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A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire Paperback – May 2006

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Product details

  • Paperback: 338 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (May 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060522763
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060522766
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 733,869 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Amy Butler Greenfield makes her YA novel debut with Chantress. Originally from the Adirondacks, Amy lives with her husband and daughter in England. Visit her at

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FORTY MILES WEST OF FLORENCE, IN A fertile Tuscan valley not far from the Mediterranean Sea, lies the serene and sunlit city of Lucca. Known throughout the region for its trade in olive oil, flour, and wine, modern-day Lucca is not much more than a provincial market town, but its great piazzas, Romanesque churches, and medieval towers bear mute witness to a more illustrious past. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By bernie TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 19 Feb. 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book, "A Perfect Red" by Amy Butler Greenfield, takes us to many of secure worlds while showing us the economic and psychological histories of the color red. Much more than the color red, she shows how these economies created wars and alliances. She also covers commerce and the distribution of plants and animals as it is seen from the color red. The focus is not as narrow as it sounds and much of this can be applied to other plants and colors.

Mrs. Greenfield starts out in her book with justification for why she's following the color red. Some of these justifications are very thin. But once you get into the details of the book you will be absorbed and as much as you think you know about history, commerce, agriculture, botany, and politics there is always something new to be learned. Somehow I lived my whole life without ever hearing about cochineal (a type of red dye) and variants.

This book is so well written in such detail that you almost want to go out and try some of the experiments with your own creating of the color red.

If you enjoyed this book and the many adventures that Amy Greenfield carries you through then you will also enjoy reading "Green Cargoes" by Anne Dorrance.

Green cargoes
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 64 reviews
71 of 71 people found the following review helpful
Best new book read all year 3 Jun. 2005
By Bart E. Kahr - Published on
Format: Hardcover
In recent years, there have been published a number of excellent books about the history of color, including monographs focusing on natural and coal tar dyes. Amy Butler Greenfield's book stands at the very top of this list. Her focus, cochineal, is an extraordinary red dyestuff so aggressively coveted that in directed international trade and politics for centuries. The story that Butler Greenfield tells rests on an impressive mountain of scholarship that is hidden from the reader by wavy prose that carry us effortlessly between the colonial European powers and the locales in the West Indies and the Spanish Main where the cochineal beetle was cultivated. Even better however are the extensive notes and bibliography that are indeed available at the end of the book, aspects of popular history all too often omitted by publishers. HarperCollins should be congratulated for fully embracing the sources. Butler Greenfield is an excellent historian, an inspired writer, a natural story teller, and not a bad chemist either. A Perfect Red will be enjoyed by those who merely enjoy rip-roaring tales of conquest and piracy, as well as by those with a deeper interest in science and cultural history. It strikes a perfect balance between great fun and great learning. It has my highest recommendation.
49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
The Read on Red 20 May 2005
By R. Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Scintillating for any history-, color-, or art-buff. 20 July 2005
By S. Pearson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Amy B. Greenfield spoke at my local bookstore as this book was debuting, and boy is she, and her book, fabulous. She brought a jar of dried cochineal beetles to show everyone, as well as a half-dozen silk scarves she herself had dyed with cochineal. The four years of research she invested in this bewitching story are evident not only in the accuracy and thoroughness of her book, but in the riveting writing itself. She is clearly enamored of the subject, and seduces the reader into a shared state of fascination. _Red_ is without question the loveliest nonfiction I've read in years.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
How red influenced fashion, politics and trade - and much else 1 Oct. 2005
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Red is such a common colour that we take it for granted. Red adorns the merchandise of Manchester United, Ferrari and a host of lesser brands - even our underwear. It also epitomised one of the dominant political ideologies of the 20th century - the "Reds", aka Communists.

It is difficult to accept that until relatively recently red was associated with wealth and power. Cost, and sometimes regulations, placed red clothing beyond the reach of most people.

In the 18th century the best red dye (cochineal) was a valuable and mysterious commodity - and a major import from the Spanish New World to Europe. Was cochineal a seed or an animal? The argument was finally settled as a result of a wager. Early microscopists such as Leeuwenhoek got involved on the side and the result was some of Leeuwenhoek's most exquisite drawings. These are reproduced in the book.

Another compelling story, with resonances in our own day, concerns the destruction of the cochineal industry by cheaper synthetic dyes in the 19th century. In 1870, Guatemala produced over 1.5 million pounds of cochineal a year, almost exclusively by small farmers using very labour intensive methods.

By 1890, Guatemalian farmers had virtualy ceased production. The same was true for the other major producers in Mexico and the Canary Islands. Such massive changes in an important industry led to major social and economic disruption. Modern trade practices often have similar effects in many poorer countries.

However, the story of cochineal does not end there, and has a slightly happier ending in the 20th century. But you will have to read the book to find out how.

I must admit to an addiction to this genre of books on the history of ordinary things. However, some of these books pad out a meagre story with marginally relevant material. "A Perfect Red" does not fall into this category.

Today the advertising industry still imbues red with a sense of power, unconsciously harking back to the days when cochineal was the most powerful red of them all.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Superior History 6 Jan. 2006
By H. Campbell - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Mrs. Greenfield (seems like she should be a Redfield) has written a wonderful example of how popular history should be written. She has an eye for the telling detail yet gets the big picture, and skillfully weaves the anecdotal with the grand. Her exposition of the importance that textiles, and by association, coloring dyes influenced post-Renaissance Europeans in their quest for wealth is a must-read for anyone interested in social or technological history. I would have liked to hear more about the color red aside from cochineal, and she does provide some of that, but not to the extent of, say, "Blue - The History of a Color." Conspicuously, since she is a redhead herself, she does not delve into the myths and stigmas associated with carrottops. Perhaps she will follow up her charming tome with a more detailed description of my favorite color.
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