Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Incomparable Red of Cochineal

Thursday, May 3, 2012
Isabella/Susan* reporting:

Lately a valuable historical commodity has been much in the news. It's a commodity discovered in Mexico by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th c, desired by 17th c French kings and Caribbean pirates, worn into 18th c battles at Culloden and Lexington & Concord, and prized by 19th c courtesans. It's not gunpowder, or jewels, or gold or silver, but rather this:

"The coccinella cacti, a native of the warmer parts of America, is the famous cochineal animal, so highly valued in every part of the world for the incomparable beauty of its red colour, which it equally communicates to wool, silk, linen, and cotton."
                        - Encyclopeadia Britannica, 1776

The color red is so prevalent in our modern world that it's hard to realize that it was once a difficult color to duplicate, and a true, lasting red eluded European dyers throughout the middle ages. Spanish explorers discovered a vibrant red color called carmine that was prized by the Aztecs, and Spanish merchants guarded the secret so closely - and so profitably - that it wasn't until the 17th c development of the microscope that the rest of Europe learned the truth. Carmine derived not from a leaf, nut, or bark, but from the dried bodies of the cochineal insect, above, crushed to a powder. (This example comes from our friends at the Margaret Hunter shop in Colonial Williamsburg.) Cochineal-derived red dyes continued to be in demand for over three hundred years, coloring everything from the silk gowns of great ladies to the red uniform coats worn by the British army. The wool used to embroider the petticoat, right, was dyed with cochineal-based red.

Finally the development of synthetic dyes in the end of the 19th c pushed cochineal from the market, and it seemed destined to disappear. But towards the end of the 20th c, the health hazards of many synthetic dyes made cochineal once again commercially popular. As a natural alternative, it was used to color everything from lipstick to Twizzlers – and Starbucks strawberry frappuccinos.

"Bugs in your coffee!" made for great headlines, and apparently to the most rigorous vegans, even that tiny bit of crushed insect is too much for them. Starbucks has agreed to remove the dye from their drinks, bowing to the vegans and the bad publicity regarding bugs. But which, really, is worse: a tried-and-true natural red dye, or one that can cause cancer?

For the fascinating history of cochineal dyes, I heartily recommend A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield - one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books. 
Update: For even MORE about cochineal, please see this excellent post by our blog-friend Patrick Baty (aka Colourman.)

* Why the double name? Here's the reason.


Kathy said...

Couldn't Starbucks just put strawberries in their strawberry frappuccinos?

Sarah said...

I've often wondered why cochineal replaced kermes and grain, also bugs ground up for rich red colours [kermes tending towards vermillion]; was it perhaps cheaper than those Medieval standbys that made 'scarlatten' - any deep rich colour containing one of those two dies, including the best blacks - the most expensive cloths of the day outside of figured velvets with much gold woven into the pattern. Or was it that cochineal took better when dyeing cotton, linen and silk? one tends to think of scarlatten as a woollen cloth.

Elisabeth Crisp said...

I love this! I never knew so much went into the making of my favorite color.

Isobel Carr said...

I think most of us had the same thought at KWillow! I know I did. And it's no use pointing out to Vegans that everything they eat is crawling with microscopic fauna. It just winds them up and sets them off.

JaneGS said...

Interesting post--I vote for bugs!

I love reading about dyes--fascinating subject.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I suspect the food industry would say: "but consumers expect it to be redder than strawberries alone can make it!" To which I'd reply: "Yeah, and who made us expect it to be that way?"

Though a lighter shade of Twizzlers is an altogether different matter....

Lynn said...

I learned about this in Old Town San Diego a couple of months ago. There was a very old cactus behind the oldest house there, and the tour guide rubbed the casing left on the cactus and had a red finger. It came up again when my husband and I were watching a BBC show about food additives, etc. So interesting!

Rosi said...

This is absolutely fascinating. I learn the most interesting things reading your wonderful blog. Thanks for posting this.

Marina said...

This was incredibly interesting!
Thanks! BTW, I vote for "bugs", too!

tanya said...

erm, actually, true red didn't elude medieval dyers at all, but it was ridiculously expensive. since the time of the ancient greeks a european relative of cochineal, the kermes beetle(coccus illicis, as opposed to coccus cacti) was used for the most prized of reds.

when the greek raided troy, they found in king priam's treasure house all the things one expected a great king to hoard, not only gold and silver, but cloth dyed red and purple.

In fact the name scarlet came to mean red becuase at first scarlet was the most prized and expensive quality of cloth - but you could buy blue, white, red, green, etc, scarlets. eventually, because red from kermes was so expensive, the cloth adn colour became synonymous.

kermes did not fall out of use because it was inadequate, but because it was so much more difficult and time consuming to harvest - it turned out to be cheaper to ship cochineal from the new world than to bring kermes (also known as grain) from the med.

yet despite this dyers all over europe complained about the new dyes inferior quality for almost a century. they said that the colour was niether so intense, nor so lasting.

If you look hard enough you can still find kermes to dye with, there is small scale revival in production associated with conservation measures for the beetle and the tree in which is breeds. I've used it myself. However, cochineal for dyeing stands at roughly, £5 per 100g, whereas last time I bought any, kermes was £5 per 1g

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Tanya, many thanks for so much excellent information - fascinating to learn about the ancient & medieval uses of kermes as a red dye.

nightsmusic said...

@ Isobel Carr

I laughed out loud at your comment, but it's so very, very true. I wonder if they know how many bugs we all consume during our sleep...

I love the color red. Vibrant, passionate, emotional. I prefer the bugs to any cancer causing agents any day.

Isobel Carr said...

@nightmusic: I was scarred for life after looking at a piece of cheese under a microscope in my junior high biology class. *shudder*

Deb said...

I have seen interpreters at Old Sturbridge Village dying cloth with cochineal - in kettles hung on tripods over an outdoor fire in July. If you are thinking of going there, you might call them and ask when they will be dying cloth.

Julia said...

I did some plant-based dying a few years ago - great fun, but there's a reason that once upon a time, the dyers and tanners were kept in their own quarter or preferably: outside the town! At least these days, you can buy NaOH in nice, white, odorless tablets.

I learned in one history lecture that for an especially glorious entry, Cleopatra once sailed down the Nile in her personal barque. With sails died purple, either wither kermes or cochineal, I'm not sure. I suspect the only reason she didn't have them embroidered with gold was that she already used that color on the barque.

And I'm so glad you posted the image of the embroidery! It's lovely. Yay reenactors. Awesome information source on craft of all kinds.

As for the strawberry frappucinos - I can't blame anyone, vegan or other, for not being thrilled by the idea of ground-up beetles in their drinks. (I know, extracts.) Though that wouldn't worry me half as much as most of the other ingredients - I very much doubt a strawberry frapuccino ever comes within gargling distance of a strawberry, unless the customer brings one along. The most sensible thing said on that: Why not color them with strawberries?

Anonymous said...

I think vegans are more concerned with how the popularity of bugs in drinks will soon lead to a mass production of bugs, bred solely for the purpose of brightening drinks (or something of that sort).

I am a vegetarian myself, and the way meat industry in general operates is way more worrying than people choosing to eat meat, which is their choice.

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