A user-friendly treatise on the color red and one of its most pleasing forms of transmission, a once-coveted dye.
Children’s author Greenfield (Virginia Bound, 2003, as Amy Butler) comes from a family of dyers, and, as she writes, “perhaps it’s simply that color is in my blood.” Certainly she brings a practitioner’s knowledge to her study of cochineal, a dyestuff that the Spanish conquerors discovered in the great marketplaces of Mexico and soon brought to a world hungry for things red. Cochineal is a kind of tiny parasitic insect—“Six of them could fit quite comfortably along the length of a paperclip,” Greenfield writes, “provided they didn’t fall through the middle first”—that feeds on prickly pear cactus. Such plants are abundant in Mexico, where the conquistadors quickly became aware that ground-up cochineal, rich in pungent carminic acid, yielded a dye that, applied to mordanted cloth, would remain bright red for centuries. Red being the color of wealth and power, and cochineal being “the closest thing Europe had ever seen to a perfect red,” the stuff soon became a prized commodity, a source of sustenance for Mexican Indian peoples and of wealth for the traders who spread it throughout the Old World. Naturally, as Greenfield writes, other powers sought to get a piece of the action; the English tried to introduce smuggled cochineal to Australia, which succeeded only to the extent that prickly pear became a troublesome weed there for generations, while the Dutch managed to start an industry in Java and the Spanish established plantations in the Canary Islands. The world market declined, Greenfield concludes, when, along about the 19th century, democratic blue and ascetic black replaced red as the color of choice in Europe for all but monarchs and cardinals.
A smart blend of science and culture, pleasing to readers of Mark Kurlansky, Philip Ball and other interpreters of how the things of daily life, past and present, came to be. Dyers will enjoy it, too.