Historical use of red dye, made from the cochineal bug (thank you, Ornamented Being!)
You might be wondering why the Velasquez girl (actually her name is Queen Maria Anna of Spain) is on your screen wearing a red dress. She’s creepy right? Well because 1) She’s the Queen of Spain and 2) that is a red dress.
I bet you didn’t know that in the Aztec world red dye was more valuble than any gold. The bright red colorant required the labor of hundreds of subjects combing the desert in search of its source - the female cochineal beetle. A pound of water-soluble extract required about a million insects. (By comparison, back in the days of the Roman Empire, a pound of royal purple dye required four million mollusks.)
When Cortez and his minions arrived in the New World not only did they find gold and silver, they found red. Cochineal red was the strongest dye ever created and a colour no one could duplicate. Now the Spanish became the leaders in the dye industry. Everyone wanted the colour.
Most Europeans thought it was extracted from berries or cereals because the dried insects looked like grains of wheat. This misconception was promoted by the Spanish, who had launched a brutal cover-up of the dye making process as soon as they realized cochineal’s potential.
For almost 300 years, they perpetuated the notion that “dyed in the grain” was their special process for this permanent dye that never faded. And that’s the source of the English term “ingrained.” Europeans used it for fabrics and illumination in addition to cooking. In the years that followed, Michelangelo used it in paintings, the British for redcoats and the Canadians for their Mounted Police coats. It is thought that the first U.S. flag made by Betsy Ross had cochineal red stripes.
In the sixteenth century, Venice became the most important trading center for red. While Venetian businessmen sent it on to the Middle East, to be used for carpets and fabrics, Venetian women demanded a reserve to be kept for their own use. In around 1700, according to Jan Morros in her book Venice, there were just 2,508 nuns in that city and 11,654 prostitutes. No wonder there was a market for rouge.
Today, less expensive aniline dyes have replaced it, but it is used as a food coloring and is approved by the FDA as a natural colorant for food, drug and cosmetics. In fact, some brands of fruit juice use this red bug juice as a colorant.
-Color Matter Factoids
-The Bug that Changed History by Jeff Behan
-Victoria Finlay excerpted from her book: Color: A Natural History of the Palette