Cochineal was the source of rich red color for centuries. What is it? A question for which Europe had no true answer for hundreds of years. This book tells the tale of the color red, how the color was viewed in society in various periods of time. (An indicator of class distinction, or of harlotry, for example) It is primarily a tale of adventure in which many attempt to locate the true source of this very valuable product, then try to steal it. Not only adventurers but scientists applied their skills to unveiling its secrets, with some making notable errors in the attempt. Cochineal is in fact the product of a small insect that lived primarily on a particular cactus and was so delicate of constitution that it was an almost impossible challenge for anyone who managed to succeed in transporting it back to Europe for cultivation. Artificial red supplanted cochineal during the industrial revolution, undercutting the market for the natural product severely. Concern that the artificial product was carcinogenic allowed the organic cochineal product to survive. Today, cultivation of the little bugs survives, but as a boutique product used mostly by native Mesoamericans for their products.
It may be a bit geeky, but I really enjoyed learning about the history of something I would never have given any thought, the actual cultural history of a color. Can Blue be far behind?
, from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, offers a nice visual