marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,
marycatelli
marycatelli

A Perfect Red

A Perfect Red:  Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield

This is a book about dyeing, and red, and cochineal.

After some discussion about the importance of red fabric in Western civilization, and the dyes available in Europe, it describes the cochineal dye, native to Mexico, and how it slowly grew to be accepted in Europe -- slowly partly because conquistadors found it needed to be grown with care and therefore was ill-suited to mass production with slave labor, partly because the European dyers were reluctant and suspicious.  Still, given it was far superior to their existing dyes, it began a long history as the pre-eminent red dye -- especially after the discovery that tin could make it even more spendliferous. 

Touches on how Spaniards protected it as a trade secret.  For a long time there was great debate in Europe about whether it came from an insect or a plant.  After a bet on the matter, a Frenchman got some Spanish Americans to vouch for its being an insect and published the information he got from them, settling that matter -- but it was a long time before anyone got any cochineal away from Mexico, and longer still before anyone got it and kept it alive.  There never were more than four locations that seriously raised it -- Mexico, Guatemala, the Canary Islands, and Java -- and Java's cochineal was notably inferior.

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars dented its market, partly because of the disruption, partly because of a subsequent taste for more republican simplicity in color, and the Scarlet Woman connotations of red.  The real fatal blow came from a man named Perkin, who derived the dye "Perkin's mauve" from coal tar.  He had discovered synthetic dyes.  Cochineal's superior color, water-proofing, fastness, and safety both for the skin and for eating did not keep it from having serious competitors that were cheap.  And synthetic dyes made steady progress against all its advantages.

Nowadays, cochineal is a niche market, for natural dyes for both cloth and food.  (Particularly food.)  And the book concludes with a discussion of cheap color,  how quickly it became "cheap" in both senses, and how red has been displaced from its position of pride, making only occasional appearances in the "power dress."

A fascinating history.  Delves into all sorts of history -- wherever cochineal had an influence, the book follows it.  (And it went into some weird corners.)
Tags: history reviews: 15th-18th centuries, history reviews: 19th century-wwi, history reviews: across eras, secondary source
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