Red is just a color; if we want a red shirt, red paint, or red curtains, we just go out and buy them, as we would articles of any other color. It may be that red is a special color, with associations of blood or anger or desire, but as a mere pigment, it isn't anything unusual. That was not the case in past centuries. In fact, red bankrolled the Spanish empire and prompted the growth of science at the expense of belief in an all-explaining Bible. It is surprising that a history can be written about a color, but in _A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire_ (HarperCollins), Amy Butler Greenfield has opened up an extraordinary story, and one that still touches us today. It is the history of our interaction with Dactylopius coccus, an insect that parasitizes a particular cactus in tropical America, an insect better known as cochineal. It turns out to be one of the most important insects in history.
There were reds before the New World was discovered. Dyers and artists were able to make plants and minerals yield russets and orange-reds fairly easily, but real red cloth was hard to manufacture. A more vivid red could be made from insects, like oak-kermes, that could be killed with vinegar and steam, and packed up to sell to dyers the world over. The dyers didn't know it, but these insects contain what is now known as carminic acid, a powerful red dye. It is this dye that the cochineal insect has, too, but it is far more powerful and less fastened to troublesome lipids. The conquistadors saw the colors that were produced in cloth in the new world, and brought back the dye to Spain starting in 1519. By 1580, kermes reds were out and cochineal reds were in. Spain profited from many New World finds, but the new dye was a chief one. Even pirates were glad to rob Spanish galleons for it. Commercial espionage was involved in trying to transplant it to other colonies. Cochineal provided naturalists with a problem in classification. As they did with other New World novelties, Europeans tried to find categorical guidance from the Bible, but the book did not help settle the question of whether the little pellets from which the dye was made came from plants, animals, or even something in between (a "wormberry"). Classic writers didn't help, either. Greenfield discusses the microscopy of Leeuwenhoek and others which eventually helped settle the issue in a scientific way.
The cutthroat competition in cochineal ended when William Perkin invented his famous mauve dye from coal tar products in 1856, leading to a revolution in dye chemistry. The market for the insects collapsed, but never vanished. There are those who favor "natural dyes" (although this group has a subcategory of people who would not countenance killing even insects for them). Bakers used to use cochineal "to make the apple and the gooseberry outblush the cherry and the plum," and it still is used in candy, ice cream, lipstick, and much more. (Perhaps we are only squeamish about eating insects if they are whole.) The main supplier these days is Peru, but there is competition from other countries, among them the ones where the cloak-and-dagger operations had transplanted the cactus and insects centuries ago. Greenfield's detailed study casts a welcome rubicund light on in biology, history, fashion, chemistry, and world economics.