner, the whole materials which have been prepared are introduced, in the course of 34 hours, into the three pots; being for each pot 360 pounds of mercury, and 50 of sulphur; in all, 410 pounds."

The degree of firing is judged of, from time to time, by lifting off the cover; for if the flame rise several feet above the mouth of the pot, the heat is too great; if it be hardly visible, the heat is too low. The proper criterion being a vigorous flame playing a few inches above the vessel. In the last of the 36 hours' process, the mass should be dexterously stirred up every 15 or 20 minutes, to quicken the sublimation. The subliming pots are then allowed to cool, and broken to pieces in order to collect all the vermilion incrusted within them; and which usually amounts to 400 lbs., being a loss of only 60 on each vessel. The lumps are to be ground along with water between horizontal stones, elutriated, passed through sieves, and dried. It is said that the rich tone of the Chinese vermilion may be imitated by adding to the materials for subliming one per cent- of sulphuret of antimony, and by digesting the ground article first in a solution of sulphuret of potassa, and, finally, in diluted muriatic acid.

The humid process of Kirchoff has of late years been so much improved, as to furnish a vermilion quite equal in brilliancy to the Chinese. The following process has been recommended. Mercury is triturated for several hours with sulphur, in the cold, till a perfect ethiops is formed; potash ley is then added, and the trituration is continued for some time. The mixture is now heated in iron vessels, with constant stirring at first, but afterwards only from time to time. The temperature must be kept up as steadily as possible at 130° Fahr., adding fresh supplies of water as it evaporates. When the mixture which was black, becomes, at the end of some hours, brown-red, the greatest caution is requisite, to prevent the temperature from being raised above 114°, and to preserve the mixture quite liquid, while the compound of sulphur and mercury should always be pulverulent. The colour becomes red, and brightens in its hue, often with surprising rapidity. When the tint is nearly fine, the process should be continued at a gentler heat, during some hours. Finally, the vermilion is to be elutriated, in order to separate any particles of running mercury. The three ingredients should be very pure. The proportion of product varies with that of the constituents, as we see from the following results of experiments, in which 300 parts of mercury were always employed, and from 400 to 450 of water:-
Sulphur. | Potash. | Vermilion obtained.
114 | 75 | 330
115 | 75 | 331
120 | 120 | 321
150 | 152 | 382
120 | 180 | 245
100 | 180 | 244
60 | 180 | 142

The first proportions are therefore the most advantageous; the last, which are those of M. Kirchoff himself, are not so good.

Brunner found that 300 parts of quicksilver, 114 of sulphur, 75 of caustic potassa, and from 400 to 450 of water, form very suitable proportions for the moist process; that the best temperature was 113° F.; and that 122° was the highest limit of heat compatible with the production of a fine color.

The theory of this process is by no means clear. We may suppose that a sulphuret of potassium and mercury is first formed, which is eventually destroyed, in proportion as the oxygen of the air acts upon the sulphuret of potassium itself. there may also be produced some hyposulphite of mercury, which, under the same influence, would be transformed into sulphuret of mercury and sulphate of potash.

Sulphuret of potassium and mercury furnish also vermilion, but it is not beautiful. Red oxide of mercury, calomel, turbith mineral, and the soluble mercury of Hahnemann, treated with the sulphuret of potassium, or the hydrosulphuret of ammonia, are all capable of giving birth to vermilion by the humid way.

The vermilion of commerce is often adulterated with red lead, brickdust, dragon's blood, and realgar. The first two, not being volatile, remain when the vermilion is heated to its subliming point; the third gives a red tincture to alcohol; the fourth exhales its peculiar garlic smell with heat; and when calcined in a crucible with carbonate of soda, and nitre in excess, affords arsenic acid, which may be detected by the usual chemical tests.

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