Friday, March 2, 2012

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

Some years ago, my wife and I visited a large antique store -- I think it was in Connecticut -- which was housed in an old buggy whip factory. I actually found a cool dinosaur toy made out of leather there, but I recall being more taken with the idea that this whole factory once made a product which today is virtually unnecessary. (I mean, I suppose there are a few people who still use horse-drawn carriages and need a buggy whip, but how many of those do you see on a daily basis?) It was a sobering reminder of how things change, often quite radically, over the years.

I thought of this a number of times while reading Amy Butler Greenfield's excellent book "A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire". It is a book about the history and importance of the color red in human societies, but it mostly focuses on cochineal, a "dye stuff" from Mexico made from insects, which brought great wealth and power to Spain, and became the most sought-after ingredient in creating rich red fabrics, remaining so for centuries. Until the invention of cheaper artificial dyes in the mid-1800's, use of cochineal was the preferred way to achieve the best and longest-lasting shades of reds in the dying of fabrics.

Because cochineal was, for a very long time, only successfully produced in Mexico, which had been conquered by Spain, the Spanish had a monopoly on the dye, and made huge profits from the sales of it. Over the centuries, others tried (and failed) in various schemes to smuggle the cochineal insects out of Mexico and establish them elsewhere, a process which was very much like industrial espionage… only in that era, getting caught could mean execution.

It's a fascinating story, and the author tells it well, with prodigious amounts of research into the obscure history of a once hugely important ingredient of life in human societies. Along the way, the reader picks up wonderful bits of hidden knowledge, such as the fact that the word "ingrained" comes from the world of dyes and dying. The insights into the roles of various colors in fashion throughout the ages are also quite compelling.

"A Perfect Red" is an excellent book about a subject which deserves all of the attention Greenfield lavished on it. This is a great example of the type of book about history which I love to read these days, and which I think could make the learning of history in schools all the more effective and memorable. -- PL

"A Perfect Red" is available at in paperback:


... and as a Kindle eBook:

1 comment:

From Mary's Pen said...

A rather gross bit of trivia for you: That same beetle dye is used in foods. Yep, those red jellybeans? Beetle juice red. :-p I discovered it while writing freelance for a food blog not long ago.

Rejoicing in the day,